LIVE(stream): Sean Rowe’s Mother’s Day/80s Tribute Show, 5/10/2020
If every singer could sound like Sean Rowe by using whatever microphone he sets up to sing to us every Sunday online, the silvery gizmo would sell in the bazillions.
No way it will make anybody really sound like him. Voices like his hit rarely, sweet but hard. It’s like a barn: big, solid but weathered, and welcoming in how it occupies and offers so much space. It seems relatively plain on the surface but has overtones deep as the Grand Canyon and an undeniable presence on the landscape.
Let us pause a minute to mourn the picturesquely sagging red barn that once stood alongside Rt. 73 in the Adirondacks. Every car that passed would stop, whether driven by a photographer or painter or not. But we digress. There’s no sag to Rowe’s voice. It’s convex, not concave. And it fills completely his now-familiar wall-papered dining room festooned with tiny hanging lights.
Sunday, he stepped to that silvery mic right in front of the wide angle gaze of his camera, strummed quiet chords on his Takamine acoustic six-string, talked a bit and sang, carpentering special effects onto the guitar at times for atmosphere, occasionally strapping on a harmonica rack.
Rowe was doing house concerts long before quarantine time, so he moved easily into performing from home. These shows feel all the more human for those moments when he pauses to adjust something; using the clasp of a pen to clip a folded bill into his guitar strings, say; inviting electronics to visit some songs; leaning forward to read written lyrics; even visiting the bathroom.
As he wrote on his website, “This is why I do house shows: I want to connect… I want to take you on an intimate musical journey that you and your friends will remember forever. Do I love club shows? Hell, YES. I love the vibe, the energy, the lights, the heat. I want to see you out there, too. But this is a different beast. Maybe a gentler, more homey beast.”
In his house concert from his own house May 10 show, Mother’s Day, he sang 1980s pop and indie-rock songs, and his own.
One hit me with a vivid evocation of Little Richard – though Rowe writes and sings nothing like him – “Flying,” and we’ll talk about that in the song-by-song below.
While his songs still echoed in my head Sunday, Rowe emailed a songlist we can follow here.
Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes) – This medium/up-tempo, driving tune started the set strong, with just straight guitar, no special effects.
With You or Without You (U2) – Rowe said he’d not been a U2 fan as a kid but blundered into loving them. He recalled ordering cassettes from Columbia House, going for Metallica and Motley Crue but feeling disappointed that U2’s “The Joshua Tree” arrived first. He eased into its slow tempo, with a subdued vocal to start and a slight metallic echo on the guitar. But then he grew the song to its full vastness.
Surprise – Rowe announced this as from his first album; while he tuned he gave a birthday shout-out that his Amanda fed him from off camera, to a friend’s daughter. A thin, trailing echo on guitar fed its mid-slow tempo and the Springsteen-y mood of its vocal.
Wrong Side of the Bed – “Another one from that album,” he announced, quaffing beer from a stemmed glass. In this bluesy litany of trouble, the pain energized and the voice went wondrously loose.
Lady in Red (Chris DeBurgh) – After a defensive “guilty pleasure” intro, Rowe gave a straightforward, non-ironic reading at an easy amble, from near-whisper to belt-it power on the chorus; and he played a sweet guitar break.
We’re Not the Same – He said he hadn’t recorded this yet, said it was about Thanksgiving and warned it’s a serious song, ”so take it seriously.” Its driving, skeptical vibe framed an extraverted vocal and hard-strummed guitar, effects all over it; a holiday gone wrong, gone nice and loud.
I’ll Follow Your Trail – A stoic love song promising loyalty, its modest, contained sound imparted a cozy feel that worked beautifully with its soaring sentiment. Afterward, he noted that listeners often reach out to him in appreciation, likely keying in on its unerring balance of poignancy and power.
Squid Tattoo – He spoke a bit cryptically of a new album coming soon, implying this vivid neon number would be on it. He leaned forward to select a guitar effect suited to its bar-room romance milieu with someone displaying “the right kind of crazy.” A dangerous tale of all-in love, it rocked, dive bar style.
Never Tear Us Apart (INXS) – Rowe dedicated this to Amanda who applauded and commented off-camera, an audience of one. This slow tempo tune rode a dramatic vocal and echo-ey, rich guitar.
Next he spoke of a new spin-off show from his ongoing “Can I Eat This?” Youtube series on cooking wild food together, streaming at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on Facebook. Then he fired You Don’t Have to Worry. A striking, exotic sound here, this song had a circular riff colored by the percussive abrupt punch of strings damped by a bill clipped to them with a pen, then pumped with an electronic echo. Its ringing kalimba-like tone was blunt but resonant and never threatened to overshadow a deep-sincere vocal.
A Forest [The Cure] – “I didn’t like the genre as a kid,” he said, “but the song is so cool.” It rode a menacing rhythm spiced with a spooky drone intense as a Hamell on Trial tune, and I doubt the Cure ever played it with such savage force. Amanda told him fans were hitting that tune hard with Likes online.
Psycho Killer (Talking Heads) – A drum-like damped guitar pushed into a driving break. A hot vocal reprise followed, another guitar explosion then the vacuum where its big sound had been.
Tornado Head – “This is a song off the upcoming album,” he announced, then bent to add a cello sound-effect to the guitar. “Only the whiskey tells the truth,” he intoned in the chorus, a great line in a terrific tune.
Flying – He tuned his guitar at some length, donned his harmonica rack, gave a false start, then carried us away. “There was a time I could not cry but that has left me now,” he sang. “For seven years I could not dream, but now that’s gone.”
This one grabbed me by the throat. I hadn’t cried for real since my parents passed, but those words made me think of Little Richard and I just let go. But I digress.
Rowe’s every-Sunday home-shows work because of sheer musical quality, confident performing, regular scheduling and consistent setting and style; so do the almost-nightly Caffe Lena Stay Home Sessions and regular streaming events by performers familiar here before the Plague including Erin Harkes, Mark Gamsjager, Rick Bedrosian, Hamell on Trial and the single-song Facebook posts of former Saratogian Tom Mitchell, posting from home in Nashville.