PHOTOGRAPHED IN SAN FRANCISCO
Words by Alex Cordero
Photography by Corgam
Ten days into 2019, with the winter weather still ever present, a crowd grows thick at August Hall, intimate venue in downtown San Francisco, where people have gathered to see Amen Dunes on the kick start of his U.S. winter tour. Looking more like a soccer fan about to head out to the stadium in support of his favorite team, sporting adidas sweatpants and nike shoes, Amen Dunes comes out of the shadows; his most recent LP “Freedom” is a solemn work, carefully arranged and mastered, an album that made it into several “Best of 2018” lists (Pitchfork placed it at 14 out 50) and one that has kept Amen Dunes touring a bunch.
Although this is a solo project led by Damon McMahon, he performs with a band. Darren Beckett on drums, Dandy McDowell, the fanny pack man, on bass, Rafaelle Martirani, otherwise known as Panoram on keys and this night on lead guitars is Delicate Steve, a man worth seeing on his own musical endeavors, as he’s exceptionally talented.
Like McMahon, the rest of the band also seem to be headed to the soccer game. Their complete anti-rock and roll look is both intriguing and amusing. Is this deliberate or a lack of self-awareness entirely? Be it as it may, their attention is in the music, where they exceed expectations.
Unlike the record, which mostly remains very modest and quiet, seems to expand when performed live. The bass is the ever present groove, along with the drums, they keep the beat percussive and progressive, colored and textured by the keys and the eloquence of the guitars, yet everything still remains very minimalistic, there are no solos anywhere, no riffs; the band rocks, but it’s not rock what you’re listening to. Amen Dunes possesses the distinctive quality of steadiness, there are very few abrupt musical changes, never falling for the need to display virtuosity as we’ve grown accustomed to perceive it. McMahon’s soft, paced vocals, lead the journey the night takes up on, one that echoes an uplifting nostalgia.
The majority of the setlist (10 out of 12) are songs out of “Freedom”. The opening song is the meditative "Satudarah" followed by "Splits Are Parted" from his previous album called "Love". The chill AF "Blue Rose" came up next, and like a spectator put it, "feels like "heroes" by Bowie if he did less coke". "Skipping School" with those exquisite cymbals make their way through, followed by the song that also names the album, "Freedom" and then the song with the coolest title, "Dracula". McMahon's charisma is clearly felt. He's not so much of a talker in between songs, he only says the essential, an though brief, it's heartfelt. The band said goodbye with “Believe” a song about mortality inspired by McMahon’s mother.
But the audience is not ready to leave, an encore is claimed (honestly, and because they were very much anti-rock stars from the get go, I wish they kept playing and skipped the encore thing entirely, which is generally an unnecessary and highly overdone act). They come back to perform “Time” and the catchy single "Miki Dora". At this point bassist switches over to guitars and hands off that percussive low end to the keys. What a fantastic band, the drummer is as steady as a metronome with the posture of a soldier on duty. Delicate Steve has been melting faces away, with McMahon thanking everyone for showing up on a cold Monday night. His face reflects genuine gratefulness.
Almost a year has passed since “Freedom” came out, U.S. and Europe tours started and ended, but the solemnity of the music remains. Cheers to Amen Dunes and congratulations on the album’s success.