Dan Michaelson


Dan Michaelson has always struck me as endearingly old fashioned, in that he concerns himself with the craft of writing songs, and the subtlety of his songs on record demonstrate a becalmed, bleached and sparse beauty, where space and brevity become sumptuous and rich.

In the live setting the nuances are magnified, and I realise the quality of the songs more, as the sparse essentials of each song are left shimmering and hanging in the quiet heat.  His band performs seated, gathered in quiet concentration, providing a minimal accompaniment of Cello and Guitar, supplemented by an occasional Pedal Steel guitar.  From a glance at the set-list, 11 songs culled equally from albums Sudden Fiction, Blind Spot and the new release Distance, it is clear we are not going to be ushered into the realm of excess tonight, but the understatement in their performance is such that at times they barely make enough noise to creep over the edge of the stage. However what they lose in terms of saloon bar punch, they more than make up for in fine emotional shadings.

The volume is conversational and melodic phrases are constantly handed around, passing from Gabriel’s beautiful Cello playing to Horse’s minimal but essential guitar and pedal steel lines, then back to Dan’s simple guitar phrasing.  The subtlety of this interplay isn’t over-rehearsed or forced, but comes from the very bones of the band: It seems pure intuition, and it’s mesmerising to watch.

As for Dan’s vocal performance, it is a study in quiet understatement. Frequently compared to Leonard Cohen, he possesses a uniquely cracked baritone which could easily be dismissed as truncated in range and delivery.  Couple this to the highly refined style of his music and I had feared that in a live context this forlorn and melancholic furrow could drift into remorseless monotony.

The reality of the performance is altogether more interesting:  We are treated – thanks no doubt to Dan’s clearly “relaxed” state (The bottle of whiskey being passed around the band possibly contributing to this) – to a compelling and intimate performance even more delicate and vulnerable than that of his recorded material.  This seemed more of an Inner voice, both anguished & restrained, cracked yet melodious, sometimes dropping to a mere whisper until the audience finds itself leaning forward to hear more clearly.  This is the voice of a man brought low.

Patiently, almost doggedly, he casts his spell on us, and we are fully immersed despite the fully tanked chatter of the first daters standing near me.   Then, as each song ends, the magic is broken and we are reacquainted with Dan the entertainer, who enquires for personal introduction to each audience member, opens the floor for a Q&A, and finally asks if anyone wants to finish the gig early and join him for a drink. Recurrent themes through the evening touch on the sad and “sophomoric” nature of the set (threats to wind the set up to an “ecstatic” level do not materialise) and the stark reality is that tonight Dan’s preference would be to talk rather than play any music.

It’s probably true that if Michaelson didn’t exorcise his songs with this between-song banter, the room could be crushed by the weight of his resignation and sadness. The constant self-parody between songs sets a light counterpoint to the brooding, morbid feeling of loss that is – at its root – country music’s rightful domain.  The reality is that Dan Michaelson offers us a highly personal, honest and ultimately painful set of songs, yet he is funny, entertaining and highly personable throughout.  As such, I come away with a strangely contradictory view of the evening: We have heard some haunting, pained and beautiful music, yet we have laughed and smiled throughout. Nights like this don’t come ten a penny.  Dan Michaelson is a charming, hangdog genius – Let him loose on you, and he could tear your heart out.

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