Since I usually only go to the free-for-all amateur open-mic nights, it was a something of a star-studded evening when I witnessed the songwriter-in-the round performance of Adam Remnant, Jesse Remnant, Billy Matheny and Todd Burge at Donkey Coffee on Saturday.
I have to admit I came into the show unaware of the pedigrees of any of the participants. In fact, their description on Donkey's website was the extent of my knowledge of them, which was something to the effect of "the finest songwriting talent in the area."
Now, just about anyone who's walked down Court Street will tell you that that is the kind of phrase routinely scrawled on those show posters taped to lampposts, and being something of a jaded Donkey showgoer, my expectations weren't exactly sky-high. But all it took was one round to prove definitively that not only were these guys professionals through-and-through, they were indeed some of the finest guitar buskers in a town already filled to the brim with promising folkies.
The half-an-hour late start time meant that I could grab an iced chai and claim that sweet armchair right in front of the stage before the show. I love Donkey.
The crowd slowly filed in after me, being the usual types that populate the back room, sitting at tables, chatting, reading a book. But when the four gentlemen stepped up onto the stage, the little noise there was erupted into applause that was louder than anything else that evening. This wasn't going to be amateur night.
Anything but, actually. The Remnants and Matheny are three-fourths of Southeast Engine, the poster children for Athens folk music whose latest album Canary received rave reviews and got them featured on NPR. Todd Burge is an accomplished West Virginian songwriter who has performed at CBGB's and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Yet despite their differing affiliations, their performances, both as an ensemble and individually, were cohesive and complementary to the point that I wonder why they aren't all in a band together.
After the warm welcome to the performers, there was surprisingly little non-musical noise onstage or offstage. No whooping. No whistling. No grinding, thank God. There was only total concentration, so palpable that every plucked guitar string, every tapped piano key could be felt as if it were the only motion in the room. Such an environment created the atmosphere needed for all four songwriters, whose only common trait was their predilection for storytelling, part relationships, part introspection, and all soul.
Adam Remnant was up first, playing a clean electric guitar with a slight country twinge. Being the lead vocalist for Southeast Engine, his set predictably included some songs from his band. Being unfortunately unfamiliar with the Appalachian authenticity of their music, I couldn't name them, but the others backed him up with harmonica, acoustic guitar, and piano for a full band treatment. His patience was admirable as he fingerpicked simple-yet-effective chord sequences and philosophized about relationships. With his almost childlike voice, you couldn't help but believe every word he said.
Next in the sequence was Todd Burge, whose technical acoustic flash and charisma validated his twenty-year performing experience. Chatting up the attendees with stories of his lyrical inspiration, he managed to touch on Facebook statuses, the film Easy Rider, and the story of Jesus throughout one show.
But even though his influences for songwriting weren't very traditional, his playing certainly was - watching him play, I felt like I was sitting in on a back porch performance by a Tennessee mountain dweller. Even while strumming the complex Dixieland-like patterns, he was still able to show off his personality and singing range through his loud vocalizing along with the guitar melody. Burge was a fantastic all-around showman and earned his place as the bon vivant of the evening.
Adam's younger brother Jesse followed, who showed the least pure folk influence of the four. Although he categorized his first song as "electric blues," his performance was far less formulaic than that name would imply, staying away from predictability with an indie singer-songwriter feel.
His skill as backing singer for Southeast Engine particularly shined, as he came up with amazing vocal-centric melodies and jumped up into the falsetto range during the climactic bits. That kind of wailing is in just about every singer-guitarist's back of tricks, supposed to show emotion and be "beautifully ugly," but the average belter usually overdoes it and leaves out the "beautiful" part. Remnant is one of the few I've seen who can use the technique to reach breathtaking peaks instead of just blowing a lot of hot air onto his microphone, and added a layer of honesty to his songs about love and falling asleep driving on the highway.
Billy Matheny played last in each round, hopping between piano and guitar as needed. He began one of his rounds by announcing his intention to name his next EP Exile on Main St. 2 and asked the audience to promote the title on Twitter with "that pound key thing" before jumping into his soft, intimate-feeling compositions. The keys he pressed on the piano were often simple chords, but they had the catchiness of a nursery rhyme, having an almost Leonard Cohen-like way of sinking in.
One of the most jaw-dropping parts of his set was when he picked up a guitar and mentioned to the others to improvise along with him in the key of G. While he played the main sections, Burge's harmonica blasts, Jesse Remnant's piano embellishments and Adam Remnant's rhythm guitar transformed Matheny's tune into a song. With so little to go on, their chemistry molded a polished piece that commanded respect.
The show concluded with Matheny's "West Virginia Waltz," a catchy old-time shuffle with a backstory. He explained that he had heard a band play a song with that name years ago, and couldn't find any recording of it or anyone else who could play it for him, so he reconstructed the melody as best he could. It bothered him, he said, that a song could just cease to exist like that, that it could be played for so many people and no one would remember it.And that's exactly why these shows are worth going to. When such gifted musicians grace Athens, how else will anyone know ten years from now what they sounded like? For their part, these four songwriters epitomized the purpose of a venue like Donkey, to showcase what we have going for us musically and reveal exactly what our regional identity is. When we have folks like Matheny that determined to keep tradition alive, you can bet our scene has something going for