Call it the contagious new cultural condition of Gatsby on the brain.
But when Damien Jurado sat down to play Saturday night, I couldn’t help but wonder if the occupants of the idyllic lake house across Beaver Lake would come out to their dock and look longingly across the water in the fading light. The neighbors would have had every reason to be envious of the 30-40 person crowd at Jurado’s living room show. The lake house was perched high up off the ripples of Beaver Lake. It was roomy and full of brightly varnished wood, the Plattsmouth, Neb., version of a Long Island mansion. And Jurado’s tender music was befitting of the melancholy contemplation West Egg residents undertake in their private moments.
With 11 full-length albums and nearly two decades of touring under his belt, the night’s best quality was that it seemed entirely to Jurado’s liking. I overheard Jurado, who was in the middle of his first solo tour, explaining his love of the house show circuit to Omaha’s Max Holmquist (Great American Desert) before the show: “You know, you just want to be heard. I just want to be listened to.”
And he certainly was, as the artist delivered a mix of new and old material — some of it so deep from the back catalogue that he laid freshly printed copies of the lyrics at his feet for the performance. He said he needed them to remember the old songs. Tracks from the 2012 Maraqopa album (“Museum of Flight,” “Working Titles” and that album’s title track) framed a number of older, more narrative tracks. Jurado admitted that his songwriting has grown more abstract in recent years — perhaps alluding to the conceptual hinge of Maraqopa: which relies on a fictional town of the same name to connect the morose voices of the album’s many narrators. Still, the albums Ghost of David (2000), And Now That I’m In Your Shadow (2006) and Saint Bartlett (2010) were all well-represented.
The concert was a production of Undertow Music, a Champagne, Ill. company that manages nearly a dozen artists and books Saturday night’s brand of tranquil house show across the country. The actual roof was provided by Justin Lamoureaux of Omaha’s Midwest Dilemma, even if the home really belongs to his parents.
By design, this house show was intimate, quiet and, above all, a space for Jurado to show off his unassuming folk music completely without encroachment or interruption. Even turning the pages of my notebook to take down quotes and song titles was reserved for the end of songs, when applause could drown out the crinkle of paper. Any other moment would’ve meant adding an unwanted percussion to the appreciative silence surrounding just a voice and an acoustic guitar.
The most touching lines of the singer’s discography climbed the high, sloping ceilings of the Beaver Lake house, which mitigated the need for any amplification. Beyond Jurado playing from a high-back kitchen chair, the ceiling fan was the only audial presence in the room, a soft hum from 40 feet off the ground that masked breathing and toe taps. Those choice lyrics did their part by simply hanging in the air:
“I show up in the title of your song / I only hope that somebody requests it…”
“A friend is only a lover you’re not committed to.”
“We are echoes God creates in the shade.”
Damien Jurado songs can sound both very tight (because of the supple lyrics and short tunes) and loose at the same time (because of Jurado’s free-flowing falsetto and soft strum). The singer/songwriter shared one musical quirk that ensures both qualities. Jurado explained the detectable looseness of his guitars as he swapped his Takamine Jasmine for a 12-string guitar to play “You for A While.”
“I don’t change my strings,” Jurado said. “Because I don’t really know how.” He added that all of his songs are down-tuned to some degree because tuning up could snap the aged strings. One time, when a string did break before a show back home in Seattle, Jurado opted to buy a new guitar instead of finding someone to restring his old one.
These are the kinds of stories that come forward at a house show this calm and domestic. It was a night of candor and humor from the publicly introverted Jurado, who has notoriously little use for interviews or stage banter. Stories from touring the home of Meredith Wilson — composer of The Music Man — in Mason City, Iowa, gave the show a level of personality that wouldn’t have come out at a bar. The result was a number of offbeat, but very human anecdotes.
— Jurado’s 13-year-old son, Miles, once confessed that his father’s “I Am Still Here” is the saddest song he’s ever heard.
— Jurado would never drive three hours to see himself perform.
— Again, we should all see The Music Man.
“The music is really good,” Jurado said.
After 15 songs, a contemplative 90 minutes and the sunset, it wasn’t the least bit difficult to see why Jurado elected for the limited space, but intimate feel of the living room show. He had been, first and foremost, listened to.