Sean Rowe Is One-Man Folk-Funk Band at Helsinki
Sean Rowe, Club Helsinki Hudson, 5.1.15
By Seth Rogovoy
(HUDSON, N.Y., May 3, 2015) – On the basis of his show at Club Helsinki Hudson on Friday night, you can safely add Sean Rowe to the top tier of performing solo singer-songwriters that includes Shawn Colvin, Vance Gilbert, Greg Brown, and Richard Thompson, who preceded Rowe on the Helsinki Hudson stage by only eight nights.
Like Thompson, Rowe is a veritable one-man rock band. He has found ways to simultaneously fill the roles of drummer and bassist in addition to guitarist – in his case, both lead and rhythm – and vocalist. And with a minimum of electronic effects, Rowe presents a veritable wall of sound on some numbers. It’s really a remarkable performance, and he pulls it off seemingly with ease, even though it must be terrifically complicated. Then again, practice makes perfect, and Rowe seems to have put in more than his 10,000 hours in order to attain mastery over the form.
Rowe has the content to back it up, too. His original songs range from minor-key dirges to upbeat classic R&B-influenced tunes to straight out melodic pop-rock, and he pretty much builds his concerts in that order. His impossible baritone is distinctive yet perfectly tuned for singing from a base in blues to a base in pop, and he even tackled a few songs by other writers, including Sade, Willie Dixon and the old folk ballad, “Long Black Veil.”
Highlights of the show included “Desiree,” which in his witty, pre-song banter he claimed was a love song to his second-grade crush, couched in a delirious bit of 1970s-era Philly soul, and featuring scat singing, beatboxing, funk guitar and some kind of wah-wah effect on his acoustic guitar. Even his guitars are a visual delight, marked as they are by all sets of Mondrian-like patterns of multicolored duct tapes.
His newer material, like “Mad Man,” tended to be more upbeat and hook-filled, more dynamic and outward musically, even as they delivered his strong personal messages, in this case a seemingly autobiographical mission statement.
Rowe is also a master of engaging the audience, both through his generous pre-song banter and his witty, spontaneous replies to shout-outs by his enthusiastic fans, who came out in droves to hear him on Friday night, making for a standing-room-only affair.
In a funny way, perhaps more than the folk-blues oriented Greg Brown or the instrumentally virtuosic Richard Thompson, in his range of talents and incisive writing and bringing tradition into modernity, Rowe reminded me of that most powerful of performing singer-songwriters of the last two decades: Ani DiFranco. I can think of no higher praise.
One final note: Without any fanfare, Rowe’s concert marked the five-year anniversary of the opening of Club Helsinki Hudson. The music venue enjoyed a previous lifetime as a small club in Great Barrington, Mass., which was magical in its own way. But Helsinki Hudson is that rare place outside of a metropolitan area where artists who can easily fill theaters love to play, and where audiences who can’t regularly get to the likes of City Winery in Manhattan can see the top touring acts in the world. Congratulations and happy fifth birthday to Club Helsinki Hudson.