LIVE: Sean Rowe @ The Hangar on the Hudson, 02/18/2022
Sean Rowe is one of the most important artists to call the Capital Region their home. In spite of this, he sometimes flies a bit under the radar. That comes with the territory of being (fundamentally) a folk musician. He plays solo – his shows are subdued, intimate affairs. You’re more likely to find him playing a private house concert than on TV or in front of a large boisterous crowd, though he has certainly done both. But what Rowe has accomplished is fairly rare for musicians based here. He is an internationally recognized artist that spends the majority of his time touring the world. As such, his hometown shows usually have an air of “specialness”. Last night at The Hangar on the Hudson was no exception.
Taking the stage around 8:15, Rowe projected comfort in every aspect – a hometown crowd, a simple blue T-shirt, a single guitar, and a new album’s worth of songs to share. He opened with a cover of “Way Down in the Hole”, to the delight of the Tom Waits (and The Wire) fans in the crowd. It would be the first of several covers he would perform. I’m not generally a fan of artists playing more than one or two covers in their set, but Rowe is different. Covers tend to be uninteresting because artists are rarely able to “make them their own”… they just remind you that you’d rather see the original artist performing. Not so with Rowe. His trademark deep voice, his uniquely identifiable phrasing, and his underappreciated guitar work truly synthesize his cover songs. “Way Down in the Hole” had me thinking about Sean Rowe, not Tom Waits.
From there, he played a track (“Little Death”) from his recently released album The Darkness Dressed in Colored Lights. There are stronger tracks on the album, but his live treatment of it definitely added to it. “I Can’t Make a Living from Holding You” followed, and this was quintessential Sean Rowe. His strong, clear, deep voice perfectly channeling the melancholy lyrics of this road song. Powerful stuff.
“Squid Tattoo” is the leadoff single from the new album, and is simply one of the best songs of the year by anyone, in any genre. On the record, it is a rolling, snarky, immediately likable song about unrealistic expectations, propelled by a grooving saxophone and featuring the best cymbal fills you’ll hear all year. I wondered how this gem would come across as a solo acoustic piece, and I’m happy to say it was a triumph. Rowe’s version of it last night was simple and understated, but equally impressive. It demonstrated the strength of his songwriting – nothing to hide behind, and no reason to anyway.
Momentum and interest never lagged in his set, bouncing between covers and originals. He understandably favored his new material, eventually playing four tracks from the current release and two new, unreleased numbers. A stunning mid-set highlight, however, was 2012’s “Joe’s Cult”. Here the emphasis was on the trippy, distorted guitar part, with the ominous vocals playing a supportive role and making room for those breaks. If you walked in during this song, you’d wonder why people consider Rowe “folk”.
An interesting two-song sequence of covers followed. “Hurt” is exactly the type of song you’d think Rowe would cover. Immediately followed by “Jolene”, which most definitely does not scream “deep-voiced male”. It felt like this was a conscious decision by Rowe, demonstrating that the skill in a successful cover is not in vocal sameness, but rather inhabiting and owning the song. Rowe pleads for his man with the best of them… there was no irony in the performance at all. Again, he simply made the song his own.
Throughout the set, Rowe maintained an easy-going banter with the crowd. Never pandering – it was clear from the outset that he was going to play what he wanted to play. But he was informal and playful, as a man who knows the room and town would be. Promoting his merchandise, he explained that he was selling onesies for the first time, then quickly noted that they looked awful on him. The hometown crowd was appreciative and responsive. An unplanned rendition of “Gone Daddy Gone” was cut short by a broken guitar string, so Rowe took a five-minute break to fix it after an audience member told him she “had to go to the bathroom anyway”.
Quickly recapturing the audience’s attention with a strong version of “I Won’t Run”, he then moved into the simple but heartbreaking “Soldier’s Song”. A split-narrative piece about war, Rowe’s punctuating harmonica brought it all home in all the right ways. A masterclass in songwriting and performance perfection, this would prove to be the high point of the entire night.
Rowe moved on to his set closers with another brand new song (“Punchline”). It was new enough that he actually messed it up, but he handled the restart with requisite ease and good humor. The regular set finale was a solid version of John Prine’s “Please Don’t Bury Me”, which he introduced with a touching story about missing the chance to meet Prine personally.
A two-song encore followed an unpretentious short break, with the first song (“Heartbreak Road”) appearing to be the only song in which he took input from the crowd in selecting. Ending with “The Very First Snow”, a starkly sober choice, was somehow the perfect way to conclude this intimate night. You don’t go to a Sean Rowe show expecting him to send you out with a raver. He takes you someplace deeper than that.
Rowe will be touring the Midwest and the West Coast this spring. When he finds his way back home, make it a priority to go see this world-class performer.
- Way Down in the Hole (Tom Waits cover)
- Little Death
- I Can’t Make a Living from Holding You
- Squid Tattoo
- Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen cover)
- Tornado Head
- Joe’s Cult
- Hurt (Nine Inch Nails cover)
- Jolene (Dolly Parton cover)
- Let Me Know
- Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes cover)
- I Won’t Run
- Soldier’s Song
- Please Don’t Bury Me (John Prine cover)
- Heartbreak Road
- The Very First Snow