Martin Harley scrollerIt’s a bit like an eclipse; the perfect gig depends on the alignment of artist, venue and audience and it doesn’t happen too often, so it was a privilege to see Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro play to a full house at St Pancras Old Church. Martin and Daniel got together originally in the US and, after touring together, made the album “Live at Southern Ground” in a single afternoon. So the logical next step was to tour in support of the album and that’s how they came to be playing a beautiful and acoustically perfect venue just behind the Eurostar terminal.

Martin and Daniel display the relaxation on stage that comes from complete mastery of your craft. Instrumentally they’re both at the top of their game, but they both have great voices and they’re accomplished songwriters. They aren’t trying to prove anything, they just want to play (and maybe sell a few albums). Throughout the set they created a rapport and intimacy with the audience, telling self-deprecating stories about life on the road and Martin’s first corndog, eaten onstage during a festival gig.

And they played some music as well, covering his career from the eponymous 2003 debut up to “Southern Ground” and a few covers as well, including Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, the Leadbelly classic “Goodnight Irene” and that old Bible Belt favourite, Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”. Highlights; yep, there were a few of those. The second song in, “I Can’t be Satisfied” featured an enthralling Daniel Kimbro bass solo (I know, I’m praising a bass solo, but it probably won’t happen again for a long time) and “Blues at my Window” in D minor (the saddest of all keys) which built up to an incredible finish with what seemed like three Weissenborns playing together (a feat which was repeated at the end of “Chocolate Jesus”) at the end of the evening.

In the second set, “Goodnight Irene” was taken at a beautifully languorous pace with plenty of Weissenborn fills and the lovely “Winter Coat” took off when Daniel Kimbro’s harmonies kicked in Two superb sets followed by a bravura encore of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”. It really doesn’t get any better; two virtuosi playing together to create an unrepeatable experience for the select few crammed into a beautiful acoustic space.

Just a word about the audience; I’d expected the usual blues crowd of male aficionados in their sixties, but the majority of the crowd was in the twenty-to-forty age group with even a scattering of under-tens. They were buying a huge amount of albums in the interval, including the vinyl version of “Southern Ground”, so maybe there’s hope for real music yet.

 

TitleOk, life lessons for music lovers part two. First, don’t just turn up to watch the headline band; not all support bands have paid to get on a tour, some of them are actually there because the headliners like them or just because they’re good. That was certainly the case with Sound of the Sirens (that’s the temptresses who play enchanting music, not the minor third you hear before an emergency vehicle knocks you down) at The Half Moon. Second, if you’re watching bands at smaller, independent venues, buy something at the merchandising stall. The band’s probably playing for peanuts (if they’re being paid at all) and buying their CDs or memorabilia means that they actually get some kind of income and, let’s face it, they probably need it a lot more than you do.

So, rant over, what were the bands like? Brilliant, thanks, I’m done. What, more specific? Ok, bloody brilliant.

No seriously, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood (Sound of the Sirens) are from Exeter and they claiming they’re stalking Mad Dog Mcrea on tour. Abbe plays guitar and mandolin, Hannah plays guitar, both sing beautifully and it’s all underpinned by kick drum and stomp box percussion. They shift the mood from happy to sad and back again through the set and they sound equally at ease with the slow, reflective songs and the barnstorming foot-tappers. What they also have is a gently charismatic stage presence; there’s a lot of self-deprecation but it doesn’t hide the fact that they’re very, very good. The playing is spot on and two voices complement each other perfectly whether they’re singing harmony or counterpoint. There you go, I’m happy and the headliners aren’t even tuning up yet.

I’ve heard some really good things about Mad Dog Mcrea, I love “Almost Home”, and I’ve been looking forward to this gig, but how do you follow a support band after they’ve put in a storming shift like Sound of the Sirens have? Well, you could have most of the band starting up on stage while the singer makes an entrance through the audience banging a bloody great drum. That would do it; we’re off and running, but how do you describe what happens when Mad Dog Mcrea hit the loud pedal?

Well, at the risk of repeating my colleague Klare, I think a teamsheet might help. The team is Michael Mathieson (guitar and vocals), Dan Crimp (whistles, flute and vocals), Jimi Galvin (bass), Dave Podmore (banjo, bouzouki and vocals), Pete Chart (drums and percussion) and Nicki Powell (fiddle). The instruments hint at a folky, Celtic feel and that’s part of it but there are an awful lot of other elements in there as well. You can hear jazz, gypsy and eastern European, klezmer, bluegrass, country and bit of straightforward rock and pop all mixed together and marinated in bootleg hooch until its effects are wildly unpredictable. Now that sounds like my kind of night.

It’s no surprise that there isn’t a setlist; the band likes to respond to requests and shift direction if that’s what the audience needs so what we get is a selection of songs from “Almost Home” (the tempo-shifting “Heart of Stone”, the banjo-led “You Can’t Find Me”, the infuriatingly catchy “Cher” with its clever lyrical references, “Almost Home” , “The Sound” featuring Suzie Mac on backing vocals, and the Rory Gallagher cover – not that Rory Gallagher – “Mad Dog Coll”) and a few old favourites like “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”, “Climb a Hill”, “Little Black Fly”, “Am I Drinking Enough?”, the Richard Thompson cover “Bee’s Wing” and “Pikeys Killed my Goldfish”.

But even that isn’t eclectic enough because, on top of all the musical references that are dropped in, there’s a cover of “The Devil Came Down to Georgia” showcasing Nicki’s fiddle playing (with a sneaky reference to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and a medley starting with “The Bare Necessities”. After ninety minutes of that, the band and the audience are drained and you can see why the band have built up such a fanatical following; the audience don’t know what’s coming next but they know that the band will give everything until the show’s over (and way beyond if we didn’t have music curfews), night after night.

This was easily the best headliner and support I’ve seen in ages. Just don’t ask me how I felt when the alarm went off at 5:45 this morning.

“Almost Home” is out now on God Dam Records Ltd (GDR004). CDs and downloads available from Amazon and downloads from iTunes.

“Sound of the Sirens” CDs and downloads available here.

Earlier this year we reviewed the Chris While and Julie Matthews album, “Who We Are”, so when the time came to put together this year’s High Fives, we asked Chris While for a contribution. Here are her five favourite guitar breaks.

Richard ThompsonRichard Thompson’s lyrical riffs after the first verse in “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” -- Fairport Convention. I know every note of that solo and can’t help humming along with it. Richard is so musical it hurts!

 

 

 

Michael LandauMichael Landau on “Native Son” -- James Taylor. Dreamy notes with so much space, I can just listen to that outro again and again.

 

 

 

 

Jerry DouglasGerry Douglas on “Forget About It” -- Alison Krauss. When he goes into that minor section in the solo, I stop breathing.

 

 

 

 

Chris While and Julie MatthewsHoward Lees, “Now That Love is Gone” from our album “Perfect Mistake”. I have been playing with this genius player now for 30 years! When Julie Matthews and I recorded this song it ended up being a rumba with a tango bridge. We just gaped at each other when Howard broke into classical Spanish style, there isn’t anything he can’t play -- incredible!

 

 

Bonnie RaittBonnie Raitt -- Just about anything she plays……