Sensory Overload: Matt Monta

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From the March 14, 2013 edition

By the time this is published, I’ll be in Austin, Texas, at the sprawling music (plus movie, plus tech) industry convergence known as South by Southwest. But I could have sworn I was already there Sunday, what with the open-air venue, T-shirt weather, good music and free food. God smiled on Wafflepalooza, Andy Shaw Band’s Sunday matinee at Brothers Drake Meadery & Bar.

The prospect of obtaining and consuming chicken and waffles from Taste of Belgium without payment would have been more than sufficient reason to show up, but I was stuffed from family dinner at my parents’ house (ironically, breakfast for dinner), and filling my stomach wasn’t my business Sunday anyhow.

I was there to watch the opener, Matt Monta, play straight through his barebones solo album, American Rhymin, which he’ll release March 23 at The Tree Bar.

The Columbus roots-rock community will probably be out in droves for the release show. Monta is a staple of that scene, pulling duty in three ensembles of note (The Smoking Guns, The Hot Coal Band and Righteous Buck & the Skull Scorchers) plus running the esteemed twice-monthly Honky Tonk Happy Hour at The Shrunken Head for three years strong. He’s so dedicated to music that he recently quit his day job to focus on twang full-time.

Despite Monta’s many associates, his new album is a stripped-down affair, mostly the man and his guitar plus a few harmonica flourishes. So that’s what he presented Sunday. With sweat on his brow, he strummed his way through dust-of-the-earth ballads and stomping ramblers, touching on the usual tropes of whiskey, women and death, but doing it well enough that he seemed less like a man going through the motions of his genre than a faithful practitioner upholding time-honored traditions.

Monta’s voice is slightly gravelly, but mostly smooth and sweet. Same with his songwriting — nothing too abrasive, though he does dig around in the dark as country troubadours are wont to do.

The minimal setup served his songs well, but they were most vivacious by far during the stretch when Chris Shaw accompanied Monta on fiddle, adding just the right aching counterpoint to pull Monta’s songs into a newer, better stratosphere. Go ahead and add “expert accessorizer” to his skill set.