Photo Credits: Liz Jacobson / Aggie. Andy Shauf plays at concert on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020 at Harlow's in Sacramento, California.
Sad boy anthems make for soulful night
Have you ever come across a song that just gets you? A song that stops you in your tracks and commands your full attention? As you listen, all you can do is close your eyes and submit to a wave of euphoria. If you’ve had this pleasure, you know it is a fix unmatched. This past summer, while traveling by train through the Central Valley, I plugged in my headphones and found that exact song: “Lick Your Wounds” by singer-songwriter Andy Shauf had me hooked.
After listening to his album “Bearer of Bad News” on repeat, I discovered that he was set to play at Harlow’s Restaurant and Nightclub in Sacramento on Saturday, Feb. 22. I was ecstatic, and without hesitation I picked up my ticket and awaited the date. When the time finally arrived, I felt a deep sense of apprehension as my expectations had been building since that fateful train ride. Entering the venue, I was struck by how intimate it was. Harlow’s resembles more of a speakeasy whose bread and butter is hosting amateur stand-up rather than an artist with millions of listeners on Spotify. I picked out a small seat near the periphery as the opener, singer-songwriter Molly Sarle, tiptoed on stage.
Sarle’s minimalist sound can best be defined as Appalachian Folk. From dress to demeanor, she radiated unadulterated hippie energy. It was as though she had been plucked from a campfire on the outskirts of Woodstock in 1969 and placed on this dimly lit, shabby stage for our entertainment. Using a couple of simple chords and a folksy siren voice, she held the crowd in a hypnotic trance. I felt like I was being lured into an ancient pagan ritual, and for some reason I was completely okay with it. At times she performed with such dripping intimacy in her tone that you couldn’t help but feel slightly uncomfortable — as though you were spying on her from afar as she sang to no one, but herself. After four songs, she pulled us back into reality to welcome the “soul-warming sounds of Andy Shauf.”
In an era filled with diligently crafted band images, Andy’s crew was having none of it. For a clean-cut, baby-faced Canadian, Shauf’s bandmates were aesthetically indiscriminate. There was Sid-from-Toy-Story’s döppelganger on the drums, rock ‘n’ roll Jesus featuring on electric guitar, an art curator fresh from her day job at the Shrem playing the clarinet as well as two San Francisco hipsters on piano and bass. In opposition to the colorful appearance of the band, Shauf was soft-spoken and no-nonsense. Stone-faced, he conjured up a barely audible “Hello” before cueing the first song.
Like their appearance, the band’s dynamics visibly clashed. It was evident from the onset that Shauf was frustrated with the drummer, who appeared to be both brand new and borderline hammered — pausing in between songs to take a sip of what could’ve been beer or water. Oftentimes, Shauff peered at the drummer attempting to synchronize their rhythms. As the night unfolded, Shauf’s glances turned into glares, making for an almost SNL-worthy exchange. Tensions continued to rise until even the bass player and clarinetists shook their heads and burst into brief chuckles. In spite of the visible unease, this interplay added another source of entertainment and managed not to detract too much from the music.
It makes sense that Shauf kept his audience interplay to a bare minimum, choosing to let his music speak for itself. Paradoxically, his stage presence was so minimal that it made me even more drawn to his demeanor. Shauf’s meek vulnerability may be debilitating in social interactions, but it is his music’s bedrock. His vocals are crisp and cutting, but soothing. It’s a voice at peace with itself — reflecting on its anguish as a distant memory.
Catchy slow beats took a back seat to accentuate his vocals. As the night wore on, the clarinet — a rare find in a folk-rock band — cemented itself in my heart. It’s not a sure fit for every rock band, but it seems like it was made for Shauf’s melancholic croon.
Noted in Shauf’s work was his aptitude as a storyteller and the ability to tap into a feeling of deep sorrow. I don’t know who hurt this man, but it must have cut deep. Finding power in brevity, he pieces together piercing imagery. In the opening lines of “Quite Like You” (my personal standout song of the night), he sings, “Jeremy’s so stoned I’d be surprised if he saw the tears in Sherry’s eyes. She’s standing in the corner staring at the floor. I wonder what the hell he did this time?”
When the scheduled set came to a close, the crowd called for an encore. Shauf refused — either too emotionally drained or worked up to continue. Disoriented but satisfied, I trickled out back onto the street. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance; however, his decision to cut the encore was probably for the best. Shauf’s solemn sound — especially live — is best experienced in doses rather than binges, and the hour-long set was just enough to get my fill.
Written by: Andrew Williams — firstname.lastname@example.org