Sean Rowe took to the stage last night at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill with markedly little fanfare. A tuning of guitar strings, a scan of the crowd, an introduction, kindly thanking the audience for their attendance.
“I want to thank you for moving up close to the stage,” he said. “It makes me feel cozy.” And with that, he was off.
Considering my near-aneurysm-level of excitement surrounding Rowe’s latest album, The Salesman and the Shark, I had rather high expectations going in to his live show. And I was interested to see that, save a couple of acoustic guitars and a harmonica (the harness pulled on his beard strings, Rowe noted, laughing), Rowe was onstage alone. His album, and taped performances I’d seen, had featured a full band — how would the power of his sound stand going solo?
Shame on me for even wondering. Rowe is a hypnotic solo performer – from the power of his rich baritone voice to his easy stage presence, this was a set I got lost in. My one complaint? I could have watched him play for twice as long.
I was deeply affected by Rowe’s voice listening to his album — it’s just as impactful live, but here, I was simultaneously taken with his incredible guitar skills. Whether teasing the strings in the slow-burning “Bring Back The Night,” the evening’s opener, to a deft finger-picking guitar-strum combination in “Joe’s Cult,” making for a percussive, funky rendition.
These tracks, hallmarks of Salesman, were the only tracks featured from his latest effort. And, despite my love for that album, that ended up being an alright choice. Rowe tore through a couple of older tunes off of 2010′s Magic, and performed two of the better covers I’ve ever seen, one of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” and one of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
The latter, in particular, was a jaw-dropping frenzy of guitar antics, and fittingly enough, the show’s closer. As he rumbled through the song’s closing couplet, “He gave her one last kiss and died/And he gave her his Vincent to ride,” I felt a collective shiver going through the room. His take on the classic tragic motorcycle-centered love story made me realize how squarely his sound falls in the canon of classic Americana road poetry — he’s an artist about journeys, and discoveries, and the joy and heartbreak that comes with both.
The Salesman and the Shark may have given strength to the claim that Rowe is one of the better singer-songwriters out there today; this live performance clinched it for me. Now, I’ll just be waiting for him to come back to town, and hopefully, for an even longer set.