The shaggy-haired and bearded Sean Rowe, dressed in black from head to toe, was a lumbering figure who first emerged with his large acoustic guitar, as an intriguingly and darkly lit mystery on stage of Rockwood Music Hall last Thursday night.
Alone on the dimly lit stage, in a dark room, with only his guitar, his presence commanded a hush before he said a word, or hit a string.
As he began his record-release set with "Surprise", the opening tune from his remarkable new album, Magic, his captivating baritone and powerfully arresting guitar playing completely silenced the crowd, and evoked a collective sense of hushed awe. Mr. Rowe then segued into a stark and riveting rendition of "Wet", his proposition of a desperate escape, that culminates with "I hear Pittsburgh's better than this town anyway/ When your heart is broke and your eyes are wet, you go/ Let's go today".
Throughout the set, Mr. Rowe's emotional and sonic range swung from stark and nuanced, to forceful and frenzied. Taking a Neil Young-ish Crazy Horse stance, he barreled through the driving thumper "Johnathan", wove a tale of his friend's excursions into a religious group called "Joe's Cult", and conjured up a stirringly uplifting vocal performance that evoked Jeff Buckley's cover of "Hallelujah" on his own soaring "American". Rowe ended the night with a roaring rendition of Richard Thompson's "Vincent Black Lightning". It was quite a ride.
I have been listening to Mr. Rowe's Magic for some time leading up to the show, and I have found the record captivating and hard to put aside. It's an intriguing and fascinating listen, from a voice that seemingly came out of nowhere. The album introduces us to Sean Rowe's distinctively deep and rich baritone, while consistently emphasizing the breadth of his songwriting prowess. (You can read my review of it here).
On record, the man sounds natural, genuine, and earthy, while evoking an evident distinction of style all his own. Live, as witnessed by those in attendance at Rockwood last Thursday, Rowe is in full command of carrying listeners through bare landscapes, as well as steering us through swelling storms that erupt with an urgent, and emotional ferocity.
Throughout the performance, I kept thinking of some of my favorite vocalists and songwriters that I personally find remarkable, that have staked out musical territory all their own, such as Mark Lanegan, Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and fellow labelmate, Tom Waits.
Mr. Rowe is a man to watch. He has arrived. Magic is brilliant, and a record I highly recommend to anyone who appreciates individualistic songwriting. And Mr. Rowe's solo live performance, which stripped down his compositions to their essentials, offered a lasting impression that I found simply riveting- begging me to revisit Magic yet again, and pine for the next opportunity to catch him perform.