It’s no secret that I do really cool things sometimes. In fact, my absence from Hearingade can quickly be explained away by the fact that I was on tour with that really rad band I hang out with, The Appleseed Collective (and don’t fret, a comprehensive tour diary will be coming your way next week!). Even for me though, being a part of Matt Jones’s recent in-studio concert, filmed and dubbed Lesser Birds, was one of the cooler things I’ve gotten the chance to experience.
For the uninitiated (read: Those outside of Michigan), the name Matt Jones probably means next to nothing. But chances are that your favorite mitten-based music act is a fan of Jones even if you aren’t. Around these parts, Jones is a near legend, a veritable veteran of the remarkably solid Ann Arbor folk scene that features more than a few Paste magazine darlings that get quite a bit of love on Hearingade. Of all these amazing Michigan acts, Jones remains my favorite. The music Jones makes is atypical folk, influenced by ragtime and the civil war era. His lyrics, sung at a break-neck speed that would leave The Hold Steady in awe, are tinged with an enrapturing darkness. Combined with intricate guitar, Jones makes music that can be described with words like “breathtaking” and “remarkably affecting”. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Jones yourself.
So when Jones invited me to Jim Roll’s Ann Arbor studio, Backseat Productions, for an intimate concert, I jumped at the chance. Honestly, I didn’t even know what I was signing up for when I told Matt Jones I’d be there. I just knew something awesome was happening and I could be a part of it. I wasn’t completely sure what I’d even done to warrant an invite but I wasn’t going to refuse. Jones is one of my favorite musicians but unlike bands like The Ultrasounds and The Appleseed Collective, I’m not exactly friends with Matt. I don’t really know him as a person. But I do know him through his songs, and those songs mean the world to me.
What happened at Backseat was an incredibly small, intimate concert that found a dozen or so of Ann Arbor’s finest sitting on folding chairs only feet away from Jones, cellist Collette Alexander, and vocalist Misty Lyn, as they played a comprehensive set of music spanning from Matt’s first EP to (the as-of-then yet-unreleased) new mini-LP, Half Poison Half Pure. I don’t really need to even talk about it because you can just watch the whole thing.
Lesser Birds walks the entire timeline of Matt’s career chronologically, from his first EP to his newly released mini-LP, Half Poison Half Pure. It was amazing to be there, surrounded by members of the Ann Arbor music scene that I hold in serious esteem, but the thing that made it really freakin’ cool was the fact that I was sitting feet away from a musician I love so sincerely who was playing nearly every song he’s ever recorded. How many people get to say they ever do something like that? (Note: It probably helps that said musician is from the next town over.)
It’s interesting that the film has come out so quickly. Tour is still so fresh in my mind and it was only a few days before I left that I was at Backseat with Lesser Birds unfolding in front of me. Now, not only has the concert film been unleashed into the great, wide world but Matt’s latest album, Half Poison Half Pure, just so happens to be available on Bandcamp at a pay-what-you-will price so really, there’s no reason not to snag it. Especially when you consider that you can hear jams like this.
Some months ago, Matt was at a show I was running merch at. We talked for a minute and he told me that I’d hate the new record. I’m pretty sure he said this because of the fact that the album is so incredibly densely instrumented compared to his previous efforts that I loved so much. What Matt didn’t understand was that it wasn’t his music that ever drew me to his work. It was the lyrics. Half Poison Half Pure is littered with Jones’ signature lyrical bile (“Mangling Mouths & Murdering Rhymes”) and vivid imagery (“Nightscores”), consistently combined with capricious melodies not unlike the ones that marred The Black Path so wonderfully. Per usual, no matter the subject matter at hand, Jones manages to tackle it with a deft grace that, combined with the haunting diapasons of Alexander, manages to stride the line between jaded hopefulness and complete devastation (both of which are prevalent in the stunning “Hammer Falls”).
I can probably count all the interactions I’ve had with Matt Jones the person on one hand. Matt Jones the musician, however, has been responsible for more catharsis and positivity in my life than a near stranger should be able to take credit for. His music got me through my dad’s death last year. I listened to The Black Path almost exclusively for a number of months. Usually, when I love a musician that much, I rave about them, force my friends to fall in love with them, too. How I felt about Jones, however, was something too intense and too personal to share, really. Despite the fact that his songs have orchestrated such deeply scarring experiences, he’s never quite been one of the regulars I write about. I think that’s partially because it’s almost kind of creepy to have an intense love for a local musician. I think it comes across as stalker-y sometimes. Just ask Chris Bathgate how he feels about my leering! In all seriousness though, I don’t care what you think about my personal relationship with Jones’ music. I just want you to listen to him. He’s a remarkable guy.
Hot tip: Lesser Birds is worth watching for the live version of “Antietem” alone.