I’ve known Orion personally for a long time. He used to play bass in my old punk band over a decade ago, he was the singer and guitarist for Tooth & Nail band Slow Coming Day, and as of late, he has been an independent alt-country artist. I had the privilege of seeing him play in London when he did a stint through Europe, and what started as a for-old-time’s-sake sort of outing ended up with me kicking myself for having not paid more attention to what Orion has been up to recently.
Flash forward to tonight, and my unbridled excitement about being able to see my old friend play again, this time on ‘Merican soil. He was joined tonight by former Slow Coming Day drummer Matt Bailey (providing backup vocals while playing only a snare), and Mark Johnston on the electric guitar, both of whom added to the appeal of Orion’s one-man travelling band vibe. The night more than met my expectations, and I was once again reminded of how talented this guy really is. First and foremost, Orion is a story teller. His are not songs about girls and relationships, or esoteric meta themes that leave you guessing at their meaning, instead his are intricate yarns woven about distinctly American themes – or at least themes often associated with Americana art and music. His clothes and his harmonica-on-a-stand evoked a Dylan aesthetic, even though his music (and, thankfully, his voice) suggested otherwise. He was every inch an American, and it came across as sincere and powerful.
From the outset, Orion’s talent took control of the crowd. The opener brought to mind the image of a freight train barrelling without control down its tracks, as Orion sang “Run, Run, Billy Run!!” in between frantic bursts of playing the harmonica, stomping on a propped up tambourine taped to the floor, and frantically playing his well-loved (in that beat up on the outside but pure rich sound on the inside kind of way) acoustic guitar. This was followed by ‘Down The Road,’ the lyrics of which remind me of something Kerouac would have written. In fact, strong lyrics are an important part of Orion’s repertoire, and they were in full force tonight. His songs frequently addressed many of the primary evils of this world: ‘Green Paper with Black Lines’ focussed on the dangers of money and greed, and ‘Gulf of Mexico’ discussed the oil spill from a few years back. These are big topics that he handles frankly, but what really impressed me was his ability to keep the stage a stage, rather than turning it into a soap box. It’s not easy to express deeply held convictions to a captivated audience with tact, and many artists can’t wrap their heads around it. Fortunately, Orion is not one of them; he lets the songs speak for themselves. My favorite song, ‘Journey of a Spruce Tree,’ tells an incredibly touching story. Given that it literally tells the story of a tree, and that it features a kazoo, its emotional impact is damned impressive. I highly suggest going to Orion’s bandcamp page and downloading that song at least, if not the entire EP in a name-your-price format. With just one listen, you will be able to close your eyes and feel the vibe of that concert. The night ended with Matt joining Orion on stage, not to play drums but to sing an a cappella version of ‘Amazing Grace,’ a gamble to say the least. Such a well-known, beloved, and (let’s face it) overdone song could have easily gone badly in less capable hands, but it came off very well and provided a fitting end to the night.
Orion’s stage presence was funny without being overbearing, and he ratcheted up his Midwestern accent a bit more than comes out in everyday conversation, adding to the overall atmosphere of the show. He made a strong connection with the crowd, asking at one point, “Do you want to hear another one with a kazoo, or one about death?” Thanks to my wife’s powerful lungs, we heard another one with a kazoo.
When Orion was finished, we were treated to a set from Cat Jones. The power of her voice was incredible – most times, she did not even need the microphone to be heard crystal clean in the midst of the smaller venue. Her performance was strong, but my heart already belonged to Orion. If you get the chance to see him live or check out his album, do yourself a favor and do it. You won’t regret it.