Album Review: Sam Amidon’s “Bright Sunny South”

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Over the past few years, there have been a number of 30-something artists emerging into solo careers after the breakup of the successful string bands of their youth.

The Watson siblings and Chris Thiele from Nickel Creek come to mind, as do Mike and Ruthy from the Mammals, and most recently, Aoife O'Donovan from Crooked Still. 

Many of these musicians came from a fertile musical background and were raised listening to, playing and singing traditional and folk songs.

Sam Amidon, 32, is no exception. In fact, his new release, Bright Sunny South, features a shape-note song, "Weeping Mary," that he learned from his parents, who recorded it with the Word of Mouth Chorus some 34 years ago (on Nonesuch, the same label to which Amidon is now signed).

The first time I heard Sam Amidon play was with his Vermont-based contradance band, Popcorn Behavior, about 20 years ago. He was a just a kid, but I remember thinking that this was one of the best Irish fiddlers I had ever heard.

That band's early recordings featured mostly traditional Irish tunes with some original pieces inspired largely by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (heck, they were kids).

By the late-'90s, the teenagers expanded their repertoire to include challenging compositions by Astor Piazzola, Daniel Perez, Abdullah Ibrahim and Tom Waits. A few years later, I played a gig with that band, substituting for his younger brother, Stefan, who was graduating from high school (a sidenote: he is now in The Sweetback Sisters. Check out the video on woub.org). 

Once again, I came home, mind blown not only by the band's inspired playing, but by the vast depth and breadth of the music. I had a few more opportunities to play with that band before they went off to college.

Occasionally I would ask mutual friends and colleagues about Sam and hear rumors that he had gone to New York to study free jazz with violinist Leroy Jenkins, or that he had starred in a movie playing an Irish fiddler of all things.

About seven years ago, the news was that Sam Amidon was now "samamidon" and that he had made a recording with fellow Popcorn Behavior cohort, Thomas Bartlett. On this CD, he played banjo and guitar (but no fiddle) and sang traditional folk songs.

Eventually,  we met up again when we were both hired to play with the New England-based contradance band, Wild Asparagus, at a folk festival in upstate New York. I asked him if he had a copy of the aforementioned CD, which was titled And This Chicken Proved Falsehearted. He had one copy left in his fiddle case. 

On my way home, I put the disc into the car player and was immediately hooked. I had never heard anything quite like it in my life. That was the only CD I played during the entire 12-hour journey home.

Sam has recorded three projects since then. The next two, All Is Well and I See the Sign, were recorded in Iceland and produced by Valgier Sigurdsson. Both also prominently featured strings exquisitely arranged by the famed composer, Nico Muhly. Beth Orton's lovely voice can be heard on few tracks on I See the Sign.

Like This Chicken, the subsequent recordings featured mostly arranged, deconstructed, re-thought and re-harmonized traditional songs. Amidon occasionally throws a mainstream pop song into the mix, but with a similar egalitarian treatment as the rest of the songs so that nothing sounds out of place or affected. The jazz greats did the same thing with popular songs from their day. Surprisingly, a song by Mariah Carey sits comfortably alongside compositions by Tim McGraw, Doc Boggs or those in the public domain.

The new album is reminiscent of This Chicken in that it is a collaboration with his childhood friend and bandmate, Thomas Bartlett (who has his own musical career as Doveman). Its production also has a similar sparse, minimalistic sensibility. 

Because of his great understanding and respect for all sorts of music, from old time and Irish fiddle tunes to experimental free jazz, Amidon has the skill–and the courage–to tinker with age-old material without degrading or diminishing it . 

Where many musical genre-melding fusion experiments end up like one of Dr. Frankenstein's abominations, Amidon's is a highly successful creation of something new and beautiful from disparate parts.

Although the approach to the material is similar to his other efforts, there are obvious differences as well. Gone are the atmospheric string arrangements, replaced by a stripped-down ensemble that played mostly live in the studio, which gave the project a sense of spontaneity and intensity. The great Kenny Wheeler also added his unique trumpet lines on a couple of tracks.

Amidon has become more comfortable playing instruments he picked up not too long ago, and for the first time in a while, he played fiddle on a few tracks. 

I'm taking a long road trip soon and I'll bet that I'll be playing this one for most of the way.