After a year's hiatus from touring, to focus on writing for her newly released CD, Blackbirds, it was wonderful to see Gretchen back in her favourite part of the UK, in one of her favourite venues. Her initial greeting following huge applause; "We missed you so much. It's wonderful to be back," suggested that the feeling was absolutely reciprocated. She then went on to make a joke about how usually they are here each year, as cyclically as a plague of locusts!
Gretchen's band for the evening comprised her musical partner of 21 years and husband of 4 (cue jokes about it being the longest audition ever!) Barry Walsh on piano and accordion, long time member Christine Bougie from Canada on lapsteel, drums and electric guitar and new addition from Ireland, Connor McCreany on bass.
Launching into the title track of the new CD, it was immediately evident that all four were in fine form. Gretchen talked a little about how her first show up here was nineteen years ago at a little venue in Sunderland (The Ropery, for those who remember it) playing to around forty people. Looking around Hall 2, it was obvious that it was full...making her audience four hundred or more. Watching that fan base grow as those of us from that first gig return, year after year, has been amazing; there is no one who deserves that success more.
The first half of the show, and indeed, part of the second, afforded us our first opportunity to hear songs from Blackbirds live and impressive it was. When All You've Got is a Hammer, Everything Falls Away, The Cure For the Pain and Pretty Things, prompted an observation of Gretchen's, "Yes, they're dark. I've been asked if I'm okay. I'm fine. I get to come out here, give you the songs like this, then I feel great! There are two types of people in this world...those who find sad songs depressing and us. I'm so glad we could gather in communion over that." A phrase that could only come from a songwriter, surely? The House on Auburn Street has apparently led fans to question her apparent propensity to write songs about burning down houses; regardless, it is a beautifully written song. Black Ribbons will be familiar to those who have seen Gretchen with Suzy Bogguss and Matrca Berg as Wine, Women and Song and Nashville again proved that when Gretchen records a song she loves, written by someone else, she absolutely makes it her own.
Of course, there was a stunning selection of already well known songs, too. Tom Russell's Guadalupe, The Matador, Woman on the Wheel. Five Minutes, Idlewild, were all welcome additions to the set. Dark Angel allowed for a brilliant duet with Barry Walsh, in lieu of Rodney Crowell, and Independence Day, the song which changed both her life and Martina McBride's, over twenty years ago, allowed Gretchen to showcase the acoustic version as she herself played piano.
Throughout, the obvious factors were the enjoyment emanating from the stage, the mutual respect and appreciation between them, the crisp clear vocals from Gretchen, ripples of emotion from both sides of the stage, great harmonies from Barry and the wonderful musicianship; totally in tune, they all intuitively know when to add less and more, to augment her voice and lyrics. Together, they created magic on that stage and in that room. Even in very familiar songs, there are moments where specific lyrics take your breath away.
Speaking of musicianship, Gretchen isn't one to sideline her band, stepping off stage to allow them to showcase their talents, with a piece from Barry's recent release, Silencio. It was hard to know who to watch, but the talent is unquestionable. Gretchen certainly has an ear for great musicians!
Returning to the stage after a huge applause, she told us "I couldn't leave you without playing this song." The applause began before the song. Everyone knew. On a Bus To St Cloud. Not for the first time those two hours, there was a reverent silence as everyone hung on her every word; it was like being at Church.
There are only so many hours in a day and only so many gigs we can get to. We'd really like to expand our national coverage of the live scene as it remains the life blood of music.
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