Shut-Your-Eyes Music:Jeremy Enigk in Cleveland

Thursday night, I ventured to Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom and Tavern to check out Jeremy Enigk’s show. Famous for his work with Sunny Day Real Estate and The Fire Theft, recording through Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, Enigk has embarked on a solo tour, promoting World Waits, and a new album, OK Bear, coming out this February. —-

In the car, I had to set the roadtrip mood, and everyone knows the music choice is always all important. But the trip was slow. In a traffic jam, I started off with some Bad Veins, moving on to The Black Keys, then Bon Iver. Unfortunately, when I switched to Damien Rice, the more-than-melancholy nature of the tunes brought up some recent relationship woes, which was distracting. At 8:06 p.m., I made a wrong turn, which resulted in my missing the opening act, Nicholas Megalis. Damn. Turn around, turn around. Speed.

Pissed, I popped in some Dead Confederate, which seemed to turn my mood to feisty, which was all good. Then I had a craving for Oreos, which was soon satisfied. I know, I know — Enigk. I’m getting to that.

When I arrived at Beachland, the door guy was drunk. He still managed to stamp my hand and tell me about the vintage store downstairs. In the smaller side bar, some guy was going wild on karaoke. An amazing rendition of Peter Gabriel, I might add.

When I walked into the ballroom, Enigk was already going strong. With a shaggy beard and longish shaggy hair, Enigk didn’t even need a microphone, really. Lifting and dropping his chin, often staring up at the ceiling, his strong cheekbones stood out, and he was clearly in the zone, his looming eyes looking beyond the crowd, searching. Wearing simple jeans, hiking boots and a zip-up navy sweater, Enigk was all soul and no frills. He played an acoustic, and Kaanan Topper (usually Enigk’s drummer) backed him on electric guitar. That was it. Two men, instruments, one stage, no fancy costumes. It was a heart-filled treat. Cozy, welcoming, and sincere.

While Enigk played, the crowd was absolutely silent, listening. I was impressed with the Beachland audience and the way they truly were there for the music. Strange for a bar, most were startlingly sober or appeared to be. When Enigk finished each song, people hollered, asking for more, then settling, turning completely attentive.

And for good reason. Enigk’s impeccable voice filled the ballroom with an ethereal sound. Real, clear and powerful, he sang out each word with precision, as if the lyrics and the message were not just words to a song, but an actual message from the gut, from an inner source.

When he played “River to Sea” from World Waits, all eyes and ears were focused on his sound and his message. He sang, “Turn around, your life is in your hands.” Enigk didn’t need fancy lighting, a fauxhawk or vintage wear. His talent was enough this night.

“April Storm” was a treat from the new album. After this song, I felt that this was quite possibly the most touching show I’d seen all year. With a style full of feeling and light, Enigk made it possible to be melancholy and full of hope at the same time. He craftily nailed the art of “shut-your-eyes-music,” while still maintaining a certain power.

With “Carnival” from Return of the Frog Queen, Enigk delved into the land of eerie, howling vocals. Indeed, it put the whole room in the zone of a creative world, one full of love, rides, heights, fear, longing and color, with an ambiguous twist, a sound neither dark nor light, but somewhere in between. The live version was much more poignant than the recording. Perhaps that was due to the minimalist approach that night, a setup that presented his music in its best form — with ingenious subtlety and heart.

Enigk is a master at looking at life from many perspectives, rather than pigeonholing a song into a “love song” or “angry song.” Instead, he uses the dynamic vocals to express a certain maturity, capturing life in a way that attacks the whole gamut of human emotion. We weren’t stuck with one view, one message. Rather, the sound was gaping with questioning, honest and bold. There was no sense of hesitation on Enigk’s part. It was strong, both in feeling and artistry, beginning to end.

Soon after, Topper left the stage and Enigk continued on alone. Part of what made his songs so interesting was the way he often began with subtle fingerpicking, leading into huge climaxes, then dropping down again, returning to the quiet. This play on dynamics was highly effective in pulling at the chest’s center time and time again. Leading in slowly, rising, falling. He took care with each word, speaking clearly. No mumbling singer here—Enigk was true to each syllable.

After the show, the crowd stomped feet on the floor, asking for more. So Enigk came back for two more, saying, “I managed to get one drag off a cigarette.” After the encore, he came out into the crowd, shaking some hands, as if he were hanging out at a party.

Then I had to check out the Beachland’s vintage store, scoring some ridiculous, striped pants and a t-shirt. Heading home, it started to snow gently. The night was freezing. The air was wicked and mean. But I felt lifted. After satisfying a craving for peanut butter cookies and my fifth cup of coffee, I had to set the mood for the drive home. I knew what to do. I popped in Enigk’s Return of the Frog Queen. I listened to it the entire four hour drive home. It was a straight shot. I didn’t have to change my course.

Well worth the drive. Amen