Sam Amidon Energizes Folkfest with Wit, Crowd Participation

Olivia Menzer

Sam Amidon may or may not be a time traveler. During the majority of his performance on Friday night at Folkfest, he was undoubtedly a Manifest Destiny, West-Coast-bound pioneer who had lost his wife and children to dysentery, with his oxen next to go. The knowing and aching depth of his voice when singing did little to help the audience predict his persona for the other segment of the performance: a quirky 32-year-old who wasn’t afraid to make a Bruno Mars joke or drop a Gang Starr quote.

Amidon has worked with other performers like Doveman, Nico Muhly and Stars Like Fleas, but at the Cat in the Cream, he went solo for most of the night. His voice filled the room with the wise rasp one would associate with an old-time folk singer. He accompanied himself on guitar with the occasional banjo or violin interlude. Amidon played selections from his 2010 album I See The Sign, as well as from his more recent May 2013 album Bright Sunny South, mixing well-known favorites with newer attempts at rusticity. For his last few pieces, Amidon was accompanied by members of the band to follow his, The Sweetback Sisters. As a testament to the musicality and folk, honky-tonk leanings of thisfamily, the drummer of The Sweetback Sisters was actually Amidon’s younger brother, Stefan Amidon.

Judging from the laughter and whoops of the audience in response to his silly between-song quips, Amidon’s stage presence was a major part of his appeal. Whether he was telling a tangential story about his new song “Pharaoh” — wherein Amidon supposedly had correspondence with Jimi Hendrix — apologizing for Bruno Mars’s absence from a promised synth performance or dropping some sage advice from the Gang Starr song “Moment of Truth” (“They say it’s lonely at the top, in whatever you do / you always gotta watch motherfuckers around you”), Amidon’s gimmicky and amiable but deadpan delivery was well-received. It was balanced out by his urging the audience to embrace the “fest” in Folkfest, leading them in two singalongs to “Johanna the Rowdi” and “Way Go Lily,” both of which involved unifying call and response. The quiet audience typical of folk performances came out of its shell to sing along.

Amidon’s particular brand of hip approachability was unexpected given his polished and almost elderly brand of folk crooning, but the juxtaposition was both delightful and off-putting. While he is an interesting individual, one almost wants folk artists to have a few teeth missing and a sad story to tell, born out of genuine suffering and lessons learned through tough love and experience. Amidon’s performance could seem like a farce when one realizes that he generally covers old religious and folk songs. This is not to say he doesn’t have the musical family that surely encouraged growing into such a lifestyle; on the contrary, parents Peter and Mary Alice made their living as teaching musicians, dedicating themselves to traditional American song, storytelling and dance, and obviously imparted this enthusiasm and skill set to both of their children.

Faith is restored, however, with the knowledge that his repertoire includes covers of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” and R. Kelly’s “Relief.” Amidon’s versions of both — typical of his style as a whole — were quieter and warmer than the originals. When providing a reserved yet raucous banjo performance, Amidon asked the crowd to help him decide which song to play next. Amidon’s music is sweet, strong and quiet in a very encompassing way. In the end, the inconsistencies between his style and what one associates with folk stereotypes don’t matter, because it is evident that Amidon is exploring folk without worrying about what he should be. Instead, he concerns himself with what he is and wants to be.