David Ford walked onto the basement stage at Union Hall carrying two small briefcases. Without a word he started shaking them into an old-fashioned radio mic. Filled with god-knows-what, the briefcases clattered in a violent rhythm like workingman’s maracas. As he shook, he sang. “Well I took me a deep breath and I counted to three / I am nothing at all like I wanted to be / I was born into comfort, I was raised by TV / I am nothing at all like I wanted to be.”
With porkpie hat and ratty tie, Ford looked like a small-time huckster and the music fit the role. He stomped like the Cold War Kids busking on a corner. He sang like Tom Waits right when his voice began to go sour. He preached like a one-man Pentecostal revival and if the small crowd wasn’t quite speaking in tongues, by god they were full of the holy spirit.
One assumed Ford traveled with a full band. Enough instruments littered the stage that even if he’d played a different one on each song he’d still have a few left over. But he doesn’t play a different one on each song. He plays them all at once.
“Panic” began with Ford winding a small music box, the plinking melody recalling an imagined ‘50s childhood. A stomp of a pedal looped the four-bar line so that the music continued when he put the box down. He moved on to a jaunty piano riff, adding it on top of the music box with a second stomp. Thumps on a briefcase. Another stomp. One acoustic guitar line. Stomp. A second. Stomp. Organ, tambourine, drum machine. Stomp, stomp, stomp.
After a couple minutes he had crafted a junkyard orchestra behind him. Now instrument-less, he hung from a water pipe crying out the cascading word vomit. His voice roared louder and louder as the verses piled on top of each other, the backing music looping endlessly. The cacophony of sound seemed to shake the room. Then one more stomp, and silence.
In other hands this looping might have amounted to little more than a neat parlor trick, but in Ford’s it served the songs. In fact, thanks to Union Hall’s terrible sightlines, some people in the audience may not have even realized he was playing all these instruments live. It wouldn’t have mattered…though they might have suspected something was up when Ford’s created so many voice loops for “Go to Hell” it sounded like a Gregorian choir onstage.
It says a lot about Ford’s writing that the songs in which he didn’t loop a thing were just as powerful. Sitting alone at the piano, Ford poured the emotional honesty of a wedding vow into “Song for the Road.” On acoustic guitar, “Requiem” poetically lamented “the gradual decline of civilization into the pit of hell” (a description that, he wryly noted, could apply to many of his songs).
When song, performance and passion came together, the effect bordered on catharsis. Fans singing along to “State of the Union,” the emotional climax of the show, didn’t seem to realize they were doing so. The cries that followed lines like “Come on Jesus Christ, come back, all is forgiven” and (strangely) “Heroin tastes like ice cream” sounded like an involuntary release.
The night’s only awkward moment came after Ford bowed and walked off. He was clearly not going to do an encore, but the crowd would not leave. The minutes passed, the cheering mounted.
Finally Ford slunk back onstage…to explain why he doesn’t do encores. He gently chastised the crowd, saying the encore loses all meaning when it becomes a predetermined part of the show. Yet try though he might to talk himself offstage, the hooting and hollering continued. He paused, seemed to mull something over, then said the words that got perhaps the most explosive cheer of the night: “Fuck it, it’s my last night in America, why not?”
By audience request, he performed “Katie” and “Cheer Up (You Miserable Fuck).” As the sing-along at the end of the latter grew to deafening levels, it was hard to imagine that he had considered ending the night without it. Shouted by an audience trying desperately to give something back, “La la la” had never felt so meaningful.
Nothing At All
I Don’t Care What You Call Me
To Hell with the World
She’s Not the One
Go to Hell
Waiting for the Storm
State of the Union
Song for the Road
Cheer Up (You Miserable Fuck)