Matt Andersen | The Borderline | 25 May 2017
(Photo credit: Laurence Harvey)
One of Matt Andersen’s favourite albums is Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’. Recorded with a church choir in 1972, the live LP captures the then 30-year-old singer belting out standards like ‘Climbing Higher Mountains’ as if her life depends on it. “It’s all about the delivery,” he explained to me recently.
The same can be said of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s own performances. Sitting alone on stage, with just an acoustic guitar and a bottled water for company, he strips back his songs to their bare bones. But anything the live renditions lose in instrumentation – none of the drums, brass, and electric guitar flourishes of the studio recordings make it onto the stage – they more than gain in heart and soul.
He may be seated, but Andersen puts his all into these songs, throwing his head back to strum his guitar with even more intensity, leaning into the microphone during quieter moments to emphasise the heartache of his lyrics, holding notes with all the vocal control of a diva, using unorthodox finger placement on the fretboard to create the exact tone he needs. “My friend says it looks like the Muppets playing when he looks at my hands,” he’s admitted. But who cares, when the music sounds this immediate, undiluted, and raw – like tapping directly into the source.
Built around some primal blues licks, the rootsy ‘I Play The Fool For You’ instantly reveals why the Juno-nominated Andersen has two European Blues Awards back at home in New Brunswick. The slower, but no less intense, ‘Have You Got The Blues’ proves his mastery of the genre, while showcasing some nimble finger-picking during an extended instrumental breakdown complete with brief ‘Pink Panther’ interlude.
‘Quiet Company’, from his 2016 album ‘Honest Man’, and ‘When My Angel Gets The Blues’, off 2007’s ‘Second Time Around’, expose another side of his artistry, both channelling the ‘70s vibe of Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters like Stephen Stills. With its enthusiastic strumming, ‘I Lost My Way’ is a more lively affair, while the tender set highlight ‘Coal Mining Blues’ and soulful ‘My Last Day’ show that his love of Aretha Franklin (and Bill Withers) runs deep.
All the while, Andersen calmly creates a sense of intimacy and community, not just through his sincere delivery, but through his relaxed audience engagement. Marked by a dry sense of humour, he tells stories, shares the inspirations for songs, and coordinates backing vocals during a singalong gospel rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’.
“When it comes to cover versions, you don’t want to mess too much with the elements that make a song great,” Andersen told me a couple of weeks ago, “but you also don’t want to do the exact same thing. People have heard it that way forever, and you’re not going to nail it exactly, so why not put your own flavour in there?”
And that’s exactly what he does on a stark but striking reimagination of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’, closing out his London show with yet another performance that sounds like his life depends on it.