Noah Gundersen

Noah Gundersen Live in Grand Rapids

Last Friday night I saw Noah Gundersen do something I’ve seen very few artists do: walk out onstage alone, with no backing band and no opening act, sit down in a chair, pick up an acoustic guitar, and start playing. He’d interact with the audience more—and make a surprising number of jokes—later in the show, but for now, he wanted to get right to the point: the music.

There’s something to be said for a concert with high production values. There’s something to be said for light shows and setlists where every moment has been meticulously planned — right down to the dialogue between songs. But there’s also something to be said for a show where an artist just comes out and acts like he’s playing songs in his living room. As someone who just made an entire album in his living room, that was something I appreciated about Noah’s show on Friday.

Noah’s current tour is the second he’s done in support of his suburb 2015 offering, Carry the Ghost. The first was a full-band tour where Gundersen and his bandmates pulled out all the stops for an electric, light-show-abetted rock concert. Since he started self-releasing EPs back in 2008, Noah has been first and foremost a folk artist. However, he’s also always fantasized about fronting a rock band. He said as much when I interviewed him last summer and stressed the point on Carry the Ghost, which was about half full-band, half stripped back acoustic. The EP he released last fall for his side project, Young in the City, realized the rock band dream on record.

For the second tour in support of Carry the Ghost, though, Noah is going it alone. As mentioned previously, he has no band. The setup onstage is a chair in front of a microphone, with two guitar stands to the right, an amplifier to the left, and a grand piano in the background. One guitar is an acoustic; one guitar is an electric. There’s a harmonica sitting on the amplifier, next to what I assume was a cup of tea. There’s a small collection of pedals on the floor, to turn Noah’s electric guitar into a spacey, echoing channel of ambience. There’s no tour bus outside, because Noah and his buddy are driving the entire tour and doing the setups on their own. This show could have been played just as easily in a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop as it was at the small auditorium where I experienced it.

Noah Gundersen has gained a lot of new fans over the past two years, and for good reason. His 2014 full-length debut Ledges made me one of them, and still stands as my favorite album of the decade thus far. Carry the Ghost was darker and more contemplative, tackling Noah’s loss of spiritual faith and grinding an axe against the norms of the church. Those themes were especially electric on Friday night, since the show I saw took place as part of the annual concert series at Calvin College, a Christian institution located in the very Christian city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Given the makeup of the crowd—mostly students with, I presume, strong religious proclivities—I wondered if Noah might hold back a bit on the Carry the Ghost material and focus on the less provocative Ledges.

Instead, the setlist only included three songs from Ledges, but boasted all of the most religion-damning songs from Ghost. It was a risk, but one that made those songs even more thought-provoking as the room reached pin-drop intensity, everyone hanging on each word. “Empty for the Start” and “Topless Dancer”—perhaps the linchpins from Carry the Ghost—were particularly stunning in this environment, and proved that, while Noah is only 26, he’s still one of the few songwriters willing to go deep on subjects that most others would choose to ignore completely.

I wish more artists would take the time out of their busy schedules to do solo acoustic tours. While I would have liked to see Noah’s sister Abby with him onstage, offering vocal harmonies or violin, for the most part, seeing him perform these songs on his own was striking and spine-tingling. Of course, certain songs worked better than others in this setting. As the opener, Carry the Ghost’s “Slow Dancer” begged for some the searing electric guitar work that makes it such a stunning commencement on record. On the other hand, “Halo (Disappear/Reappear)” shown nearly as brightly live as it does in its studio form, shedding the electric guitar and lush vocal harmonies to let the lyrics cut to the bone.

Elsewhere, Noah played “The Difference” with his echo-laden electric guitar as accompaniment, an entrancing, otherworldly take on the song that was superior to the album version. And Carry the Ghost’s “catchiest” song—second single “Jealous Love”—took on an entirely different feel when played on piano. As for the Ledges songs, only “First Defeat,” “Boathouse,” and “Cigarettes” got their due—Noah said he shies away from playing older songs because he doesn’t necessarily relate to them anymore—but all three were exquisite.

Perhaps the biggest draw of Noah’s current tour is hearing him play the songs we haven’t heard yet on record. Predictably, I was quite taken by Gundersen’s acoustic cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and hope it turns up on an EP later this year—a la “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the Twenty-Something EP. Noah also played four new songs that I expect will make up a portion of his new record, whenever that sees the light of day. The first of the four—a song about a small burnout town that I’m presuming is called “Fear and Loathing”—was the best of the bunch, featuring a knockout refrain where Noah wails “No one gets a break in this town/They’re closing all the local joints down/In Fear and Loathing.” But each new song brought the goose bumps, from a piano-led ballad (probably) called “A New Religion,” a big emotive number likely titled “I’ll Be Fine,” and the set’s penultimate song, which featured a hip-hop-influenced succession of rapid rhymes in the midsection.

It’s tough to say how much different these songs will be from Noah’s past stuff on record. After all, Carry the Ghost was mainly an evolution from Ledges in how the songs were arranged and recorded, not necessarily in how they were written. Still, it’s clear that Gundersen is still at the top of his game as a songwriter, and I frankly can’t wait to see what his next full-length ends up sounding like. A user on the site heard Noah say something about going into the studio in August, in which case we probably shouldn’t expect another LP this year. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear something from Noah this year, whether it’s a full Young in the City album, a straight-to-tape EP in the vein of Twenty-Something, or some other side project. Gundersen seems to be in his mid-2000s Ryan Adams phase right now, prolific with lots of different angles he wants to explore, so it’s highly unlikely we get to New Year’s without hearing something new from him first.

Setlist

  1. Slow Dancer
  2. Halo (Disappear/Reappear)
  3. The Difference
  4. Empty from the Start
  5. David
  6. New Song 1 (Fear and Loathing?)
  7. Show Me the Light
  8. First Defeat
  9. Boathouse
  10. Selfish Art
  11. Topless Dancer
  12. Dancing in the Dark (Bruce Springsteen Cover)
  13. Jealous Love
  14. New Song 2 (A New Religion?)
  15. New Song 3 (I’ll Be Fine?)
  16. New Song 4 (?)
  17. Cigarettes
Craig Manning
Craig Manning Craig Manning is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @FurtherFromSky on Twitter and on Facebook.