By Allison Hussey
In completing his 2017 album The Following Mountain, Sam Amidon felt a new sense of accomplishment. He’d spent his entire life steeped in American, English, and Irish folk traditions, re-working and recording his own versions of songs culled from the annals of history along the way. Ready for something new after 2014’s Lily-O—not just contemporary, but entirely of his own invention—Amidon temporarily decoupled himself from refreshed folk tunes to explore free jazz and beyond. Swimming against his usual currents, Amidon emerged from the process with a new confidence in making music that excited him, whatever that sounded like. He finally didn’t feel the needling pressure of going on to the next thing.
And yet, here is the next thing: Sam Amidon. With his self-titled seventh album, Amidon returns to the vast reservoir of folk music with fresh energy and a renewed enthusiasm for texture, facilitated by the creative leap of The Following Mountain.
“On my previous albums I feel the elements of the music were juxtaposed next to each other: my folksong arrangements up against Nico Muhly’s orchestrations, or my music encountering Milford Graves’ percussion,” Amidon says. “On this album, I feel like all the elements are more integrated: song form & stories, improvisation, band collectivity, and the history of my own life in traditional music and beyond.”
Amidon called on frequent collaborators Chris Vatalaro, Leo Abrahams, and Shazad Ismaily as the core of his new album, completing the ensemble with Ruth Goller (bass), Bert Cools (guitar), and Sam Gendel (saxophone). Rather than tapping into a crew already established in folk traditions, Amidon sought out a varied bunch with improvisational backgrounds. He found people whose dynamic creative practice translated into a unique relationship with the specific sound of their instrument. He encountered Cools and Goller at different collaborative performances in Europe, and Gendel returned to the fold from the Following Mountain sessions.
Amidon worked with the ensemble to record most of the album live over three days in London, with other touches overdubbed as the musicians were separated by the coronavirus pandemic. The songs bloom out of overlapping layers of intimacy: Amidon’s own connection with the songs, their place in the larger web of musical traditions, and the connections among the players and their tools. In emphasizing expression over ownership, Amidon and company lovingly re-animate these songs, unbeholden to a “right” way to play them. The resulting record exudes a new sense of warmth, its textures coming alive as naturally as breath escapes the lungs.
“It was really exciting to pull these musicians together, all of whom I have strong relationships with musically but who had not appeared all together before we recorded—in fact, Chris and Bert were meeting for the first time when we came into the studio,” Amidon says, adding, “It just felt right, with all of these musical relationships, to celebrate that through playing together on this record.”
“Maggie” draws open the record with an atmospheric lilt, with clawhammer banjo and percussion arriving to tighten the focus. Amidon’s spin on Taj Mahal’s “Light Rain Blues” takes on all of the sighing drift of its title, the metallic ripples of banjo and guitar recalling the quicksilver dart of droplets sliding across a window. The album’s softest sentimental touches peek through in the gliding piano flourishes of “Hallelujah” and the chorus vocals with Beth Orton that bring “Sundown” and Sam Amidon to a close.
Where Amidon had once prioritized farther-flung deep cuts for his recordings, he found himself returning to comfortable and familiar tunes after The Following Mountain. He revitalized the canon standards “Cuckoo Bird” and “Pretty Polly,” powering the former with a frisky pattered rhythm and pressing the latter into a lightly psychedelic swirl. With “Time Has Made A Change,” a gentle tune he’d often heard from his musician parents growing up, Amidon also drew inspiration from smaller, more personal spheres within the folk universe.
Amidon treats his source material with reverent curiosity and sincere affection, which drives his lifelong efforts to explore every possible facet of these old songs. Sam Amidon adds a new chapter to old stories as well as Amidon’s own, ensuring that their magic lives a while longer.