“This is a beautiful house you have,” remarked Damon McMahon, the frontman of Amen Dunes, quietly tuning his electric guitar after unleashing a breathless string of rock songs.
On Thursday, Amen Dunes, the musical indie rock project of McMahon, played August Hall in San Francisco. The show was the first in his winter 2019 tour in support of his newest record, the critically acclaimed 2018 album Freedom. Last year, Amen Dunes headlined another United States tour, appearing with fellow indie rock band Fleet Foxes on many of those dates.
Amen Dunes has a refreshing indie rock sound, sculpting intimate and personal songs with the weight and texture of his voice. This voice is layered on top of songs that alternatively have a rhythmic pulse and segments of deep, ambient synths. At its clearest, his voice seems reminiscent of alt-J frontman Joe Newman’s signature vocals. But it often widens to a near-fuzz, becoming something that is both harder to decipher yet far more expressive.
At August Hall, many of Amen Dunes’ songs serve as both bristling jams and intimate moments for McMahon as a solo artist. In one of the first songs Amen Dunes played during the set, “Blue Rose,” McMahon’s fellow bandmates set up a hypnotic rhythm on the drums and bass while hazy, layered synths gave the song depth and plucked guitar lines drifted up and down in the mix. McMahon’s lyrics were verbose and particular, but the specific words and their meanings were far less important when compared to the prominence of McMahon’s vocal irregularities, characterized by the bending of syllables and expressive over-pronunciation.
When the band played “Freedom,” the title track of its latest album, the musicians expanded on the song’s fairly simple base of guitar, synthesizer and voice to unravel it into a noisy rock jam. McMahon’s stretching and cooing voice added to the energy and emotion of this session. Moreover, many of the band’s songs disregarded a chorus-verse format in favor of a more flexible and expressive sequence of chords, accompanied by glowing electronic textures and effects.
“Calling Paul the Suffering,” a song Amen Dunes played later in its set, demonstrated the free energy of a rock song while staying restrained and clearly reflecting the intimate basis of McMahon’s characters and storytelling — the two greatest strengths of his artistry. The song had a faster tempo and relied on a keyboard melody rather than the guitar-driven songs that took up most of the set. “Calling Paul” revealed the influence of classic rock sounds on the recent songwriting efforts of the band. The fusion of a slowly unfolding ballad by Bob Dylan or Tom Petty with McMahon’s modern expressions and energy was clearly audible.
The songs Amen Dunes performed reflected its particular blend of references: Time-honored rock influences, experimental, modern electronic compositions and intimate storytelling that constantly traveled between McMahon’s lips and the audience’s ears.
Amen Dunes came back for a short encore, performing “Time” and “Miki Dora,” two of its most emotionally stirring songs. Several audience members called out requests, but the band seemed set on playing these two bold cuts from its most recent records. McMahon moved slowly and willfully through “Miki Dora,” vocally enunciating and trilling carefully along with the accompanying slow guitar strums.
The encore, the final performance of the night, was ultimately a reassuring end to a show that presented both unbridled energy and somber self-reflection. Amen Dunes’ appearance in San Francisco was a strong kick-off of the band’s 2019 tour and bodes well for the evolution of the band as an indie rock mainstay. And surely, the success of the show speaks volumes for McMahon: A performer and songwriter that both the indie world and music industry at-large should definitely keep an eye out for.