As I typed the first sentence of this review – “Local folk musician Chris Bathgate returns to the Blind Pig for another memorable show…” – I could sense myself stripping his music of its power with my keyboard. Yeah, he’s from around here (although he grew up in Illinois). And his music can be folk-ish, but that’s not the best identity for it. If you’ve missed any of our past coverage of our “2011 Most Awesome Local Musician” award winner, it’s all on our site.
I feel good about scrapping that first sentence. The show really was memorable, like the previous four of his I had been to, among them being performances at Woodruff’s and The Ark. And if you missed it, I’m sorry. Really. But instead of mixing in some background information about Bathgate along with details about the crowd and the nostalgically grungy venue and the length of the set, I’m gonna try to use my keyboard to figure out and explain where the power comes from.
I’m gonna try.
I think the source is the story. The first time I saw Bathgate perform was in a classroom-size section of a dormitory on the University of Michigan campus, which on this day had been reserved for an installment of the university’s “How I Write” series. Bathgate was the guest performer and I recognized the name in an email I received promoting the event, so I went. It was just him and his electric guitar, along with an amp and a couple distortion pedals, before a crowd of about twenty seated in fold-out chairs. This was no rock concert.
He proceeded to tell us about his approach to writing music, which led into the story of some of his songs. Then he played a song (“Borders”) to prove he had the talent to back it all up. This was the day before his album-release show at the Blind Pig (think back to last spring) where he was going to reveal his masterpiece “Salt Year” to the world, but somehow I got a copy that evening.
Hearing some of the story behind “Salt Year” firsthand definitely influenced my reception of it, but for those who listen closely, it’s all there. I’ll try not to turn this into an album review, so I’ll just say: put it on your list of albums to dive into. Experiencing “Salt Year” was my first confrontation with the serious talent that had been at work in my own backyard.
Back to the Blind Pig: Bathgate’s set last Friday night was nothing outside of what I expected, which was one of the best local music experiences I could ask for. The only surprise, maybe, was that he played “Yes I’m Cold,” which I hadn’t heard live before. Whether through witnessing it in person or through headphones, the emotional urgency of his story is communicated just as profoundly through the instrumentation as it is through the words, making for an experience that resonates as it entertains. Bathgate surrounds himself with amazing musicians onstage – among them local talents Graham Parsons and Matt Jones – who make for a dazzling showcase of musical brilliance (the violin and percussion work especially stand out).
I don’t know what’s next for Chris Bathgate, what part of his story he’s writing right now or when we’ll get to hear it. He has no more local shows scheduled and I heard he may be embarking on a European tour this spring, so I can’t tell you when a night like last Friday will happen again. A copy of “Salt Year” in hand, I’ll just have to stay tuned.
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