Apparently they’ve worked together and been friends for years, Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer, and their first duo album “Mockingbird Soul” was the logical place for that friendship and working partnership to go. As a duo, they’re a formidable force; both have outstanding voices and long pedigrees as songwriters and Will Kimbrough has a reputation as a master of pretty much any fretted instrument. If he played fiddle, we’d be comparing him to David Lindley (or maybe he does and he’s kept it quiet). That’s an awful lot of talent shared between just two people. And shared is exactly the right word; the songwriting’s shared in all sorts of combinations (with the exception of the Incredible String Band cover, “October Song”) and the lead vocals are shared. Did I mention the harmonies? They’re gorgeous.
With a few exceptions here and there, this is just about two voices and Will Kimbrough’s array of stringed instruments and harmonica (did I forget to mention that?). It’s not a big production number, it’s all about capturing the magic of two artists working together, doing what they do best and having fun. Brigitte’s the acknowledged singer of the pair and takes most of the lead vocals, sounding equally at home with the gospel feel of the title track and raw acoustic country/soul hybrid of “Rainy Day” which is part Bobbie Gentry/part Dusty Springfield.
The duets, including the opener “Everything”, are close harmony at its very best; the two voices apparently locked together through the melodic twists and turns. The lovely “I Can Hear Your Voice” is a perfect example, the harmonies emphasising the song’s message of wisdom passed on from generation to generation. And there are a couple of Will Kimbrough lead vocals as well, just to show that it’s not just about guitars and harmonies. He has a strong voice in the high tenor range, which has more than a hint of Randy Meisner and works perfectly on the country rock of “Broken Fences” and swamp ragtime of “Running Round”.
The album’s a great demonstration of everything that Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer do so well; strong songs across a variety of roots styles, outstanding vocal performances and playing that’s often understated but always superb. Predictably, I’m going to say that you should see them live, and you’re lucky because they’re in the UK to support the album in March and they’ll be playing these dates:
Thursday March 23 The Kenlis Arms, Barnacre, near Garstang
Friday March 24 The Argyll Hotel, Glasgow
Saturday March 25 Haile Village, Cumbria
Monday March 27 Green Note, Camden
Tuesday March 28 Kingsmead House Concerts, High Wycombe
Wednesday March 29 St John’s Church Music Club, Farncombe, Surrey
Friday March 31 St George’s Hall, Bewdley, Worcestershire
“Mockingbird Soul” is released in the UK on Friday February 17 on BDM Music.
In December 2014, I made a conscious decision that I would get to as many gigs as I possibly could during 2015. Not all of those gigs became reviews or picture galleries, but I certainly broke my previous record, which has stood since my second year at university. I love those moments at gigs when something happens which is either so unexpected or so exceptional that the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you know that you’ll remember it forever. Here are five of those from 2015:
Sound of the Sirens – In mid-March this year I was at The Half Moon in Putney to see Mad Dog Mcrea. I’d just reviewed their “Almost Home” album and thought they would be good to see live. I hadn’t heard of the support band, Sound of the Sirens, but I like to see support bands because you never know when you’ll make a great discovery; this was one of those nights. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood grabbed my attention from the opening notes with superb songs, perfect harmonies and counterpoint and a huge dynamic range combining to create a set of acoustic anthems for the twenty-first century, all of it completely new to me. The entire set was stunning, but “Faith in Fire” had me transfixed; I had to just stand and watch, open-mouthed as the song progressed from the quiet intro to a rousing finale. Just perfect.
Graham Parker & Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel – My first visit to the lovely Union Chapel and I was there with Phil Burdett to see one of my teenage heroes play a stripped-down set with Brinsley Schwarz (who was in the first proper band I saw live). Graham Parker has such a huge catalogue of songs that it’s impossible to predict which ones would make the cut on the night. Over the pre-gig pint, I came up with a small wish-list; one of which was almost a certainty, and the other a bit of an outsider. The opening song “Watch the Moon Come Down” ticked the certainty box, but it wasn’t until much later in the set that the harrowing “You Can’t be Too Strong” completed the list. The audience reaction of awed silence throughout the song and an explosion of applause at the end showed that I wasn’t the only person waiting to hear that one. I think I may have had something in my eye at that point.
Hannah Aldridge at Green Note – This is another gig that came out of hearing an album and deciding that I had to see the artist. Hannah’s debut, “Razor Wire”, is a wonderful piece of work featuring some brutally honest and sincere depictions of her life and I was keen to hear how these songs would strip down to an acoustic format. As expected, the songs worked perfectly in their original forms with Hannah’s pure, clear voice and acoustic guitar; Hannah was engaging between songs, giving some background to each piece, explaining the inspiration behind it. The song which completely silenced the full house at Green Note was “Parchman”, a song that, uncharacteristically, isn’t autobiographical; it’s the story of a woman on death row for murdering her abusive husband. I swear you couldn’t even hear anyone breathe as Hannah pulled the maximum emotion from the song by playing it completely straight; no vocal tricks or adornments, just a perfect song and a beautiful delivery, leaving the audience emotionally drained.
Dean Owens at The Union Chapel – It’s fair to say that Dean Owens is a bit of a Riot Squad favourite and it’s great to see that he’s having some very well-deserved success this year. Landing the support slot for Rosanne Cash at The Union Chapel gave Dean a chance to play in front of a full house and an appreciative audience in London with only his guitar and a bunch of great songs. He had the audience with him from the start and got a great response for the whole set but saved something very special for the end. He went completely unplugged; no amplification for guitar or voice. I’ve seen this done in smaller venues (Hannah Aldridge did it at Green Note) but it was big moment in a venue this size, however good the acoustics are. Dean hit the ball out of the park; he pulled out a rip-roaring version of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” which rightly earned him a huge response from a slightly stunned audience. A magical moment.
Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal at The Union Chapel – I know, I’m just being greedy here; two epiphanies on the same night. Rosanne Cash featured a lot of songs from the award-winning “The River and the Thread” and, with husband John Leventhal, was superb throughout, taking time to tell some of the stories behind the songs and establish a warm rapport with the audience. Strangely enough, the entire set seemed to come into sharp focus on someone else’s song, Bobbie Gentry’s enigmatic “Ode to Billy Joe”, which pulled all of the other threads together. A very simple arrangement and heartfelt performances pulled the audience into the song and generated a response that was part acclamation and part relief at escape from the song’s interwoven strands of tragedy and banality.
And I suppose that’s one reason that we go to gigs; we always hope that we’ll see those moments that you can’t capture on film or record/CD/MP3; the things that only happen once. I think five in one year’s pretty good going. Thanks to Sound of the Sirens, Graham Parker, Hannah Aldridge, Dean Owens and Rosanne Cash for those fabulous memories.
Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal supported by Dean Owens at The Union Chapel; now there’s one that ticks all the boxes. The sound in the venue is outstanding for acoustic performances (it is a working church after all), the audience is receptive and the atmosphere’s always warm and friendly; even the security staff are pleasant. If ever there was a perfect venue for Dean Owens to play his biggest London show so far, this was the one and he wasn’t about to disappoint.
He opened with “Shine like the Road after the Rain” and immediately had the audience on his side; none of this polite applause nonsense, this was a crowd that immediately recognised great songwriting and performance. With only a thirty minute slot, Dean chose his songs carefully with four from his new album, the intensely personal “Into the Sea”, which we reviewed earlier this year. The gentle longing of “Valentine’s Day in New York” set a few toes tapping before the triple emotional whammy of “Virginia Street”, “Evergreen” and “The Only One”. The last song should have suffered from the loss of Will Kimbrough’s studio harmonies, but it didn’t; the audience listened entranced and gave the song the best response so far. Which left enough time to fit in “Raining in Glasgow” (just one of Dean’s anthems) and a completely unplugged crowd-pleasing romp through Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here”. And leave them wanting more…
Rosanne Cash is a bona fide country legend, regularly bracketed with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton and with good reason; she’s written some superb songs and also recorded some fine interpretations. The current European tour, with her husband, guitarist and songwriter John Leventhal, is nominally in support of her last album, the double Grammy winner “The River & the Thread” but it’s obvious that the show is much more than that. It’s about the links between that album, the delta, the blues and the history of the Southern states, and the various tributaries gradually joined up as the set progressed.
So, not surprisingly, songs from the latest album were heavily featured, particularly at the start of the set, which opened with “Modern Blue” and featured “Etta’s Tune”, “The Sunken Lands” and “The Long Way Home”. “The River & the Thread” featured again towards the end of the set as we heard “When the Master Calls the Roll”, “World of Strange Design” and “Money Road”, while the middle section featured some of the greatest hits including “Tennessee Flat Top Box”, “ Sea of Heartbreak” and “The Way we Make a Broken Heart”. The obligatory “Seven Year Ache” made an appearance towards the end of the set after many audience requests (and there’s a very personal story behind that one which I’ll share with you another day) but the focal point of the entire set, where the rivers and threads were gathered together, was a Bobbie Gentry song.
Rosanne and John’s performance of “Ode to Billie Joe” was heart-rending, the minimalist guitar picking underpinning the lyrical contrast between domestic banality and sensational events which are never fully explained. The song silenced the audience and drew the best response of the night while joining the dots in the overall picture the duo created; if you need a definition of tour de force, this was it.
Predictably enough, there were a couple of (well-deserved) standing ovations to round off an evening of powerful songs delivered by three gifted performers and everyone left happy and emotionally drained. Doesn’t that just define a great gig?