It’s fascinating how much changing languages changes a personality. I tutor a French girl on Thursdays who develops a lisp and severe shyness as soon as she starts speaking English. It still surprises me every time how the shift from French to English immediately changes her from sassy to meek and a bit clumsy. “I have... boughten?” “You have bought.”
On this particular Thursday, I took the 12 euro I made during our hour of preterits and simple pasts and invested it in a pint of Beamish Red and a ticket to H Burns’ show. I found him all alone at the bar about a half hour before his set was scheduled to start. He was writing his setlist on a napkin. We chatted briefly, congenially. He’s opened in France for Okkervil River, Smog, and Magnolia Electric Co. He’s waiting on word back from SXSW about a possible slot in Austin this spring. His real name is Renaud.
When H Burns sings in English, he loses all the soft amiability that whispers through his lovely, aspirated French. He sounds like a miner’s son. Who’s had his nose broken. By more than one family member. He knows how to use his throat and sinuses to torque pathos from ordinary notes, but there’s a humility in his intonation that keeps his stories, no matter how emotionally bare, from seeming pressed upon the listener. He convinces without pushing. He gives the listener the space -- to get inside the narrative, inhabit his scenarios, and empathize with the characters he sketches -- all while giving his guitar a smart, harmonic beating.
Typically, the 15th-Century castle that marks the center of Nantes is visible from the back windows of this little bar. I couldn’t see it on this Thursday because the tiny plywood stage was set up in front of the back entrance to the bar, which was covered (incompletely) with black sheets. It creaked beneath his sneakers when he leaned into the microphone. Sitting in the second row of folding chairs, I could see single eyeballs peeking through the window behind him. He didn’t know they were there. His guitar was the same shade of red as the walls. This unassuming staging helped bring about the delicious feeling that these songs were being sung, these stories told, for me. It seemed almost as if H Burns was telling me my own history, but cleverly and passionately enough that I could still be captivated by it.*
He played for an hour straight, taking a quick break halfway through. We heard his entire solid debut album (Songs from the Electric Sky -- being re-released this spring on Boxson records) alongside some covers of Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co. and Dylan. He stepped back onstage for one encore and bashfully refused a second. He had run out of songs.
We shook hands. “Â bientôt.” I hope so.
* I wonder if this is really the kernel of folk music: simple instruments played skillfully alongside simple stories that seem to belong to everyone. But that belonging to everyone: doesn’t that make it pop? And with the wide availability of music software, aren’t computers just as much of a folk instrument now as an acoustic guitar was 50, 70, 100 years ago? Which witch is which? (I love how an hour of songs played in a hole in the wall can confuse all the categories.)