Al Scorch & Jess McIntosh @The Troubadour 20/09/16

5 stars (out of 5)

0

al-scorch-scrollerMusicians love making jokes about each other; we’ve all heard the drummer jokes. Another old chestnut was the line about parking next to the banjo player’s Porsche. OK, they might not be driving Barbie-magnets yet, but, with the rise of Americana, the banjo’s regaining a lot of credibility. Personally. I’d rather hear a banjo than a ukulele any day of the week. In the hands of a maestro like Chicagoan Al Scorch, the banjo takes on a whole new character. It transforms from the kid that no-one would pick for the football team to a menacing, sneering, leather-jacketed Brando in “On the Waterfront”.

But, before I get too carried away with Al Scorch, what about some context? I was visiting Songwriters’ Night at The famous Troubadour in Earl’s Court with an element of trepidation. On my last visit eight months ago, most of the audience talked non-stop throughout the evening, drowning out some very good but quiet singer-songwriters. No such problems this time; as soon as the performers walked on stage, every conversation stopped.

First on stage was Freja Frances (or just Freja) who played a set of delicate, almost fragile, but ethereal, introspective piano-backed ballads. A few nerves, maybe, but belief in the strength of the material pulled her through, helped by respectful silence from the audience. You can hear two of the songs she played on the night, “Papercuts” and “Porcelain Doll” on Soundcloud; they’re well worth hearing.

Miles Horn ramped up the tempo and the volume a few notches with electric guitar backing (plus a couple of songs at the piano) as he ran through a set of melodic and introspective songs starting with “The Great Abyss”. His voice is strong (although he admitted that the falsetto in “Why Don’t You Love Me” was a bit misjudged) and combined with his interesting guitar style and original melodies hints at Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook (never a bad thing in my opinion). He’s very assured on stage and, apart from the one mistake with a new song (which he predicted in advance), the set was spot-on, creating a rapport with the audience and giving some background to the songs. Have a listen to “Something Beautiful” and “Slow Motion” here.

Al Scorch and fiddle player Jess McIntosh were something else. They’d brought along a strong following from earlier in their UK tour, but they could have generated audience participation in a mortuary. They’re both very fine players who bring a very punk approach and huge amounts of energy to traditional instruments, creating a buzz from the opening of “Pennsylvania Turnpike” to the close of the set, which was based mainly around Al’s superb new album “Circle Round the Signs”, featuring “Lonesome Low”, “City Lullaby”, “Lost at Sea”, “Everybody Out”, “Insomnia” and “City Lullaby” plus a few others including the poignant “Two Flags” and the crowd favourite “Little Dog”. Both players are lively, but Al is a one-man whirlwind, stomping around the stage, stamping his feet in time and shouting out his declamatory and inflammatory lyrics. By the end of the set, following a banjo and fiddle version of the extended live rock song ending, the performers were running with sweat and the audience wasn’t so far behind them. This was the last gig of the tour, but watch out for them next time around.