It tends to happen a couple times a year: An indie artist who’s put in their time toiling in obscurity decides to outdo themselves with their next album, and, through a fortuitous mix of critical praise and word-of-mouth buzz, finds themselves with a sleeper hit on their hands. This is roughly what happened to Amen Dunes, the brainchild of singer/songwriter Damon McMahon, with the March release of Freedom. Whether these surprise success stories are able to capitalize on their goodwill long-term tends to hinge on whether they can bring the goods live, but if Amen Dunes were feeling any pressure Sunday night (August 26) at The Sinclair in Cambridge (the last stop of a summer-long tour), they sure didn’t show it.
Opening the evening was fellow singer/songwriter Kaya Wilkins, who records as Okay Kaya. Accompanying herself on electric guitar, Wilkins sang quiet, gorgeous songs so minimalist that every chord change felt like a seismic emotional event. Thankfully, the audience was spellbound, giving her the total silence necessary to pull off music this unerringly subtle. Wilkins was eventually joined by a bass player and a keyboardist who some might know better as Aaron Maine of Porches. Somehow, the music she played with her band felt even more intimate than the solo songs, their contributions every bit as hushed as her guitar playing. By the time the three of them had knelt down and turned the lights low for “Dance Like U,” a highlight from Okay Kaya’s debut album Both whose sexually frank lyrics come on like a far less coy version of The xx, the whole thing felt too private to keep watching, yet too captivating to turn away from.
If Tiësto and his ilk hadn’t already laid claim to the term, “trance music” might be the perfect genre tag for Amen Dunes. The songs on Freedom settle into lush, entrancing grooves, then vamp on those grooves until slowly, almost imperceptibly, they end up at a more heightened place than they began. At The Sinclair, McMahon and his four-piece band played every song on the new record, though they mixed up the order and threw a pair of old tracks in for the day-one fans. The musicians hewed very closely to the original arrangements, and though McMahon would occasionally put down his guitar, pick up a shaker, and indulge in some demonstrative arm-dancing, the rest of the band kind of just stood still and played their instruments. On paper, the Amen Dunes live experience wouldn’t seem to offer much that you couldn’t get by playing Freedom on shuffle through good speakers in your bedroom. However, there was an X-factor which made this concert greater than the sum of its parts: the unseen power of the aforementioned trance.
Part of me had hoped that, when Amen Dunes played songs like “L.A.” or “Believe,” they would take the tense, surging energy vibrating through those songs and crank it up to its breaking point, offering the cathartic release that Freedom seems so intent on denying. Yet the band did no such thing. They were playing a far craftier game. Invariably, songs started slow and measured; sometimes the guitars would sound pristine and pretty, sometimes they’d be hazy and fog-like. A few minutes later, the drums would pick up a little speed, McMahon’s singing would take on the impassioned quality of someone tapping into deep spiritual forces, and before you realized what was happening, you’d have gone from nodding your head to moving your body. You’d been sucked into the song’s centripetal orbit.
That’s not to say the set sound like one long, indistinguishable drone. There were moments of swaggering cool (the Achtung Baby-redolent groove of “Blue Rose”) and gentle reprieve (an acoustic guitar-driven version of pre-Freedom gem “Splits Are Parted”), while even the more hypnotic songs ranged in mood from ebullience (“Calling Paul the Suffering”) to dejection (“Satudarah”) to steely-eyed determination (“Skipping School”). Yet it was in that otherworldly trance, and in the moments where it seemed to take all these intense feelings and swirl them into one, that Amen Dunes truly felt like a band that had earned its hype.