With the aforesaid Inevitable in mind, here we have Sam Amidon -- with Thomas Bartlett at (and in) the piano -- and his rendition of the traditional "O, Death," in a performance recorded last week at the Knoxville Art Museum, kicking off the Big Ears Festival.
Sam Amidon - O, Death @ Big Ears Festival, 26 March 2010
Sam's specialty, when he is not supporting or working with any number of other musicians, is performing remarkable, seemingly affectless versions of traditional folk tunes. He collaborates incessantly with the likes of Mr. Bartlett (aka Doveman, with whom he has been close friends since childhood), fellow Vermonter Nico Muhly, and assorted members and associates of The National.
Sam's recorded version of "O, Death" appears on his previous collection, All Is Well, which, as I've said before, would certainly have been given pride of place in my personal "best of 2008" list, had I made one.
His latest, I See the Sign, reached (some of) the domestic download sites this week -- the tangible version is forthcoming here, or can be had immediately from its Icelandic home, Bedroom Community -- and it is another wonderment. You can stream all of it -- and download a copy of the first track, "How Come That Blood," in which a fellow dissembles mightily to his mother before allowing as how, yes, the blood all over his person comes from "my own dear brother, whom lately I have slain" in a horticultural disagreement and would it be all right if I just leave the kids with you whilst my pretty little wife and I flee the country? -- with the player below.
There are expanses of sweetness and light in this collection, notably in the Penelope-like loyalty of the "Pretty Fair Damsel" and in a meltingly warm 'n' fuzzy duet with Beth Orton on R. Kelly's "Relief," but the death of the individual and the Judgment of all ("I See the Sign," "You Better Mind") rumble restlessly under everything. The "last expiring agony . . . fainting pangs and bloody swoon" of the particular death that is the focus of this day in Christian practice features explicitly in the Sacred Harp hymn, "Kedron," which Sam can also be seen performing (preceded by many push ups and an expletive) here.
The song settings on I See the Sign are more elaborate than on All is Well, particularly in the popping, pinging contributions of multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. Nico Muhly's orchestral bits are both supportive and surprising. I think of them as super-sophisticated variants on the string arrangements that Paul Buckmaster contributed to the great early Elton John albums; I mean this as high praise (and I make no secret of my enthusiasm for Most Things Muhly).
I need to live with I See the Sign a bit longer before I can decide whether it will eclipse All is Well in my affections, but I can say with confidence that it is a fine and precious thing, death and all.
Illustration: "Daniel in the Lion's Den", Rembrandt van Rijn, 1655. Sam Amidon's version of this drawing is the cover image for "I See the Sign".
For Further Reading: an interview with Sam Amidon, with insight into his collaborative process, is to be had at Brooklyn Vegan.