Singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate’s recent records have deserved their widespread acclaim. But to fully understand him, you’ve got to see him live. Born in Illinois, Bathgate cut his teeth in the Ann Arbor music scene while attending the U-M in the mid-2000s. He has drawn national attention during the past five years for his albums A Cork Tale Wake and Salt Year. If you know Bathgate only through those records’ pensive, bittersweet folk tunes, though, you might envision him as an intensely serious, beard-stroking brooder, holed up in his basement with an acoustic guitar. His live show reveals both the man and his music to be much richer and more well-rounded.
For one, it’s impossible to imagine Bathgate as a brooding “singer-songwriter” after seeing him live. This is a man who knows how to put a band together. Kalamazoo rock band the Go Rounds, a terrific outfit in their own right, form the backbone of Bathgate’s current eight-piece ensemble. Go Rounds front man Graham Parsons and guitarist Mike Savina are particularly indispensable, respectively lending a lovely lap steel wash and terrific reverb-drenched guitar leads. In addition to the Go Rounds members, violinist Michelle Brosius and cellist Micah Ling excel, whether executing tricky lead parts or assisting trumpeter Brad Fritcher and tenor saxophonist Pat Booth in adding musical texture. Bathgate has a great ear for arrangement, and it’s a pleasure to watch him gently lead the musicians onstage, smiling and nodding from behind his guitar.
The resulting sound is lush and awe-inspiring. The way Bathgate structures the slow fade-ins and fade-outs to many of his songs really holds an audience’s attention, with rapt listeners holding their applause until the final note fully dissipates. Even the band seems to operate in a state of quiet musical bliss, with many players closing their eyes and tilting their heads skywards as they sway to the music. There’s sadness in lyrics like “I’m just choking down a salt year / When sugar’s all I’ve longed for,” but deep soulfulness in the way Bathgate and band render the songs onstage.
With his sleeves rolled up, Bathgate leans into the microphone, his eyes intent as he looks directly out over the audience. His voice is warm and a little husky–soothing and gentle on his many lower-key songs, throaty and rousing on a handful of more exuberant numbers. Playing a couple of solo songs before calling his band out during a November performance at the Ark, he certainly seemed to fit the mode of the cerebral and impenetrably serious modern folksinger–until he finished one of those fade-outs and revealed himself as a charming goofball. He cracked endearingly corny jokes, encouraged audience interaction, and told lovely stories about the inspirations behind his tunes. Who’d have guessed that his wistful and gorgeous “Red Arrow Highway” was inspired by watching snow fall from trees while driving?
Bathgate comes off as a guy who is somewhat bemused, somewhat amused, but most importantly amazed by the world, and he genuinely loves presenting his musical observations on it to an audience. Although Bathgate’s music often gets pigeonholed as melancholic, his stage show can only be described as joyful.
Chris Bathgate returns to the Ark Thursday, January 21, with the Kentucky psychedelic folk quartet Bear Medicine, and he headlines the final night of Mittenfest at Bona Sera on Saturday, January 2.