Seeing Sam Amidon last night in this small, exciting venue was indeed the religious experience that we always knew it would be. Amidon has the voice of ancestral visitations, he owns his songs completely and delivers them with a glazed and eloquent stare, suggestive of the quiet witness to centuries of memories spanning their fireside composition to their continued relevance in the stunned, red-lit basements of today.
But the placing of his perfect set beside two very different, American-folk-inspired acts, and his probable inclusion with them in the kind of genre categorisation used by online databases and mainstream journalists, has provoked questions about how he manages to cast such a peculiar spell with his particular deployment of folk song. Answers are not difficult to come by. While Caitlin Rose (and to a lesser extent Artur Dyjecinski) reconstruct an accepted, collective idea of a country/folk template, Amidon is working with genuine cultural relics. These are imbued, both materially and associatively, with all the real or mythical history which these have accrued, the exoticism of the old and - for us - the foreign, and the purity of the prototype, not needing to labour their 'country' or 'folk' credentials.
With the authenticity that these songs provide, along with the timbre of his voice, Amidon is able to experiment with their presentation. His live arrangements, featuring extended percussion techniques and free-form guitar solos, recontextualise the folk artefact. Both support bands endeavoured only to achieve, with original material, the generic markers which delineate the 'real' country or folk sound - the continuation of a stream of music, recognisable by all as such, running from its cultural source to the here-and-now with as many of its signifying features as possible kept uncontaminated. The appreciation of this kind of music, like that of any other popular style which rejects evolution, can be credibly viewed as a kind of folk art - the (aural) transmission, from young woman to young woman, of a 'recipe' for the production of a cultural object.
For this reason, Rose's lyrics are unimportant; they must only be as personal or impersonal, inventive or restricted, as they always have been. Possibly paradoxically, the folk poetry of Amidon's old, anonymous songs cut far deeper than the others'. We listen to them writing essays in pastiche or, at best, songs about songs, but Amidon's power comes from transferring folk poetry into the realm of the individual artist-performer-personality. He makes art - in all its traditional Western senses, with texts and vision and a great big subjectivity - out of folk, and his 'arrangements' even go beyond those of Berio and Grainger and Britten and Ives in that he can embody them as a performer-personality. In doing so, he assumes a genuine Western attitude of authorship over genuine folk music and does more to keep the music alive in our cultural moment than the respectful, preservative efforts of the majority of 'folk' artists.
Sam Amidon - Saro by Anders Bersten
Caitlin Rose // Shotgun Wedding by Stayloose