We all felt as if we’d lucked into something at last night’s Sean Rowe show at the Hotel Utah. The Utah, a small, unostentatious venue, feels like the kind of place that would have made for a good music hall in the Gold Rush days, or at least the early 20th Century — a saloon with a stage, it’s unapologetically no frills.
For that reason, it’s the perfect place to see Rowe, a traveling bard whose songs evoke the adventure and unpredictability of the road as much as they evoke longing and joy, love, and heartache.
But the Utah feels so small for Rowe’s booming, sonorous bass, and his immensely powerful musical talent. So it was, in a way, a matter of luck that we got him there, in this small room, filled to the rafters with the sound of his song.
Rowe’s most recent release, Madman, explores a variety of musical influences, from the almost du-wop tinged songs like title track "Madman" and clap-happy "Desiree" to the deep, muddy-watered blues growl found in “Shine My Diamond Ring.” Rowe transitions between these sounds seamlessly on his album; a natural progression he emulates well in his live performance.
Here, though, we got the footnotes — the stories behind some of the songs, all of which seem deeply personal to Rowe. “Desiree” led to a story of a little girl he loved on the school bus who spurned his advances. The sweet, slow-builder “My little Man” is about his son, who’s on the road with him (a point of obvious joy for Rowe). The stories and jokes; these are the kinds of things that take on a decidedly different, and usually less genuine shade in a larger room — here, he was the storyteller, and we were the rapt listeners.
Rowe has been known to regularly play two covers in his sets — “The River” by Bruce Springsteen, and “1952 Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson. They’re appropriate choices for Rowe – they’re foundations for the canon of music in which he excels, that which is deeply and thoroughly steeped in the fabric of American life. He nails them every time, and last night was no exception.
There’s a joy that comes out in his playing, from his merciless assault on his guitar to the occasional vibrato of his deep voice. It’s a joy that translates, right alongside the emotional tenor of each and every one of his songs.