Years ago, under the thrall of my given religion, my family and I shuffled into churches at midnight twice a year, a change from the easy brightness of Sunday mornings. The darkness and the incense, the devotion in these suddenly less populated pews. A single organist in the dark of the rafters, invisible behind oak railings. The readings and homily almost echoed, the absence of bodies to muffle the reverberations, and the organ music reshaped our heartbeats.
That’s what I thought of as I closed my eyes, the club going dark, meditative music introducing the band. The opening thump of the bass, the drum. The lights would never really brighten, barely showing Damon McMahon and the rest of Amen Dunes, faces and bodies shrouded in shadow, living and moving Rembrandts. The crowd tightened to the stage, communing, on the precipice of prayer as the clock edged closer to midnight.
They played mostly songs from their new record, Freedom, a widely loved album from critics and fans alike. Freedom is Damon’s sixth album as Amen Dunes. A more refined sound defined the record, the textures less gauzy (the influence of production). That refinement extended to the lyrics — always a strength — in that he seems to explore his own life and the very act of living with evocative imagery. He maintained an element of warmth throughout, snaring the listener and inviting us to the church of his songs.
In the press and the interviews preceding and following the release of Freedom, Damon articulated that for this record, he put himself front and center, removing some of the shadowy obscurity that the Amen Dunes moniker has long held — this is his music, this is his album, but it’s also still Amen Dunes. There was a kind of exploration of the self while still relinquishing the self. It is deeply mindful music, in a way, even if the “Intro” ends with the Agnes Martin quote, “I don’t have any ideas myself. I am a vacant mind.”
Stream Freedom by Amen Dunes on Spotify:
Damon characterized good music as spiritual in a Stereogum interview. In the 9:30 Club, the songs offered exorcisms, dousing the audience. Like the tide in full moonlight, an undercurrent hypnotic and invisible without watching the patterns, wading into the water, and letting it take you under. Maybe baptismal is the apt metaphor. These songs enveloped and entranced. There was a spirit of motion, of direction, of rhythm.
The show began with “Satudarah,” a song about his father and also the almost negative aspect of inclusion in a less-than-good group, but still overcoming it, breaking free. This notion of “breaking free” extended to the album, even to the show, with the way Damon walked the stage, his body language suggesting a slow breaking of the chains. The band slid into the smooth ’60s melody of “Lonely Richard” from the album Love. (It’s the record that hooked me, and I traveled backward to get everything else.)
Then the band floated into standout song “Blue Rose,” in which Damon sings, “We play religious music / I don’t think you’d understand, man” and the simple, understated line, “Combed out my hair, started out, and my dreams took half a drag.”
Stream “Lonely Richard” by Amen Dunes on Spotify:
Damon talked little on the stage, letting the songs do the speaking. The crowd kept pressing closer to the stage, lit mostly by the yellow of late-night, bedroom incandescence. An old single from the early days of Amen Dunes, “Bedroom Drums,” redefined the fugue state of the music with rhythms built around bonfires. They brought down the tempo for a mystical little cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” “Splits Are Parted” from Love, during which the almost-wail of “Oh, I could love you / Oh I could make it easy,” functioned as the penultimate song — and the lead-in to “Believe,” a slow-building masterpiece of a song exploring mortality and acceptance. It was (and continues to be) my favorite song of 2018 — the way it percolated through the 9:30 Club, its gentle faith, its slow lament, its reckoning.
The band left the stage and returned for a riveting encore of “Skipping School” and “Miki Dora,” the latter’s ocean-wave rhythms the last sound of the night. The band around Damon played beautifully, with Delicate Steve acting as a clear foil on the stage. Their musical relationship appeared deep and well-trenched, their paths carved along the same road.
They said good night after a relatively short set, but nobody left wanting. I felt closer to the world as I walked into the impossible chill of the DC night, coat unzipped and somehow still warm. It’s a funny thing, the power of communion, connection. Amen Dunes delivered this. Make sure you take the chance to experience their show next time they come anywhere near DC.