Bush Hall is the chosen venue for what is billed as the ‘official album launch’ for Sam Amidon’s Bright Sunny South. There’s something reassuring about the venue for events like this combing the right sense of scale – it is like a village hall – with the chandaliers adding a note of slightly inappropriate glamour. When it gets busy, generally it still retains the intimacy of the performance, but as is often the way it seems people time their arrival for the main act.
That in itself creates an odd ambience as Leo Abrahams and Chris Vatalaro take the stage, with enough room to allow people to sit on the floor, which many of the choose to do. Somehow, it makes the half an hour or so of improvisation that the duo create all the stranger and it’s greeted with head nodding, mild puzzlement. However odd it seems it does dovetail into the night and represents a part of what Sam is about. There’s a reason that this is happening and multi-instrumentalist Chris, who takes his place behind the drums and guitarist Leo will both feature later. There is a strongly experimental strand that runs through Sam’s work and it’s as if he is creating the atmosphere in which that can thrive. That might be a slightly risky strategy, but by the end of the evening it all seems to make perfect sense.
The Hall fills out for Sam. The rangy-tall Vermont native takes the stage with acoustic guitar as Chris Vatalaro once again settles on the drum stool. There’s a brief, “Howdy is everything cool out there,” and we’re into the first song and Sam slips and slides his way around the lines of Short Life. The life in question is one of trouble and the motifs of bar room floors, trains bound for out-of-here and the seemingly broken promise of marriage resonate through the song.
I Wish, I Wish follows with Chris triggering additional ambience and samples from a laptop, creating an uncanny edge to what seems a bleak statement of mortality. There is a real anguish too in As I Roved Out and Sam’s fearsome holler picks out lines like “I wished to the Lord I’d never been born,” and, “Did you ever feel such pain.” He starts by tuning a rather recalcitrant banjo that he ends up thrashing, almost like a man possessed.
Perhaps that is Sam’s appeal, as you cease to wonder about the whys and wherefores of the songs. Superficially they can seem slight and simple, sometimes barely more than fragments. There’s the old fashioned testifying in Pharaoh and He’s Taken My Feet, putting God fearing and mortality at the top of the evening’s agenda. Somehow Sam seems to be channelling the spirits of these folk songs and the singers of them that have gone before, with their ghosts reverberating around the hall. There’s something almost trance like in his performance at times and the repetition of lines, something he does a lot, are almost incantations.
Whatever it is that he does it’s absolutely captivating, even if there’s a bleak and lonely quality to much of the material both new and old. Derry Town is a hanging ballad and even the title track, Bright Sunny South comes with the portents of war, whilst the rather prettier Weeping Mary also carries the religious theme. There are themes to of emigration in 1842 and Saro, with more murderousness in Wild Bill Jones from Sam’s back catalogue, but however remote from our own C21st lives there are clearly sentiments here that people latch onto. Perhaps there’s even a little of the moral certainty that plays well in these uncertain times.
He is a great entertainer too, clever and funny and it’s also worth remembering that the Amidon family is steeped in folk music, so perhaps some of this simply comes through the genetic line. Yet he also seems free spirited with it too. Yes there is a rooted connection, but he is also willing to shape and mould songs to his own will and he’ll also push them hard.
As If to prove the point, the encore starts with a dissonant squall of fiddle torture before dropping into another primal holler. Somehow it’s the prefect set up for Sam’s version of R. Kelly’s Relief To Know, which gives the audience a chance to flex their vocal chords as a most fitting and beautiful conclusion.
Review by: Simon Holland