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.

Carrie Rodrguez (Photo by Allan McKay)

Carrie Rodrguez (Photo by Allan McKay)

I’ve got to say this; my end of year piece this year will be jam-packed with superlatives.  I’ll have to give the thesaurus a hammering to avoid repetition because I’ve seen so many great gigs and heard so many great new albums this year.  Carrie Rodriguez is easily in the top five live artists I’ve seen this year and her show at The Old Queens Head in Islington was the kind of warm, confident and intimate performance that only a true star can give.

The venue is perfect for this show; an upstairs room at a pub with a good sound system and just enough room for the appreciative and knowledgeable audience.  From the start of the set, Carrie (singing, playing fiddle and the unusual tenor guitar) and her touring compadre Luke Jacobs (playing acoustic, electric and lap steel guitar and supplying beautiful vocal harmonies) gradually extend their intimate working relationship to include everyone in the audience.  I was surprised by the number of stomp boxes on the stage but the two players used them with the same deft touch that they applied to their playing and vocals.

How do you describe Carrie’s genre?  Country, folk, Americana, bluegrass, all of the above?  I think it has to be the latter; it’s also obvious that Carrie is a very gifted writer and the show tonight is full of examples of that.  She’s touring to promote her new album “Give Me All You Got” and the two sets lean fairly heavily on the new material interspersed with some old classics.  The opener “Devil in Mind” showcases Carrie’s powerful voice alongside her wonderful fiddle playing.  I’ve seen many country and folk fiddle players stamp one foot in time to the music, but never in two-inch platforms with a six-inch spike heel.  The two sets are well-paced and the new songs are placed alongside old favourites although it doesn’t seem to matter because the audience seem to know all the songs anyway, old and new.  There’s even a Luke Jacobs song on the Faust theme, “Oh Margherite” which follows the beautiful and poignant “Seven Angels on a Bicycle”.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole a performer like Carrie Rodriguez (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing), because she does so many things so well, moving effortlessly from the pure country of “I Don’t want to Play House Anymore” to the riff-driven mystery and menace of “’50’s French Movie” and from the upbeat, uptempo “Lake Harriet” to the delicate beauty of “Get Back in Love” with its lovely subtle touches of lap steel.  It’s easy to see why Carrie has a reputation as great fiddle player; she incorporates elements of classical, country, folk and even rock into her playing and has the knack of making the incredibly difficult look really simple.  She also creates a very intimate atmosphere for the show, inviting the audience to be a part of the experience and breaking down the traditional barriers.  There’s also genuine emotion when she talks about her good friend who was the subject of “Seven Angels…” and about her mother before playing “La Puñalada Trapera”.  And all of this makes for a very warm and intimate live experience.

It may be a while before she’s back in the UK again, but you could always listen to the new album (or her previous albums); you won’t be disappointed.