Langhorne Slim is inscrutable and captivating at the Ark

Monday, March 19, 2018 - 5:35pm

Last Thursday, folk fans from Ann Arbor and beyond gathered at The Ark and settled into the seats closely surrounding the stage. The scene was a familiar one for anyone who has spent time at The Ark in the past: People chat with each other and sit down with drinks and popcorn, the lights go dim. It’s a special kind of atmosphere, whether or not you’re very familiar with the artist of the night, because it’s easy to feel the community for the evening already beginning to take hold.

That night, the performance in question was that of Langhorne Slim, with an opening set by Christian Lee Hutson. And while the usual feelings of an Ark folk show were all there — the community, the emotion and the attentiveness — these particular artists seemed to extend their talents into other modes of entertainment as well. Both performances were punctuated by storytelling and comedy that had almost everyone in the audience cracking up at one point or another.

Hutson took the stage first, wearing a bright, retro orange shirt indicative of his Los Angeles origins. Hutson warmed up the crowd with a wide variety of songs from his repertoire, ricocheting easily and naturally between moody love songs, folksy reflections and alt rock irony. One of the highlights was, unquestionably, the humorous post-breakup song, “The Kid,” with a refrain that just about made everyone present laugh: “It doesn’t matter what you did / I think that we should have a kid.” The charismatic carelessness of this song was perfectly reflective of Hutson’s persona between songs: Candid and vulnerable, good-natured and shameless. There were also moments that dug a little deeper, like his performance of “I Just Can’t Fucking Do It Anymore,” a toned-down ode to the bittersweet nature of resignation and closure.

Slim took the stage next, with a range of songs just as eclectic. What’s more, each new song seemed to hint at a new facet of Slim’s personality; even after the entire concert was over and people were starting to file out, it was difficult to know what to make of him, how to sort all of the different scraps and fragments he’d shown us into a picture that felt complete.

One thing that can definitely be said about Slim is that he was social. Like Hutson, he was able to command the entire venue easily, despite having no band behind him. He was just a single man with a guitar, yet it didn’t take long before the audience was hanging on to his every word and chord. He even brought it up at one point, remarking, “This is a listening room.” He praised the audience for listening so respectfully, but also encouraged everyone not to feel suppressed, to know they were more than welcome to sing along if they knew the words. People laughed at this; undoubtedly nobody had realized they were being so quiet — we’d been so hooked on the performance that we didn’t notice.

And people did sing along; the soft voices of audience members filled the room during the hits “Changes” and “Life is Confusing,” and rose in volume for more exuberant numbers like “Wild Soul.” But they also fell back into pools of captivated silence during some of the broken-up periods between songs, when Slim would tell lengthy, varied stories about his life and experiences, interspersed with jokes. He joked about Graham Nash, who had performed at the Ark recently and left his setlist behind; Slim would often consult the setlist (on the back of which he’d written his own) and wonder aloud how his performance was likely living up to Nash’s.

He also told the room about his childhood summers in Ocean City and the love he had for his grandparents. He then sang “Ocean City (For May, Jack & Brother John),” a short but poignant song about growing up that resonated so much more due to the context. Above all else, he had an astounding capacity to switch abruptly from one mode to the next. One minute, he would be giving a moving performance or telling a story about his grandparents that could make half the people in the room tear up, and the next he would swivel into a cheerful, exciting new song, and pull the audience right along with him.

Each second was just as soul-baring as the one that came before it, with honest, poetic lyrics that made it feel as though we were almost having a conversation with Slim, rather than simply being entertained by him. Lines like, “If I had somebody to love me / Then I’d have somebody to love,” from “Funny Feelin’,” were so playful, poetic and relatable that it was impossible not to be immersed in the moment.

All of this reached its peak at the very end of the concert. For his encore, Slim had The Ark turn the lights on. We’d been engulfed in pitch-darkness for the entire performance, and it felt a little jarring to suddenly see each other in all the light. Then he did the encore while walking around the aisles between the rows, making eye contact with everybody and nodding and singing, high-fiving people and grasping their hands. Artists do sometimes walk around with the crowd while performing, but for him to do it with all of the lights on — everyone able to clearly see each other as if it were daytime — felt much more bizarre, unique and oddly touching.

From what he showed us that night, Langhorne Slim is a musician, as well as a storyteller and a comedian. He has a great love for the people around him, singular thoughts and (more importantly) the ability to articulate them, and an awed, specific memory. It is difficult to understand him fully based on these pieces, but we don’t need to; maybe it is enough, as an audience, to value what he has given us, and to hope that we have given him something back.