Ward Thomas / The County Affair Union Chapel
With both Ward Thomas and The Shires four albums into their respective careers, they had each reached something of a crossroads. The general thinking is that bands are at their most creative in their opening three albums, the few exceptions to this like the Beatles or Bowie were able to reset the clock by totally reinventing themselves. It was therefore noticeable that both bands chose to take stock of their situation with "Acoustic" tours. Of course Covid intervened and postponed the tour dates multiple times meaning that these tours now provided a key chance to re-engage with their fans. For The Shires it produced some of their best shows in years and a 2 date London run at the Union Chapel provided the chance to see where Ward Thomas were at and perhaps get an idea of where they are going.
For a 2 night run, with an identical setlist, even down occasionally to the intros it was strange that there should be a noticeable difference between the two shows and yet undoubtedly the second night was far superior to the opening one, The second show which was paradoxically the one announced first, looked sold out and was the closing night of the tour, whereas the opening show now rescheduled to a Monday night had a few spaces at the upper levels.
With the bands equipment, chairs and for some reason some plastic looking pot plants covered in fairy lights Catherine and Lizzie took to the stage to play the opening batch of songs, "Dear Me", "No Fooling Me", and "Cartwheels". Returned to its original acoustic state "Cartwheels" seemed to regain its power to hold an audience in the palm of its hand. It came with the news that the album from which it was taken, had now turned gold which equates to 100k sales these days, Catherine ever the saleswoman noting that should anyone not have one, that they were on sale at the back!! Ward Thomas are undoubtely at their best when either playing like this with their harmonies to the fore or when fronting a punchy hook laden tune and so the evening was to prove.
It would've been nice to have seen quite how far the pair could have taken the solo acoustic format, however the need for additional keyboards brought regular band leader Gabe to the stage to assist on "Where The Sky Is", which saw Catherine swearing in church on the Intro - whatever next!! Now turned to be almost a song of reassurance it was the start of the overall band building up. Drums and guitar duly made up the full compliment to provide the oomph for "Don't Be A Stranger". it was not all plain sailing though "Sweet Time" and "Changing" both seemed a little lightweight on both nights in this stripped back format, though things quickly moved upbeat once more with the piano intro to "It's Not Just Me" and we were soon back on track.
Having had 18 months away from performing, it would have been nice to hear what new material they might have up their sleeves, but in the end there was just the one that was played, and although it may well have been a little bit of showmanship, there were threats of never having to hear it again if we didn't like it! In the end, "Chasing a Mirage" sounded both very promising and Americanaish in its sound on our first few listens.
A cover of John Mayer's "Stop This Train" was one of the few covers offered up on the night and that led to "I Believe In You" which gave the audience a chance to find their feet. It was at this point that a feeling of deja vu started to creep in, the dividing of the audience into sections had been a hallmark of previous tours and the whole next section good as it was, seemed a cut and paste of last time out and so "Town Called Ugley" segued into "Push For The Stride" , then "Guilty Flowers", finishing with "No Filter" with Lizzie giving her all on the vocals.
The soulful country sound that comes with "One More Goodbye" is a seam that Ward Thomas could do well to mine more often, as they do it so well, "Someday" took on that soulful feel as well. and sounded the greater for it. The main set was to close with "Call Me", with the audience participation notably louder on the second night.
Encores came in the shape of a spirited Maren Morris cover of "Meet Me In The Middle", while we were sent into the night with "Safe", promoted from mid set obscurity to be the closing number, returning us to where we had started with just Catherine and Lizzie. As with "Cartwheels" earlier, the song seemed reinvigorated and its message more prominent due its placing in the set. Still possessing wondrous voices and with a plentiful back catalogue, let's hope this marks the beginning of the next stage of the Ward Thomas phenomenon.
Each evening had begun with a short 8 song set from The County Affair, a veritable Richard Curtis film in the making, with their tale of giving up a band to become successful in corporate business only to later lay that life aside and return to Americana music. Their initial efforts leading to a chance to record their debut album at Abbey Road means that they are but a Christmas number one away from getting a green light to start filming , Bill Nighy's agent is probably waiting on the script!!
As it turned out The County Affair were a charming band who clearly loved every second that they spent on the Union Chapel stage, if not every stage they took to on the whole tour. With an array of mainly uptempo sounding songs filled with a high quota of alcohol,death and general depression they made for an odd combination, With able support on keyboards and drums the set gave a chance for Kevin Brennan to display his ample guitar skills and for vocalist Tony Regan to both sing, play accordion and effect a shuffly dance that threatened at times to topple him over at any moment yet somehow he remained vertical.
Tony's vocal style is probably best described as eclectic but 100% effective as he breathed life into the characters created in Kevin's songs. Whether it was the alcholic of "Bourbon Breakfast" or the failed "Man Of Note" he inhabited each of the songs he sang. with some gusto. Songs like "The Seaview Inn" almost invited you to singalong, its jauntiness nearly causing the listener to gloss over the fact it actually sounds a quite depressing place! while the bouncy closer "Go Tell Your Father" has quite a tale to tell as well.
Quite where the County Affair will end up is anyones guess, but one thing is for sure, they will have a lot of fun and gain a lot of friends along the way.