Estalagem Ponta Do Sol is a luxury hotel perched high on cliffs of the south western coast of Madeira, a Portguese island about 933 km off the coast of Morocco. At just 57 kms in length and 22kms in width, it’s a lush mountainous escarpment jutting out of the North Atlantic ocean, with whole communities perched perilously on hillsides, and any flat land at a premium. The hotel is blessed with a flat grassy lawn on the edge of the cliff, and it is here, with views of the setting sun over the ocean on one side and cloud capped mountains on the other, that they’ve been running an intimate outdoor summer concert series over the last few years. It’s ostensibly for hotel guests, though for 6 euros (for which you’re provided with a 6 euro drink card – exactly the cost of a caipirinha if you’re interested) locals are allowed in to mingle and catch the likes of Dirty Beaches, Nasito Mosquito and Emika. Earlier this month they featured Argentinian composer Juana Molina, and last week’s performance came from intriguing Danish artist CTM (Ceacille Trier), who’s unique haunting vocals and cello accompanied by classical acoustic guitar managed to blur the boundaries between folk, modern classical and electronic music and ended in a bizarre, quite funny rant from a performance poet about Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella. That’s the beauty of this series, it’s low key and intimate allowing the artists free reign, and consequently you never quite know what’s going to happen.
Tonight’s feature is Texas singer songwriter Conner Youngblood, who drew the biggest audience I’ve seen yet at this venue. Curled out on rugs and giant bean bag like cushions we’re instructed that in deference to the artist this was a non speaking event. Yet this warning needn’t have been issued, as there’s something in Youngblood’s demeanour, a certain quiet, gentle warmth that subdues us regardless. You imagine that this is the effect he has on people wherever he goes. When he starts to sing, acoustic guitar and reverbed vocals, its angelic, stark, simple, subdued yet powerful. He hums into the microphone and its as spine tingling as his words, and then the song just ends abruptly like he’s just run out of lyrics. This lack of prentiousness is part of his charm, there is no artifice here – we could be in his loungeroom. He tells us he grew up with five sisters and always wished he had a brother, so he wrote this song about it, then he tells us that 10 minutes ago he found out his older sister has gotten engaged finally. You wouldn’t be surprised if he invited you to the wedding. When he goes onto his electric guitar he wacks his drum pad, building the song piece by piece, picking up and looping a ukulele adding extra texture. He sings into four different mics, each treated with different effects via his myriad of pedals at his feet. His subdued whisper is somewhere between Jeff Buckley and Sade, and the treatments variously add a chorus of additional Youngblood’s to sing along with him, or equal parts grit/ texture/ weirdness. His vocals are heartfelt, yet the words are almost indistinguishable, “there are monsters at home,” or something about an “Oak Tree,” who knows?
He likes to chat. He’s disarmingly personable. He seems to write songs about places he’s never been, ‘Vegas’, ‘Australia’, ‘Stockholm’, ‘The Birds of Finland’, only to get there later. “I can’t write a song about Madeira now,” he laughs. He is wearing a I heart Korrea t-shirt. Geography is clearly very important to him. Another geographical song, ‘Badlands’ he wrote after viewing pictures on google. When he finally went it was one of the most beautiful places he’s ever been. It’s also one of the softest songs he sings. Switching between acoustic, electric guitar, banjo, ukelele, nord piano, synth and drum pads he is a one man band, building the ingredients in front of you, and it all seems so effortless – particularly his ability to make seemingly incongruous elements match. Yet it’s very much about the songs and vocals for him, such as when he confesses his love of Bob Seeger and sings a cover of ‘Like a Rock’ that even Bob wouldn’t recognise with its acoustic earnest and high register singing.
He’s called back for an encore with a rowdy response and plays two pieces, one he’s not sure he’ll remember and the other, another version of ‘Australia’, this time supplanting the Nord for acoustic guitar, softly almost whispering into the mic, and by the time he’s finished he’s lowered the mood, and we all drift off satisfied into the Madeiran night.