“It’s short.” He readjusted the guitar in his lap. “It’s like a transition song.” He followed, to answer the questioning look in my eyes. I nodded.
His voice could do a lot to me. Including, but not limited to, pushing me that final step to pick up my wireless keyboard and not let him be the only creative one in this household. I was glad when he played the short song a second and then third time. Freshly written, it needed immediate practice to sink solidly into his memory. It struck a few chords within me, too. He was never short on emotion in his songs. But he had a way of never letting his songs be entirely emotional.
That was one more thing I couldn’t get over about him.
At the second show Sam and his band played this summer, I sat with our family (his side) in a cozy but atmospheric coffee shop in downtown Bakersfield, trying to suppress the goofy smile that would reveal just how deeply proud I am of his accomplishments.
It’s not just that he can strum a few fancy chords on his guitar, or bellow with the best of them. He’s got heart. And he lets you know it in every song he sings.
My favorite part of the set Sam, his brother Daniel, and a college friend T.J. have been working on the past few months is the last two songs. The literature student in him can’t be hidden, to anyone who knows what to look for. Or to anyone who doesn’t. Before the band (named Ambus) starts the show, Sam awkwardly announces that the following songs are based upon a science fiction short story he wrote (his stage presence is probably the weakest part about his performance.) Although the details of the story only come through piece by piece, and only if you listen closely, the movement – the depths and heights – of the story resound while the sky gradually darkens outside of our safe but loud little haven of white chocolate peppermint mochas and a sandwich for those hearty fans who came straight to the coffee-shop-show from work.
The set starts off as many other we-were-bored-in-our-free-time-and-needed-a-creative-release shows might: an energetic instrumental to open the set which leads into a slower but powerful momentum builder. As the story-told-in-song progresses, so does the intensity of the music. But energy and momentum aren’t all there is to it. The music takes a dark turn, reflecting the desperation of a character under pursuit, and quickly being gained upon. And intriguingly enough, both sides of the story are told: one particularly dark song is from the perspective of the pursuer, and sung with just as much heart as the rest.
The story behind the songs is a typical redemption story set in a slightly-less-typical scene. It is science fiction with a taste of noir – in the form of a bounty hunter as one of the characters – but it has two sides. Not only does the main character, Marcus Pybold, battle a bounty hunter but he faces a mysterious dream-life that hurtles him into a blue world named Ambus (from which the band derived its name) where 40 foot tall robots chase him into darkness. Whether or not you catch the lyrical references to “Tower” Lawrence the bounty hunter, or to the seer in the form of three ladybugs, you can’t miss the powerful drive of a story, of longing, of desperation, of the dire need for resolution.
And if you’re wondering if the story is symbolic, it is. The name Ambus was chosen in part to signify that. It was derived from the Latin word for ‘both,’ “I think,” clarified Sam when he introduced the band. (His claim is to know the English language, not the Latin.) Aren’t all redemption stories symbolic? This one is intentionally, but not overtly… maybe.
Still, Sam’s desire for the songs he writes is not simply to tell the story. He wants the songs to be able to stand independently and to be reachable – even to those without a knack for science fiction. And even if some of the lines are distant and abstract to one who doesn’t know the story, the power in the music, the catchy melodies that get stuck in your head even quicker than the words themselves, and several choice lines are distinct.
Lines like “What do I forfeit by saving face?” and “If I am the luminous, than where is my light?” resonate, not just around the small room but in parts of my heart that I try not to look at too often.
Both of those lines come from the second-to-final song in the band’s set. It has become my favorite, after listening to it at each of their three shows and countless practices in Daniel’s living room (graciously allowed by Daniel’s new bride.) The song is possibly the most powerful if not the most telling song in the set. And like stories happen to do, the story reaches rock bottom in this song. The main character (Marcus) has gone from lonely, lost, and confused, to doubting his very purpose for existance. (Like we all should at some point.) Sam gives Marcus’s desperation credit, as only a rock-star can do, with sweat rolling down his face and muscles tense with the energy he is directing out of his vocal chords. But as only a great story writer can do, the desperation is met with a final battle to overcome self-doubt and selfish pursuits. And rising from the darkness of a downtown coffee shop after dusk has set, the music lifts the listener in all the glory that wax wings would have: glistening in golden brilliance under the piercing rays of sunlight (not to say that they share the same end.) (Unless you want to carry the redemption analogy even further.)
And right on cue Daniel picks up speed on the drums, T.J.’s bass resounds even deeper, and Sam’s voice is one of a warrior taking his final plow into battle, met finely with fingers whipping and pounding his guitar to life.
“This is as urgent as your life is,” Sam sings. And if you are within hearing distance, you might just agree. The urgency floods from the guitar strings into your veins. I usually have to catch my breath and remember to swallow. “O, protection.” Sam continues, with the longing a fugitive or a prodigal son who can envision home.
But the song meets story and slows down just enough to carry us home. “We can’t think more of us than we are.” Sam repeats (and again, straight to the heart) before the final, blessed refrain, “O, Salvation.”
And even if robots don’t capture your attention and you’d rather drown in the bathtub than read science fiction or even action-adventure, you feel this story if you listen close enough or if you just stop by for your nightly caffeine fix (and perhaps find yourself interrupted.)
While the musical/literary project is still (and continually) in the works of being polished, with a combination of lyrical talent and musical mastery Ambus not only tells the ever-relatable redemption story but shares in it. As from most great story-tellers, the story comes not just out of the whims of a well-fed imagination, but out of the depth of understanding that only the experienced can share.