After the second track of Witness, the new live album from veteran prog / folk / classical / weird rock band Jack O’ The Clock, vocalist Damon Waitkus tells the audience that the previous song was “about a miserable old man dying.” He goes on to add that at a previous show “every song in the whole setlist was about an old man dying.” That brief tongue-in-cheek moment represents much of what Jack O’ The Clock is about – melancholy lyrics capturing slices of decaying Americana accentuated by chamber rock. Labyrinthine, dueling melodies attach themselves to your emotions like ivy slowly taking over the side of an old house.
In addition to Waitkus on guitar and hammer dulcimer, the group includes its core lineup of Emily Packard on violin, Kate McLoughlin on bassoon and backing vocals, Jason Hoopes on bass and backing vocals, and Jordan Glenn on drums, vibes, and accordion. The album was recorded in 2017 at the SeaProg Festival in Seattle.
Before listening, one of the first things I wondered – with some trepidation – was how Jack O’ The Clock could present their elaborately recorded and layered studio material in a live setting. After all, the five aforementioned members often played many more instruments and were frequently accompanied by a small chamber orchestra of other players. But Waitkus and company wisely rearranged their pieces to fit the capabilities of live lineup, reworking some songs and combining others into longer pieces. Also, the selections are some of the more energetic pieces from their last two albums (Repetitions of the Old City I & II). While I would have wished for more from All My Friends (their 2013 release for which I have an irrational passion), Witness includes brilliantly-executed long instrumental breaks as well as atmospheric folk-ish moments and vocally-oriented pieces sprinkled with sadness. The result is more than satisfying.
By distilling their work over the last several years to its core and then building anew on top of that, Jack O’ The Clock has managed to produce an indispensable live recording that has remarkably little redundancy when compared to the corresponding studio recordings. Witness also marks the end of an era for the group – going forward, this particular lineup will be logistically difficult to put together in a live format. Nonetheless, they will continue to expand their studio offerings, which is more than enough of a consolation prize.