"Oh my goodness. Oh my God." Langhorne Slim is on his cell phone, ambling through Manhattan's Chinatown toward Little Italy. Some noisy commotion has stopped him in his tracks. "My friend, if only you were with me right now. You would see there's all these Hassidic Jews, and there's about ten vans lined up on the street that say 'The Messiah Is Here.' 'Be Ready Add More Goodness and Kindness. '" He pauses, taking in the parade of black hats and gray beards, the kind of gawkworthy spectacle you'd stumble over only in New York. "Yeah, I'm with that."
On stage, Slim is a minor spectacle himself. Part boxcar minstrel, part front-porch tunesmith, part back-alley Boy Scout, part thrift-store Dapper Dan, Slim literally takes his songs to his audience, often strolling through the crowd, belting out tunes with a voice like a choirboy in heat. In the spotlight, he's a card and a showman. On the spot, though, he gets a little squirrelly.
"I'm sorta terrible with returning phone calls, particularly in interview situations, because they make me nervous. But don't tell anybody I told you that. I don't have terrible stage fright, but I have talking fright about that sort of thing. Nobody likes to do that. Well, maybe some people do."
So our interview spools out into palaver for more than an hour, Slim dishing out as many questions as answers, listening as much as talking.
"That's my big manipulative scheme to get out of the situation and get away with it," he jokes.
The way things are happening for him, it almost seems as if there is a master plan at work. He was heading to West Palm Beach to celebrate his grandfather's 80th birthday before he landed this week's Bamboo Room gig. A few days later, he's flying to Paris to play a festival slot. But listen to Slim's 2005 full-length debut, When the Sun's Gone Down, and you'll hear music that's stripped of artifice, raw and sincere as only a guy with an acoustic guitar can be.
The disc opens with "In the Midnight," a revved-up, banjo-jammed burner, Slim's raucous tale of missed-chance love backed by upright bass, trap kit, and a la-la-ing beer-hall chorus. "Electric Love Letter" saunters like country-fried soul piped through a dusty transistor radio, and "I Ain't Proud" is a New Deal-era soap-box affirmation darkened by a little early-millennium confusion. "I'm in love with company," Slim twangs over steel guitar, "please don't talk to me/I'm at home, but it ain't my own/I'm rowing out to sea."
It's a common theme on the album, loneliness and the need to shake it. But Langhorne, giddy and maybe naive yet wry and confident, sounds anything but unhappy.
"There's the whole, like, laugh-to-keep-from-crying thing, so maybe if I write songs about being like lonely or solitary or heartbreak..." he suggests. "These are the oldest themes in music. I don't walk around all day feeling horrible about myself, but then again, I have days I do. Ever since I wrote the songs for that record, I've tried to write about other sorts of stories or not sing about love or not sing about loss, but for some reason, that's what comes out easiest or most naturally for me."
Maybe not the kind of music you'd expect to come from a 25-year-old Jewish kid named Sean Scolnick from the suburb of Langhorne, Pennsylvania. But why the hell not? It's who he is, and Slim has no patience for arrows aimed at his authenticity.
"The first time I read something like that about myself, it shook me to the core; it really hurt me. I don't know if it's where I come from or the kind of music I'm doing, living in New York, that doesn't make sense to some people. But I don't think anybody sits down to write songs to be full of shit. You do it because it's something that makes you feel good and that you have to do. That whole authenticity question is fair enough, but I don't really have anything to say about it, I guess. Other than music is what it is. You get some bands, and you don't get other bands. That's as far as it goes.
"People have asked, 'Why do you play this old-timey music?'I never felt like I play old-timey music. I never thought I did anything differently than anybody else does, whether they're playing heavy metal or disco or hip-hop. I guess people don't really do disco so much anymore; I'd like it if they would. But I'm doing the same thing anybody else is doing. It's just that this is what comes out when I do it."
He's not the only one doing it either. Slim and musical compadres like the Avett Brothers and Paleface are associated with the loose-knit, low-concept New York antifolk scene "whatever that is," Slim says. "We're all just friends, and we all just appreciate what we're doing musically."
Try to fence him in by a genre, image, or scene and Slim's freewheeling nature bristles. "For me, there's so many of us, so many guys singing songs and playing guitars, and I'm just another one of those people. And hopefully I'll do it in a way that will... what?" he pauses, as if he's never considered the effect his music might have on open minds "that will be powerful for some people. That people will be able to relate to and enjoy. I'm not looking to be on any team. I hope I'm not sounding bitter, because I don't feel like I am. I'm just not an antifolker or an alt-country person or anything like that. I'm just someone who's singing songs."
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