Experiencing Big Ears is as much about discovering new artists as seeing your favorites. The joy of hearing new kinds of music is an integral part of what the Knoxville, Tennessee festival is all about, and at 2018’s event there was plenty of experimental sound to digest, discuss, and learn about.
Taking this into account, I still had many artists I couldn’t wait to see play at Big Ears 2018. One that I was more than eager to hear was Sam Amidon, who has been somewhat of a folk hero of mine for several years.
My love for Amidon’s music goes back to around 2012, when a friend of mine put a song of his, one called “Saro,” onto a mixtape (actually a CD) he had made me. Since that day I’ve been a devoted and regular listener. The song, I soon found out, was an updated version of a traditional folk song he had recorded for his 2008 album “All is Well.” Amidon, it turned out, had a masterful way of breathing new life into old songs, often changing the arrangements and chord structures in dramatic ways and, in the midst of his alchemical songcraft, offering us listeners an intimate look into times and places that have long since passed away.
As part of the festival’s Friday night lineup, Amidon played the Bijou Theatre with two other musicians backing him up, the multi-talented Shahzad Ismaily and Sam Gendel, both of whom have, over the years, crafted and refined a fresh approach to their instruments, gaining critical acclaim in the process. Gendel has a few impressive solo albums already up his sleeves, slipping through genres and styles like a musical chameleon. When he’s not performing with Amidon, he can often be found playing in the band of Moses Sumney, the singer whose 2017 album “Aromanticism” was on the top of many end-of-year lists.
Ismaily, on the other hand, seems to have played with almost everybody. Not only is he a member of Ceramic Dog (bandleader Marc Ribot was also present at Big Ears), but has played with the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy (who made a surprise appearance at the festival), Lou Reed, and Bill Frisell (another Sam Amidon collaborator). He plays virtually every instrument, so it’s no surprise that his drumming was right on point Friday night.
Gendel’s stripped-down saxophone riffs and Ismaily’s unique style of percussion laid down a vibrant, yet reserved atmosphere behind Amidon’s songs. Though the feeling fluctuated somewhere between laid-back folk and free jazz, at no point did any of it feel unnatural. Amidon’s arrangements are never exactly what you expect, always challenging you in even the most subtle ways, while also reflecting the various parts of his philosophy. This became a little more clear when Amidon, in a break between songs, explained to the audience the concept of a mountain tailing you around the world, cluing everyone to the themes behind his latest release, “The Following Mountain.”
Close listening is rewarded at a Sam Amidon concert, allowing you to dive ever deeper into the layers crafted by each musician. By doing this, the emotions laying dormant in the song begin to make themselves clear, even in the most subtle straining of the voice or the shimmer of a guitar string. In this way, Amidon’s live version of “Weeping Mary,” which he pulled from his 2013 release “Bright Sunny South,” delicately toyed with my heartstrings, sketching a tender, devotional atmosphere around the lyrics: “Are there anybody here like Mary / A-weeping call to my Jesus and he’ll draw nigh”
After taking a few dives into Amidon’s music, especially his cinematic studio recordings, you realize the way he reworks and transforms these old folk songs is quite unique, blending in modern musical sensibilities with an authentic need to commune and learn from the past. In these days of cultural amnesia, Amidon stands out as a true student and historian of music. He’s put in his time, and it shows.
Another standout at the show was “Wild Bill Jones,” a murderous song that glows with haunting regret. For this track, it’s the way Amidon sings the song that brings it to life. The lazy lament of his voice draws together emotion inside the song, allowing it to settle in the grey area between unimaginable regret and an almost ecstatic melancholy. Perhaps, looking back, that ecstasy is a bit of an illusion, created in the moment by the sheer beauty of Amidon’s arrangements, which bless their often sad subject matter with a rare and exquisite beauty.
But that’s what enchants me most about his music. Many of these traditionals are sad songs, laments about poverty and heartbreak which shimmer with a longing for another world. They can’t just be sung, they have to be felt. I know no other artist today that captures that insatiable yearning better than Amidon, who has done a truly magical thing by bringing the past to life.
That Friday night, long after Amidon’s show was over, I wandered into the Jig and Reel to check out the Irish jam session that he was hosting. Though I was there for just a few minutes before I walked over to another show, I saw Amidon sitting on stage with several other musicians, a violin resting on his shoulder and his head slightly raised to the sky. Eyes closed, he seemed to be letting the music sink deep into his being, traveling with it and breathing it like air. Whatever world he had fallen into, I thought to myself, was a place that one day I’d like to travel to as well.