The last time I saw Matthew Ryan it was at the High Noon and the place was packed, so I was a little surprised when he contacted me about playing in the basement. I was also surprised when the show was met with mild disinterest, as of show time I only knew of about a dozen people who were coming. Luckily more than that showed up, thanks in no small part to the fact that opener Brandon Sampson knows a lot of people in Madison. He went to Luther College and apparently there is a fair alumni presence in town. Sampson lives in Pine Island Minnesota, so named because of the two rivers which frame the town, making it an island of sorts. He hosts something called the Americana Showcase in nearby Rochester and Ryan had been his guest the night before. Apparently Sampson has built a very loyal clientele there and large crowds turn out for the monthly shows, something I am quite jealous of.
Initially Ryan had thought they would run the show in the usual style, Sampson would play an opening set, there would be a break, and then he would play, but instead he decided to do the show as they had the night before, with the two musicians trading songs. He opened with three songs, Sampson played three, after that they just went back and forth. This was a good decision. Not only did this make for some lively banter between the two on stage, but it also allowed them to trade shots of tequila. After finishing off the remainder of the bottle of Patron they had brought with them, Ryan asked “if anyone had any tequila in their pocket.” The audience didn’t, but I pulled out the partial bottle of Cuervo I had in the cupboard. During the break I told Ryan that it was “Wilco’s tequila” that Califone had left when they stayed at the house after opening for them. A fact that he repeated at the opening of the second set, to which an astute audience member commented that past tense might be more appropriate.
Indeed, they did make a pretty good dent in what was left of the bottle, but if anything it made the show even more entertaining. By the end it had gotten a little silly, but before that there was a lot of good music. Sampson has played in the band Six Mile Grove since he was a teen, and he sent me his band’s new record Quiet Little Town ahead of the show. I listened to it quite a bit, and the tunes had sunk in, I knew almost every song he played. He started the night with the quieter numbers and built up to more rocking songs like “Evangeline,” written for his son Milo before he was born when he was sure it was going to be a girl, and “God Save the Queen” on which Ryan played a “Neil Young solo,” which apparently means a one note solo. I was completely charmed by Sampson, his gorgeous voice, his lovely songs, his easygoing manner, and I made a mental note that I need to get to Rochester for one of his showcases.
Ryan wears his acoustic slung low, like a punk rocker or a bass player, which contrasts with songs that are more or less folk rock. He has jumped around stylistically over the years, never releasing the same album twice. While his most recent record I Recall Standing as Though Nothing Could Fall is somewhat mellow, 2008’s Matthew Ryan Versus Silver State has a few more rockers, and those seemed to be the stand-out tracks tonight, “American Dirt” was the winner of those. His voice is warm, with just a little bit of a growl, like all the best folk singers. While I was worried that he would be disappointed with the small crowd, I shouldn’t have been, he embraced it, at one point going around the room and having everyone introduce themselves. We’d discussed earlier how we don’t remember faces or names, and he proved it by calling several people by the wrong name. Though that might have had something to do with another phenomena we talked about where you meet someone who looks just like someone you met in another city… or maybe it was just the tequila. Either way, this was one of my favorite shows of the year.