There’s a lot more to Sam Amidon than meets the eye. Standing in the crowd before his performance at the Black Box last night, he probably would have passed unnoticed by many. Wearing comfortable clothes, with no sign of artificial hair styling, stage make-up, edgy outfit or gimmick, and with an unassuming air, you would not know he has been performing for over 15 years and has six-plus albums under his insignificant-looking belt. Oh, and that he’s married to Beth Orton.
However, after a few minutes on stage, Amidon’s talent just comes shining through… and it is multi-faceted. Not only is the stage littered with stringed instruments: a banjo, a fiddle and the ever-present guitar, but he also treats the audience to short anecdotes from his life and a very unique form of ‘poetry’. It is interesting that Amidon is so soon in Belfast after another folk singer of similar ilk: Leslie Feist. Whereas Feist draws inspiration from the folk songs of the Deep South, Amidon’s comes from his native New England, and the green mountains of Vermont, and the rivers and the lakes there. Picking up the banjo for his opening song, he talks of simple pleasures: of driving with his family, of listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, of boats and trains and swimming. He enjoys composing poetry on his travels, during long drives in Vermont and even between Dublin and the Black Box today. ‘Poetry’ is perhaps too pretentious a word, maybe ‘fantasies’ is better. Today’s fantasy is a bizarre figment of another world where Jimi Hendrix died of a salmon overdose and elephants share their cranial capacity with co-habiting rodents. This vision is severely incongruous with the unstriking man on the stage.
Sam Amidon’s music is the main attraction though. He carefully finger-picks through songs on his latest album, “Lily-O“, many of which are reinvented versions of traditional folk songs: “Down the Line“, with its insertions of jazz guitar, “Blue Mountains“, “Pat Do This, Pat Do That“, “Groundhog Variations“, “Walkin’ Boss” all feature.
There are old favourites, too, like “As I Roved Out” and “Saro”, all delivered with a rasping, sometimes croaky voice. After 45 minutes or so, Amidon takes up his fiddle and bravely launches into an Irish-sounding tune in Ireland, taking coals to Newcastle; a loud banshee scream marks an off-kilter descent into surrealism with musical arpeggios and even what sounds like some scat. The musical highlights of the night for me are the spiritual songs: “Weeping Mary“, an ancient Vermontian hymn, and the song that I will probably request them to play at my funeral, “Your Lone Journey“. Both beautiful and melancholy melodies, both greeted warmly by the audience.
Seventeen songs down, and Amidon retires briefly before being coaxed out for an encore. “How Come That Blood” is an undulating banjo song from album #3, “I See the Sign“. It is a bloody song, befitting of Nick Cave’s “Murder Ballads“, and a sombre finish to the evening. The crowd applaud again, nonetheless, having experienced everything from purest folk to jazz guitar with various outbursts of screams and incoherent utterings and poetic reveries about talking cats. All from a very ordinary-looking man standing alone on a stage. Paul Woods, GiggingNI.com
Sam Amidon played The Black Box on 15th September 2015.