Outside, the daylight gradually fades as a warm evening moves in. Inside the venue a small crowd is scattered through the room while onstage Otouto precisely deploy their bright staccatos of baritone guitar, synth, vocalisations and percussion into a remarkable whole. Songs feel empty and seem childlike in their sounds and simplicity, but they’re deceptively complex. The brevity of the sounds they generate and the languid curling vocal forays across them give a sense of momentum and movement that is hypnotic. The use of environmental acoustics is expertly woven into the songs each a deft example of musical arrangement in which sounds are given room to be fully heard. A brushed snare, electric piano, cymbal-covered drum, a plucked motif and bizarre vocal noises; few bands seem to think as a sonic whole like this. Final song Balloon showcases a sense of humour as developed as their vocal harmonic skills.
By the time Sam Amidon takes to the stage the room is still only half-full, yet a surprisingly vocal crowd welcome him and drummer/keyboardist/bassist/sample-triggerer Chris Vatalaro. Opening with the title track of his most recent album I See the Sign, Vatalaro’s sometimes subtle and occasionally explosive drumming shows just how far from the recorded versions Amidon is willing to take these songs. Open, loose jazz reinterpretations of his reinterpretations of these ancient folk songs makes it seem that the bugbear of ‘songs bearing little resemblance to the recorded versions we all love’ might nuke any chance for connection. Thankfully, the night’s arrangements hew closer to the versions we know and love and freeform improvisation is that of a comedic not musical nature.
Amidon first tells us the band’s name is now John Cougar Melon Vacation and later illuminates us about a (fake) novel he’s writing about a guy called King Speachy and a secret songwriting society in rural Connecticut (‘the people who write all the songs’) including Johnny Depp’s long-forgotten hit album In the Depp End. All of which makes for a break from the stunning, hushing delicacy of sorrowful ballads like O Death, Rain and Snow, Wild Bill Jones and his breathtaking version of Saro. The death count runs as high as a Nick Cave album, but the gift Amidon brings is a solemn respect for the songs, reverence to their subjects and a playful way with his interpretations, a way that makes room for exaggerated mid-song death scenes and, weirdly and spontaneously, 30 push ups.
So the appearance of Beth Orton firstly at the bar, then on the stage is another unexpected thrill as she lends her harmonies to old nursery rhyme Joanna Row-di and a flooring take on Big Star’s Thirteen. While the audience provides spooky and beautiful vocals on Way Go Lily, hearing Orton’s pure tones in such a venue is a rare experience.
Songs such as Wedding Dress, banjo-lead How Come That Blood and You’d Better Mind stray into bluegrass territory, a place the audience follow as we rowdily, if messily, accentuate the rhythms. Highlight of the night however comes late as the album-closing segue of Climbing High Mountains and R. Kelly’s Relief helps push this gig into one of the best in recent memory, audience sing-along and all.
– Andy Hazel