After spending much of January telling folk what an evening in prospect tonight was going to be, it was great to see a full Sound Lounge for what we had billed as a night of "Top Class Americana". While this was no understatement - each of the participants having produced wonderful albums over the last few years and beyond - - there was an element of risk as we hadn't actually seen any of them play live. It was to be a needless worry in what was to be an exemplary display of how to do an "In The Round" evening.
But for it's geographic location entailing a 60 mile round trip each time, I'm sure #TEAMw21 would be permanently camped in the Sound Lounge, a welcoming record store as you enter, fine vegan fare and seating that affords everyone a fine sight of view of the stage. The preshow soundtrack being played out is unobtrusive yet impeccaby well curated, you find yourself thinking I must dig out that old John Hiatt, Lucinda WIlliams or Lyle Lovett song or look up who did the Tex Mex "Walk Of Life!". They even put a nice light on the table which for a reviewer is a godsend having emerged from many a pitch black venue with barely readable notes!. Look carefully and you might even see 2023 AMA Award winner Hannah White carrying out an empty barrel! Tonight the venue is full of like minded people and is to be one of those evenings where performers and audience feed off each other in the best possible way.
The line up, far right to left as we looked at the stage was first Samuel James Taylor who was to surprise in many ways, first of all hailing from the hotbed of Americana music - Sheffield! and secondly by possessing a singing voice quite distinctly different from his speaking voice, in a way we've not noticed from anyone previously. At the other end of the line is Audrey Spillman, looking fabulous, resplendant in a leather jacket, creator of our favourite album of 2021 "Neon Dream" and who will dazzle and delight with her talents throughout the evening. Sandwiched between the two was Neilson Hubbard, a Grammy award winning producer, a singer, a musician, a photographer and most importantly, husband to Audrey - surely this man is living the American dream!!
It is Samuel who kicks things off with the title track of his album "Wild Tales & Broken Hearts", an uptempo guitar opening getting things off to a rip roaring start. Samuel's vocal style seems to fractionally elongate words like "choice" and "voice" giving him a unique sound that is endearing. Neilson having produced the album was able to chip in on backing vocals. There was also room for a strong bit of harmonica work as well on this perfect opening to the evening.
Neilson's introduction to "Cumberland Island" is evocative and informative as it fills in elements of the song that certainly folk in the UK are unlikely to be aware of such at the horses - Neilson's vocals by comparison to Samuel are deepier and breathier, his guitar playing gives the song a light summery feel. As he plays, his eyes remain firmly shut as if transported back to that moment in time, while simultaneously Audrey watches on intently. With the line "See the horses running" such is the picture that has been built, you empathize so much that you feel you should also be able to see them - sheer beauty. For Audrey's first song Neilson keeps the guitar and lets Audrey concrentrate on the singing. In theory "Summertime" is something of a burnt out classic, so many people have covered it that there should be little more musically left to be extracted - and then Audrey starts to sing!. It is a slowed version , over which Audrey initally adds a silky smooth and sultry vocal, with the second verse seeing her effotlessly move through the gears in terms of volume. The venue is pin drop quiet - even the coffee machine is hushed into silence, so captivated is the audience, On completion Neilson reaches over and gently squeezes Audreys arm - it is a wonderfully tender touching moment and one that says without words what a beautiful performance that was.
Round 2 sees Samuel take us back to Stanton, in the Blue Ridge Mountains where his wife grew up and where they now visit a lot, for a view out of the window at Christmas- it needs no more introduction than that - the song "Churchville Avenue" does the rest - delicately played, perfectly delivered - it set the bar high for Round 2.
Neilson regales us with a lovely recollection in the introduction to the title track of his album "Digging Up The Scars". It's a song that sees triple vocals and double guitar playing and a "Do do do do do" contribution from Audrey and something of a howl from Neilsen to make something magniifcent. The round closes with what Audrey calls their speciality, "Downer music!" - "Goodnight Goodbye" from the "Thornbird" album sees Audrey on guitar perfectly delivering a touching vocal on this song about a couple on the verge of splitting
"Give me one more try -
I swear that I can change your mind"
The final delivery of the word mind on the closing chorus almost seeming to accept defeat.
Each song came with such fabulous insight, the evening was simply compelling. Samuel's introduction to "Today Is The Tomorrow We Were Promised Yesterday" was a piece of masterful storytelling before he'd even sung a note - full of brooding menace and jeopardy as to what might happen next right through to the very punchline. With a rollicking chorus and another harmonica break, Samuel once again lifted the round to new highs.
For Neilson's next song he unwittingly temporarily transported us back to the Green Note where we had last heard the song "Save You" sung by Mathew Perryman-Jones when he was supporting Angel Snow. Neilson later cut it on his "Cumberland Island" album. With Audrey on backing vocals and Neilson gradually ramping up the volume and intensity of his vocals - this was sublime.
Our first introduction to Audrey & Neilson had been via the Buffalo Blood project - and it was that that yielded "White River". with a gently played guitar and dreamy vocals from both Audrey and Neilson, this created such an atmosphere - such was the intensity we needed a short break before the second half.
Round four saw no let up in the quality - Samuel once again kicked things off at something of a pace wiih "Virginia Girl" - complete with its addictive tapalong chorus. Neilsen asked if there were any "Dickens fans" in the house - it was a lead in to musing on a "Christmas Carol" and the passing of time as an introduction to "The End Of The Road", a ballad with which Neilson created the intensity by singing ever quieter and playing ever more gently. This was like an Olympic high jump competition for Audrey was next with "Austen Motel" the song that lured, us siren like into "Neon Dream". Played by Audrey with her eyes closed and maybe fractionally faster than on the record, it is still an inviting heady concoction - it saw Neilson mouthing along the lyrics, and seemed to hypnotize Samuel such was its power to captivate. Gradually towards the end the pace slowed and the sultriness of the recorded version materialised - this one song was worth the price of admission on its own.
There was time for one more full round however if we were truthful the crowd would have easily kept on going until the early hours, such was entertainment being delivered. Samuel's final song was a masterful display of singing and guitar playing - the opening guitar introduction taking a good few minutes before a word was even uttered not a flashy solo, just exemplary technique. It was the closing song of his album "Time May Dance", fragile as piece of porcelain it was a pleasure to witness. Neilson followed up with a "Chord strummer" song from his band Stray's Don't Sleep, It was the one song of the night that really had the feel of a full band about it, "Love Don't Owe You Anything" was inescapably infectious and would ensure more homework to locate the original. For the final song it seemed impossible that this upward spiral of song after song could continue and then Audrey chose to close with "Southern Cross" from "The Bomb Shelter Sessions". A fusion of "Gospel and the Mississippi delta" built around a prominent guitar line, this was a tour de force from Audrey - as the Sound Lounge temporarily transformed into a chapel. Adding drama by increasing the volume of her singing and then increasing it again - this was tremendous theatre - eventually using only the tapping of her guitar as instrumentation before finishing a capella - this was spellbinding stuff
The encore would be a visit to one of Neilson's other bands catalogue - The Orphan Brigade with "Sweetheart" which kept up the gospel feel going - this time more uptempo. With the Sound Lounge ringing to three voices and two guitars once more, this was a fitting way to close out the evening. There was a true standing ovation that acknowledged something special had happened tonight.
Audrey Spillmans "Neon Dream" and much more is available now
Samuel James Taylor's "Wild Tales & Broken Hearts" is available now
Neilson Hubbard's "Digging Up The Scars" is available now
Neilson Hubbard's Book "The American South" - a book of photographs from Nielson's travels with a foreword by Mary Gauthier is also now available and is highly recommended if you want to see the sights and characters of the South.