The recesses of unconscious

Sam Amidon finds the art of folk

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Sam Amidon
Terry Magson

Sam Amidon wears headphones a lot, although a lot less than he used to. Think of them like a stethoscope and Amidon the physician, listening for musical heartbeats and signs of sonic life. Although maybe it’s best not to dispart them, and better to say the wire is like an umbilical cord connecting Amidon to his musical source.

“If I was told that tomorrow I was never gonna play music again, I would be bummed, sure, but if I was told that I was never gonna listen to music again, I would be devastated,” he says. “For me, listening to music is one of the deepest and more important activities in my life — playing music is about listening and so exploring other people’s musical worlds.”

Whether Amidon is listening to a Sonny Rollins album from the 1960s, conceptual electronic creations or a field recording of an Irish pub session, you can be sure he’s listening closely, picking up on all of its technical nuances. But more impressive than his savant-like command of odd musical niches and deep cuts is how he listens.

He listens to music as a record of an event, of artists in a room together, “like really being together,” he says, “responding to each other in a musical conversation.” He says he can hear the look of ecstasy on their faces in a moment of co-created genius just like he can hear the annoyance in a saxophonist’s pitch as the pianist departs on a self-indulgent tangent.

Amidon knows music like Paula Deen knows butter: He loves it, but more importantly he knows how to use it. His discography could be likened to a Thanksgiving feast — a bounty that rewards those willing to savor every dish.

His first two albums are weird and spontaneous, wearing all the trademarks of a young musician playing with the freedom he’d just discovered at the tips of his fiddling fingertips. And then, as he got older, he released five albums of increasingly refined reinterpretations of folk songs that would come to define his musical niche.

Perhaps owing to his penchant for free jazz and the oral traditions of folk, Amidon may have found a niche, but it was never rote. Each time he would go to make a record, he would ask himself what elements of his expression hadn’t made it onto an album yet. For years that meant showcasing his adventures in folk.

But when it came time to record his latest album, he realized he didn’t have anything like that, and to rework folk chords would have been contrived. So he sat in front of a blank slate and wondered where to start.

He admits being afraid, fighting the temptation to return to folk, but he resisted, perhaps thanks to the guidance of his musical collaborators, most notably Leo Abrahams, a protégé of Brian Eno who helped produce the album.

Over the years working with Amidon, Leo Abrahams learned to rethink the content and context of music and encouraged Amidon to embark on completely spontaneous experiments. No matter what came, he assured Amidon it could be made into music, that spontaneity could be turned upside down and made into art.

“I dove into it with no preconceptions and I hope people find that it has that psychedelic spirit of adventure to it,” Amidon says. “I can only describe what came out as what was lying around in the recesses of my consciousness that I hadn’t given a chance to exist on a record yet.”

Released in May, The Following Mountain is spooky and a bit avant-garde, a blend of free jazz and folk, a rarity and a welcome treat. A close listen to the album reveals strokes of technical jazz genius and raw folk authenticity.

The album’s seminole moment is on “Warren,” a song for which Amidon borrowed lyrics from a 17th century poem by Thomas Flatman, a sweetly discordant tune exploring the space between waking and sleeping. As the song lifts to crescendo, Amidon issues a guttural moan, one that’s even more pronounced in live performances than on the album. Placed anywhere else, it would break the enchantment of the song, but here it makes you lean in and listen closely, rewarded with what feels like receiving the first telling of a man’s most closely guarded secret. The victory of the entire album is contained in this moment, the visceral truth of what is inside of us all, if only we would listen, work to understand it and, when the time is right, summon the courage to let it out.

Amidon’s voice is guaranteed to give a first-time listener a double take, not to mention a careful critic who has heard it time and time again. It seems to bring newcomers and oldcomers alike to their knees. Alex Spoto of Aquarium Drunkard writes, “It sounds as if (Amidon) is trying to talk to god by uniting his voice and instrument into a single timbre, fused into a melodic line.”

“That beseeching voice, with its dusky bronze hue,” writes Pitchfork’s Brian Howe, (elongates) syllables like whale song.”

The highest compliment you could pay Amidon is to say that his music made you stop doing, tune-in and listen. In that way, The Following Mountain is a coup d’état.

In his years playing folk and free jazz, Amidon has learned the experience is completed by the listener, whether in an Irish pub or Manhattan bar. These forms of music don’t lend themselves to being written down; to do so defiles them in a way. They survive by being played, and when that happens everyone is connected, both to each other and to the lineage of musicians that carried the songs from one generation to the next.

“The thing that is really beautiful about traditional songs and folk songs is that they are really a record of people’s unconscious over time, of people’s deeper feelings. The stuff that would never have been recorded in the history books is so totally reflected in these songs,” Amidon says. “Some of the words are so personal, giving us privileged access to these real feelings from people who lived a very long time ago. In that way, folk songs are an external show of what is very internal — songs from people singing about their deepest concerns and fears.”

On the Bill: Sam Amidon — with Patrick Dethlefs. 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29, Daniels Hall, 71 E. Yale Ave., Denver. Tickets are $20.

eTown Live Radio Show Taping — with Väsen & Sam Amidon. 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce St., Boulder. Tickets are $25.