The many strings to Sam Amidon's bow
The US musician and multi-media performer is fast assembling a body of work that gives folk music a new and unexpected lease of life, writes JIM CARROLL
SPEND TIME talking to Sam Amidon and your head will soon be spinning as you try to keep up with him. As a teenage fiddle player in Vermont, Amidon and his band, including Thomas Bartlett, now playing with The Gloaming among others, released five albums before they left school, so he was destined to make his living from playing music.
The width and depth of the work and projects he has put his name to are striking, with Amidon recasting Irish, Appalachian and R&B tunes as new-school folk missives. As seen on albums such as All Is Well and I See the Sign, Amidon is fast assembling the bones of a body of work which gives folk music a new and unexpected lease of life.
But Amidon had other notions about what he was going to do when he moved on from the fiddle to other instruments. “When I started playing guitar, I started singing as a soloist as a way to play and learn guitar. I thought I should become a songwriter because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? As a way of tricking myself into doing that, I thought I would put folk songs and murder ballads I knew to weird musical parts I was doing or take a folk song and mess around with it and turn it into my own song.
“But I just got stuck at that intermediary stage and never got to the point of writing my own songs because that idea of messing around has been so satisfying. It’s a zone I feel most comfortable in.” Amidon is quick to point out that he’s not the first to do this – “a huge model would be what Paul Brady and Andy Irvine did” – and that folk music itself often reworks the original source material.
“Folk music is accidental,” he says. “You learn a tune from a guy and when you came to pass it on, you’d forget the third verse or insert a third verse from another song, which made the tune really enigmatic.” A key element in spreading the word about Amidon’s talent has been his fondness for collaborations. It seems natural to see Amidon working with such equally promiscuous collaborators and musical polyglots as Nico Muhly, Glen Hansard, Bill Frisell, Valgeir Sigurosson (whose Bedroom Community collective has provided Amidon with a creative home) and others.
Amidon traces this propensity back to the fiddle. “The reason why collaborations are such a big part of my life is because I grew up playing the fiddle and folk music. One thing about playing fiddle tunes is that it’s a largely collaborative thing. The word seems silly to use about that music because it’s so obvious. You go to a pub and play tunes. When I sang, I sang all the time with others doing choral or folk harmonies. I assumed you did that with other people.” Collaborations also allow Amidon to test the tension between players. “I was always interested in what happened when different musicians came together and started playing, whether it was an Irish trad maestro or a free-jazz enthusiast. What’s exciting for me is those moments when you hear the tension of two musicians trying to figure out what’s going on.
“One of my favourite albums is Sonny Rollins’ Sonny Meets Hawkwhere you can hear the tension in the studio between him and Coleman Hawkins. I also like the wonderful egoless collectiveness of a tunes session. Something in between those two polars is what collaboration should be all about . . . it’s really exciting to hear that tension. It’s what forces players into a corner and sometimes makes them produce really interesting work.”
The fiddle remains part of Amidon’s arsenal though not to the same extent as during his teenage years, when he found himself playing tunes alongside the maestro, Tommy Peoples, in a Co Clare pub. “The fiddle was my entire focus in high school. I had a band called Popcorn Behaviour and we put out five albums between the age of 13 and 20. We played loads of festivals and dances and were always working. That whole experience was a full creative cycle with all those albums and shows. But fiddling has now become less of a creative thing and more like doing t’ai chi. It’s a daily thing you do because it feels nice and it aligns you and it’s a social thing. At the end of high school and the band, the need to perform as a fiddle player took a back seat and became more internal.”
Amidon’s live shows are idiosyncratic and inventive, the performer is as liable to break off from singing to do some press-ups on stage or a read a passage from a book as he is to play it straight. “That is deliberate,” says Amidon, “but if it’s completely apparent to the audience that I’m prepared to do that, the tension is lost and it becomes theatre. One thing about playing solo a lot is that sitting in front of an audience for an hour or so every night for three weeks is an extremely strange thing to do. You just start to crack up organically anywhere. It doesn’t take a lot to push you over the edge.” For his forthcoming Irish tour, Amidon will be performing an audio-visual show involving more than just his recycled folk songs.
“There is another side to folk music which started to emerge when folk music stopped being the dominant music and other music started to take off. By 1940 or 1950, if you were still playing the fiddle in Kentucky, you were pretty isolated and that solitude comes across in field recordings from that time.
“I made all these little videos and comics based on those field recordings and have put them together into what is a comic-video-banjo-fiddle-liturgical-dance lecture with songs. That’s what you’re going to get if you come to see me play.”
Sam Amidon performs his I See the SignAV show at Sligo’s Model Gallery on September 16th, then goes on tour. See samamidon.com for dates and venues