What I realized about Sean Rowe at Helsinki Hudson last Friday night is that he is a master of musical subtlety. A modern woodsman who spends weeks at a time living alone in the upstate New York wilderness, trapping, cooking, and eating small animals, who sports a beard that is approaching ZZ Top territory, whose guitar is literally duct-taped together after years of abuse from his mannish hands[i]; Rowe’s musical identity is a stark juxtaposition. It is gently constructed by his attention to detail, by his decision to restrain himself from throwing too much at the listener, to dwell in the spaces between notes and words.
He took the stage in Hudson after several weeks on the road in support of his recently-released EP Her Songs, which features him covering six tunes by some of his favorite contemporary female artists.[ii] He performed one of those songs, “By Your Side,” by Sade:
Somehow Rowe’s baritone, resonating over staccato notes picked thumb and finger on the guitar, packs all the emotional power of the singular soul-singer’s original.
His performances of his own stark compositions, including “The Drive,” and “Flying,” stirred something equally subterranean inside me. But Rowe doesn’t write and sing simply because he isn’t able to rock out or make us dance, he does so with a discriminating sense of songcraft. In his rendition of Willie Dixon’s classic “Spoonful,” he showed off an ability to pick and bend strings he rarely incorporates into his own songs.
His signature style of knocking out beats on his guitar body adds a strong rhythmic element to his songs “Madman” and “Shine My Diamond Ring,” which got the audience moving, or at least wiggling in their seats. His disco-esque “Desiree,” performed with a full band and backing horns on the album, came across just as upbeat and danceable with only his heavy strumming and scat-like vocalizations to drive it:
I also find Rowe to be an exceptional lyricist, skilled at occupying that space where intriguing imagery meets relatable ambiguity of meaning. He gave a nod to the obvious influence of Leonard Cohen on his poetic and vocal style with a cover of “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Take his song “Little Man,” written about his son, who travels with him on tour, as an example of his moving way with words:
Death says hello are you ready to go
I was ready at 21
but the truth is too old and I know too much
I can’t go yet without my son.
My little man I love you so much.
I’m gonna let you sleep tonight
but I want you to know every time that I go
that it’s me on the end of the knife.
I can’t say I planned it
I flew forever just to land it,
my religious devotion I can’t pretend to understand it,
everybody has a notion,
but someday you will know who I am
my little man.
Sean Rowe will be playing tour dates on the west coast and in Massachusetts this summer. His new EP, and masterful 2013 record Madman, are highly recommended by this writer.
Opening up was Florida-based songwriter Matthew Fowler, who has accompanied Rowe on his recent tour dates. Fowler brings an engaging and conversational style that reaches for the tone of a solo Eddie Vedder. His songs tell familiar stories in a quiet whisper that sometimes gives way to a raspy growl or a falsetto yelp. He charmed the crowd with a couple sing-alongs before admitting, “I think this is the biggest room I’ve ever played.” Take a listen to his song “Beginners”:
You can hear Fowler’s music on Bandcamp or his website.