Words: Sean Moore/ Photos: Derrick Rossignol
Steve Gunn is well-established in the music scene as an extremely gifted songwriter and guitar player. Having released a handful of albums since 2007, he’s created a lot of buzz for himself in the underground music scene. Perhaps better known for his work and time in Kurt Vile’s backing band- The Violators. Many in the industry recognize and respect his talent and have sought him out as a collaborator. He’s put out albums with Hiss Golden Messenger, Mike Cooper, and Kurt Vile, but his solo work is where his talent as a songwriter shines through. This is especially true on his latest album, The Unseen In Between, which reveals his influences in blues, folk, a little bit of psychedelic rock mixed with free jazz, all of which were proudly on display during his incredible set at Port City Music Hall.
This was the opening show of a brief east coast tour, although he’s been on tour for the better part of this year, mostly overseas, the audience could tell that Gunn and his band have been perfecting the live sound of these new songs. Given Portland’s geographical location on the map, we often get treated to opening or closing dates of many artists’ tours, which has its advantages. Sometimes the audience hears things for the first time or witnesses the band giving birth to their songs/sound; and on the other end, sometimes with the tour ending, a band will leave everything out on the stage.
His set relied heavily on material from the new album. The opening song, “Wildwood” ,from 2014’s Way Out Weather, set the stage for what was going to be an awesome night of blues-infused folk rock. Gunn barely spoke to the audience, other than to introduce his band at one point. Instead, he let his music do the talking and at some points throughout the night, it seemed like his guitar had developed its own voice, as it came through his amp loud and clear. He barely cracked a smile, other than a few at his bandmates, which would lead you to assume Gunn is an absolute serious man, not to be bothered while in his element on stage. Gunn even addressed this before he and his bassist, Liam, played a song alone as a duet. “I swear I’m not as serious as I look,” he told the audience. But it didn’t seem like anyone in the room minded, either way.
The small crowd that gathered towards the front of the room stood entranced and stone-still through Steve Gunn’s set that stretched just over an hour. New songs like “Vagabond” and “Chance” allowed Gunn to showcase his folk style, with Gunn barely opening his mouth past a crack between his lips to sing his lyrics, while his eyes darted from the audience members on both sides of the room and those who’d collected in the middle.
Along with the rich instrumentation, Gunn’s lyrics are meditative and intimately personal reflections of introspection in their nature, so perhaps that’s why he does not feel the need to smile while performing. Nearly every song included guitar solos during which you couldn’tt help but watch Gunn’s finger-picking style of playing. Watching how fast his fingers moved through the chords, almost like magic, it’s clear that Gunn thoroughly enjoys stretching his recorded songs into journeys to experience with his band. This was never more present than during the incredible versions of “Luciano” and particularly “New Familiar,” both of which included guitar solos that had the crowd cheering and begging for more. At one point, during “New Familiar,” Gunn bent down and turned up the knobs on his amp and the sound of his guitar and its feedback nearly made his small band sound like Wilco or Sonic Youth.
After playing his last song, the crowd was left wanting more as they cheered and clapped, hoping to entice Gunn and his band to come back on stage for an encore, but once the house music and lights came back on, it was clear that Gunn’s 11 song set was all we were going to get. Always leave them wanting more.