Born to folk-musician parents in Brattleboro, Vermont it’s hardly a surprise that Sam Amidon is continuing down the folk path trodden for him at the age of six when he was first taken on stage by his parents: both successful musicians of the Appalachian folk revival.
Like a game of Chinese whispers, Sam takes those murder ballads and traditional folk songs his father would sing to him and passes them down to the audience before him tonight at Bush Hall, West London. Contrary to that repetitive oral storytelling tradition however he passes these centuries-old songs on without losing quality. Instead, taking the songs in their various guises, with twists and turns added from differing tellers and times, allowing the words to get caught up in a contemporary undertow: decorating them with glints of beautiful string and brass arrangements, guitar, and occasional minimal electronica along their often gritty course.
Tonight though Amidon proves just how timeless such pieces are by stripping them to their very bones again, and presenting them to us as mini literature: murder stories, love stories, stories of stitches (“Wedding Dress”) and stories of satchels (“Little Satchel”).
Upon the release of his fourth and latest LP I See the Sign, he opened his set with the title track, equipped with just a guitar and his timeless and knowledgeable vocal that brings to mind the weariness of Bill Callahan and the warming timbre of Damien Jurado.
Playing for around 75 minutes the songs, despite lacking the originality of his studio recordings, embellished as they are with sublime but never intrusive instrumentation, felt like old familiar friends narrating past trials and tribulations to the intimate crowd huddled on the floor or gathered around candlelit tables.
Heavily focused on I See the Sign and its predecessor All is Well, Amidon interspersed musical storytelling with charming banter about miniature Gulliver’s Travels type people and their dialects as a prelude to a track; and later endearingly muddled lyrics – giving away the impending doom of the young girl subject of a murder ballad within the first verse; though never losing his or his listeners’ focus.
Wholly original in his wholesome and organic approach to music and performance he is an amiable and enjoyable artist whose comic and endearing stage presence lend a humanity to these ultimately human tales. His honest vocals deftly juxtaposing emotions within the words he reiters allowing “Wild Bill Jones” to become a tender love story in the midst of its dark revenge tale framing, and “How Come that Blood”, performed without a mic, at the foot of the stage and just a banjo as accompaniment proving the importance that lies in the art of storytelling.
The evening wrapped up with a surprise guest vocal performance from Beth Orton, who sang on “You Better Mind” and “Johanna the Row-di”, bringing a dialogue and new life to the works on the latest release, on which her vocals also appear. With the only slice of modern storytelling being found in R. Kelly cover “Relief”, on which we were invited to lend our pipes as well as on “Way Go, Lily”, Sam Amidon proved his talent for bringing the old up to speed with the new could also work in reverse, and as we sang along to the closer, the entirely heartwarming and twee joint vocal effort felt as close to some campfire gospel as bunch of twenty-somethings might get.