Thea Hopkins

Venue: Grateful Fred's, The Atkinson
Town: Southport
Date: 6/8/14

Tonight marked the welcome return to The Atkinson in Southport of the superb American singer-songwriter Thea Hopkins following her appearance last year, which was her first ever gig in England.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get to Thea's previous gig here but, having heard her excellent 2013 EP "Lilac Sky", I was determined not to miss her this time and I was not disappointed as Thea gave a wonderfully engaging performance which was warmly received by the appreciative and discerning Grateful Fred's audience.

Before Thea took to the stage, we had, as usual, an opening set from the Grateful Fred's House Band whose numbers were swelled tonight by a guest appearance by Pete McPartland of The Big I Am on vocals and ukulele. The GFHB began with "You Are My Sunshine" in tribute to the late, much-missed Glynne Callaghan and continued with some of their familiar numbers such as "Please Help Me I'm Falling", "Cheap Bottle Of Wine" and "I've Just Seen A Face". A new addition to the set tonight was an interesting arrangement of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" featuring Les on vocals and Karine on fiddle.

The support act for this evening was the Steve Hardaker Band. Steve was, back in the mists of time, a co-founder of Grateful Fred's and tonight he was backed by a full band of noted local musicians for a set of original songs performed in a breezy folk/rock- country/rock-harmony pop style, which culminated in a version of The Doobie Brothers' "Listen To The Music".

When Thea Hopkins took to the stage alone apart from a pair of acoustic guitars, the audience did indeed "Listen To The Music" most attentively and they were richly rewarded with a superb set from Thea who is a really fine lyricist who is also possessed of a remarkably rich and melodious voice.

Thea's set consisted of songs from her lovely second album "Chickasaw" and her more recent [and equally excellent] EP "Lilac Sky", together with a couple of choice covers [ The Beatles and Dylan].

Thea began her set with the gorgeous "The Weather Turns"which had the audience in the palm of her hand from the get-go. Clearly, we were hearing a singer and lyricist of uncommon ability. This thought was compounded by Thea's performance of the title track of her album "Chickasaw", a dark tale of revenge and murder, which, whilst Thea was singing it, put me in mind of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe" for all of its brooding atmosphere. It was only when I was writing this review that it dawned on me that Bobbie Gentry was, in fact, from Chickasaw County, Mississipi. How odd is that?

The Chickasaw are, of course, an indigenous Native American people and Thea herself has ancestry from the Wampanoag and Cherokee Tribes. Her song "Medicine Line" tells the story of Buddy from an "Indian rez" who steals some cash and heads for the Medicine Line [the border between the US and Canada] to "just disappear" and escape from the law.

Also from the "Chickasaw" album was Thea's "Newspaper Wings", a delightful song about a child making wings to fly and how the desire to take to take off and find freedom continues into adulthood.

I was gratified that Thea sang all the songs from her "Lilac Sky" EP, four of which are originals [ "Might've Stayed In Memphis", "Lilac Sky", "Down By The Water" and "Watcha Gonna Do"] and two of which are covers [ "Do Your Best For Rock And Roll" by Linda and Teddy Thompson and "When I Find My Life" by Marianne Faithful and Barry Reynolds]. Talking of cover versions, on her way to Southport, following a memorable gig opening for David Bromberg and Larry Campbell at The Band On The Wall in Manchester, Thea took time out to visit the nearby culturally significant city of Liverpool to view some of the Beatles related-landmarks. This, no doubt, inspired her to sing a Beatles song, a much re-arranged version of "Fixing A Hole", which went down well with the audience [naturally].

The other cover was a beautiful version of Bob Dylan's "Buckets Of Rain" which Thea sang because " no folk concert is complete without one of Bob's songs".

One song that Thea didn't sing was, arguably, her best-known song "Jesus Is On The Wire" which has been recorded [twice] by Peter, Paul and Mary. I was wondering if Thea was saving this for the encore but it was not to be.

Instead, Thea was asked, by Grateful Fred himself, if she would reprise her opening song, the very wonderful "The Weather Turns". Thea duly obliged with another stunning version of the gorgeous song, much to the delight of the audience.

The aforementioned Peter, Paul and Mary are quoted as describing Thea as "one of the most literate, poetic, emotionally moving of the new songwriters". How right they are. I could not have put it better myself.

Peter Cowley

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