Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah officially celebrate a decade of songmaking in 2015. The anniversary tour has long been booked, and the band starts criss-crossing the US in May while playing their self-titled debut in full each evening.
But right up until that point, Alec Ounsworth continues to do things his way. One night he finds himself at a church in Utica, NY; the next could be a recording studio in Raleigh, NC. The songwriter has toured the US on and off since early 2014 performing in living rooms, this night in New Orleans (his second visit) included. The level of intimacy at these shows simply can’t be found elsewhere. If someone takes a picture you hear the flash. A beer can opens and heads turn. No amplifiers, no stage, and no separation between artist and fan.
Ounsworth wanted exactly this. “For me, there’s more of a need to approach people directly and that’s what intrigued me the most about doing this,” he told Fast Company. The frontman finds creative reward in understanding the unique meaning of his music to individual fans—something that’s impossible to discern after a stadium show. “It’s one thing to put out a Facebook post and say you’re in someone’s hometown or that you played Cleveland the other night. It’s quite another thing to actually talk to everybody in someone’s living room.”
Like he did every night and likely continues to (tour goes through April) while playing living rooms, Ounsworth eagerly participates before and after the guitar comes out. He takes pictures, says hellos and shakes hands with any fan willing to approach. In New Orleans, two women drove all the way from Birmingham, AL—roughly a five hour drive—and Ounsworth happily talks about dealing with the unusual Southern cold front while on the road. Other artists may dream of a panic room to avoid such interactions, but he wants to know more about their art… because the conversation reached a point where the two fans mentioned being aspiring ballerinas.
When the guitar does come out of the case, the evening maintains a feeling of “special.” Out on his own, Ounsworth can do things he normally can’t when bandmates, venues, and schedules get involved. He opens with a Tom Petty cover (“New set list today, I never do Petty but I love that first song”), he plays some Dylan later after talking about how he dreamt of being a busker after visiting New Orleans as a 12 or 13-year-old. During these informal tours, Ounsworth can even tell stories that involve local knowledge and nuance without fear of losing an entire house. For instance…
When recording Mo’ Beauty in New Orleans, Ounsworth got to work with legendary session musician, bassist George Porter Jr. “George has been around the block, I didn’t expect him to love my material,” he prefaces. Mo’ Beauty debuted in ’09, Ounsworth took back to the road with CYHSY again soon after. At a festival in Japan, he runs into Porter. Takes a minute but Porter remembers him, and so Ounsworth asks about Mo’ Beauty in retrospect. “And he paid me this very bizarre compliment,” he chuckles. “’If any of this comes on the radio, I wouldn’t say it’s not me playing the bass.’”
Oddly, music almost takes a back seat to the overall experience, but that’s not a comment on Ounsworth’s ability or how the material translates into a solo, acoustic setting. The performance captivates both diehard and casual fans. Tracks like “Same Mistake” demonstrate that Ounsworth’s songwriting maintains complexity without the studio additions. He adds orchestral crescendos hidden in the full band mix and demonstrates a vocal range so wide that the song’s cadence must adapt. Even the big hits can sound like new tracks—hear “Is This Love?” and “Yellow Country Teeth” via passable recordings (2014 show) or enjoy Ounsworth’s combination of “Yer So Bad” into “Upon this Tidal Wave of Youngblood” (2015 show). Ounsworth voice alone grips you as much or more than the catchy riffs ever did on original recordings, particularly the end of “Youngblood.”
Touring only gets harder as time goes on. Ounsworth’s living room plans require anywhere from three to six hours behind the wheel each day, no vans, buses or drivers along for the ride like in full band circumstances. And he genuinely traverses the country, from Utica to San Francisco. His wife and kids get left behind as Skype and phone calls grow into poor substitutes for daily interaction. Even things like finding food becomes complicated, and fast food becomes default (only worsening the toll touring takes on the individual).
So while, fingers crossed, CYHSY will be playing gigs for another 10 years, the time to see Ounsworth like this is likely now. As much as he wants to, he probably can’t do it forever. Fortunately, sitting in on these shows tends to create memories that will last that long.
Setlist (in Spotify form):