Back in February, I saw folksy singer/songwriter Sam Amidon play in a space about the size of a living room in the West Village. It was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life. At first, he refused to look at the audience. Then he did nothing but stare directly into my eyes. And my friend’s eyes next to me. And everybody in the front row. The back row. In the middle. He just stared while he embraced botched notes and struggled to tune his guitar between songs off his upcoming album, I See the Sign. He played “Wild Bill Jones,” a haunting re-telling of the traditional murder ballad that lied somewhere between Dock Boggs and Alison Krauss’s versions of the song. Half-way through the song, he stopped his hushed singing and began screeching at the top of his lungs for a minute or so -- something Amidon calls “the death call” -- before finishing in a voice that sounded like it was a thousand years old.
“I think initially I had a lot of insecurity about sitting and singing in front of people,” Amidon says, letting out a big laugh. “I would think, ‘They must be bored out of their minds. I am! “Sometimes the most pragmatic thing is just to scream for a very long time.”
There’s no preparation for seeing Amidon live, but his off-putting performance style -- which is inviting because it's so awkward -- makes sense of his unusual take on folk music, which Amidon does quite a bit to deconstruct on I See the Sign through covering R. Kelly's "Relief" alongside interpretations of old-timey ballads like “How Come That Blood” and the old children’s song “Way Go Lily.”
When asked what a traditional folk song is, Amidon says “there is no one version. In a way, I’m doing the exact same thing that anybody’s done with those songs. People have always changed them and they’ve always been aware of what came before, but at the same time, they’ve always been aware of what they’ve been doing differently.”
On I See the Sign, Amidon is very much playing the role of folk interpreter, while transcending convention. Swelling strings, ethereal keyboards, and scrappy guitar, combine with Amidon’s clawhammer banjo-style and re-appropriation of traditional lyrics to create an album that sounds both consistent and anomalous with folk tradition. That astonishingly fitting R. Kelly cover tagged on near the end of the record, feels less like a quirky throw away and more like the album’s climax.
“It’s a beautiful song and it feels good to sing it,” Amidon says of Kelly's song. “It doesn’t really have any bearing on external reality. But I like that about it. It’s a very brave thing to write a song whose words don’t connect to anything going on around them. Truly timeless.”
Amidon’s cover is brave in its starkness, doing what any good cover should do: making its composer seem like a better songwriter. Amidon mines the simplistic beauty out of R. Kelly’s bombastic rendition so that it sounds more like some anonymous homeless folk ballad than a contemporary R&B tune.
“One of the really important things about lyrics is the mystery of them, and how we don’t know why that verse comes next,” Amidon says. “It could be that [the songwriter] just forgot the order, and the narrative becomes totally fractured. Or a verse is left out intentionally. It could be because that person didn’t like it, it could be because they didn’t believe in that part of that story. You don’t know.”