It is great to see such an iconic London venue once again being regularly used for Americana gigs, with the walls plastered with previous alumni such as The Clash and Elvis Costello it is a room that is crying out to be filled with top quality music, which is as well because tonight was to be exactly that.
Starting with two ladies who between them have released some of the most compelling work in the genre over the last few years, Laura Oakes and Lisa Wright precariously balanced on stools, side by side batting songs back and forth, were so natural and so at ease that it was an absolute delight to watch and worked so well that they even joked that they should be a slightly odd duo. Lisa opened with "Back To You", while Laura chose "Glitter" as her opening song. We've been trying to persuade Laura to occasionally play solo for some time and this was a vindication of why, it completely transformed the song taking it back to its roots. For the second round Lisa gave us the back story behind "Why Would I Wanna", it got the audience clapping along and also laughing with the occasional insertion of a word describing the subject of the song. For Laura it was time to play one of the exciting new songs that she has been slipping into recent live shows, "How Big Is Your World?" had the vibe of the Carpenters about it, a dreamy sort of classic pop song.
By now things were really hotting up, Lisa absolutely silenced the room with a stunning "Giving Up The Ghost" delivered with such emotion, there is almost a fragility in the performance that keeps you hanging on every word. The heartstings were tugged again as Laura came back with a song co written with Beth Nielson Chapman, "Learn How To Be Lonely Again", if the back story did not get you then the performance certainly did. In this completely solo performance there was almost a 60's Bacharach feel to the song. This was songwriting and performing of the very highest order, Lisa kept up the pressure with "In The End", a performance so delicate and vulnerable that the hairs on your arm stood up. Another high tension song could well have seen grown men cry, so thankfully Laura calmed things down with "Better In Blue Jeans", the words ever more to the fore in this solo version. A final salvo each showed why these two are on the top of the game, Lisa's classic song of last year "Tennessee" is a song we'll never tire of hearing, while Laura gave her all for "Nashville Stole Your Girl" from her excellent EP of last year, There was the tease of possibly a jointly written song to come in the future but for now we had to settle for the fact that our female singer songwriting masterclass was over.
The tour for The Southern Companion has been dictated by the availability of both band members and venues and that has led to a somewhat punishing schedule of 10 shows in 11 days. The band are each masters in their own field but when they come together as a band all egos are left behind and they deliver a fantastic sound, aided by an exceptional mix on the night with each instrument clear providing the perfect backing for Darrens' voice, which was still holding up to the demands placed on it. Wherever you looked there was a high level of musicianship from the tight but non fussy rhythm section, through the superb guitar work of Simon Johnson, the exceptional pedal steel and occasional mandolin of Stephen Barlow, all evened out by some beautiful keyboard work from Lee Maycock
Things got off to a familiar start with "Feels Like Years", Darren out front on acoustic guitar, the song vividly brought to life by the pedal steel, and with a warm feeling added by the additional backing vocals from bass player Stuart Ross and guitarist Simon.this was a great introduction. As the set continued the band's contributions became ever more telling, a great guitar solo on "The Great American Mistake" or the perfect country piano on "The Leaving Kind". The new album "Shine A Little Light" sees The Southern Companion break out of whatever preconceptions you may have of them, and sees them explore all areas of the Americana universe and beyond, "Last Rays Of The Sun" forinstance sees a convergence of a number of styles pop, country, and soul to make something totally distinct, yet a pedal steel running through the song keeps it within the Americana universe.
Not content with releasing an excellent new album there has also been a foray into the world of cinema with the band briefly appearing in the forthcoming film "Wild Rose" as well as providing an excellent song in the form of "Factory Girls". With the pedal steel being replaced by a mandolin this was a five star stand out song even on first listen. The glorious keyboard contributions came to the fore on the marvellously soulful "Can I Get A Witness" with Darren giving an impassioned performance while on "Already Gone" the organ lifted the song to another level.. For "Lie To Me" it was not so much a wall of sound as a tsunami of musicality that just washed over you and saw Da