Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013
I'm not sure of how many
times I've seen Richard Buckner, but I am sure of how
I've seen Richard Buckner every time since the first—as a duty, performed with religious obedience, like I'm rousing myself from bed on Sunday morning to attend the early service.
The first time I saw Buckner, it was a transformative experience. He was hunched over a guitar and a small army of pedals, not stopping between songs, floating on short drones to move from confession to indictment to something between the two. He was ceaselessly smoldering, and I was forever branded. Since that night, Buckner has sometimes been great, often good and just as often entirely blasé on stage, lost in loops that served as crutches or drifting above crowds that gave him only half of their attention. The songs were still there—the classics like "Ed's Song" and new additions, too, courtesy of a string of sterling releases on Merge Records
during the last decade. But since that first Buckner set I saw, the successors have, to me, felt perfunctory, my attendance compulsory.
I live in Raleigh, so in advance of last night's show at The Pinhook in Durham, I asked maybe a half-dozen friends (and all of Facebook) if they'd like to join me. My pals were out of town or otherwise engaged, and I despised the prospect of going by myself—namely and lazily, of driving myself down the interstate on the rainy Thursday of a long week. I briefly contemplated skipping the show, but I knew that my faith left no room for wavering. I bought a ticket for The Bridge Bus
, climbed aboard, and half an hour later, found myself in front of The Pinhook, ready for my communion, however distant the priest might seem.
But there were no loops last night in Durham. There was just Buckner, a small-bodied acoustic guitar with two outputs, and a tiny amplifier facing a microphone. And there were those songs, not delivered so much as divined. Buckner altered the progressions and the rhythms, speeding up and slowing down, adding a rest or a strum here or maybe there and bleeding on everything with his pockmarked voice. He took his time and hurried up, opening with the title track of his new record but then skipping through his catalog as if this were some career-defining retrospective. (It felt, instead, like the way forward.)
The crowd gathered in real close and quiet, hanging on his every slurred and stinging phrase. ("Remember the chance you took?") People cried and hugged. Most of us stood stock-still. Getting a drink was very easy, if you could look away from the stage long enough to make an order.
Seated, Buckner leaned in above his guitar, which looked like a children's model beneath his hominid bulk. His mouth hung just above the microphone, pushing into it and drifting away from it. In that position, he created his own center of gravity, pulling all activity in the room his way, a guy with a guitar and voice, momentarily commandeering all the vectors within his own limited world.
Buckner told some jokes between songs, talking about how he was worried that the rain would've killed him on the drive in. He acted, in effect, like this was the kind of performance he'd given every night of his life. I can assure you that it wasn't, but I can also hope that it is.