I had first seen The Rails some 18 months ago when they opened for Richard Thompson at The Hawth theatre in Crawley.
As the official tour support act, I remember his wry aside concerning the make up of this duo, which consists of his daughter Kami Thompson and her husband James Walbourne, noting there was "nothing wrong with nepotism"!
Although only having a 20 minute opening set, they impressed everyone it seemed with their voices, songs and presence.
Since then of course, their profile has soared with the critical acclaim heaped upon their first full CD release 'Fair Warning' and the subsequent BBC Radio 2 Folk Award 2015 for 'Best Emerging Act'.
Over the past year, I have listened regularly to the 'Fair Warning' album and I think it is full of strong songs, great vocals and playing. It is also a very produced piece of work with nearly all of the tracks benefiting from a core drum and bass rhythm section creating an overall full band sound, which is then further fleshed out with additional electric guitar, fiddle, mandolin, organ and saxophone amongst other instruments spread across the 11 tracks.
So, all in all, very much a band rather than duo feel on record so I was interested to see how the songs would fare with a necessarily stripped back to basics sound and presentation.
From the first song, The Rails were into their stride and the vocals in particular were faultless. If anything, Kami Thompson has a stronger voice live than on record. Recorded, it sounds pure and clear but live something more earthy and heartfelt came through. Vocally, as a duo they also have several different options, with either Kami taking lead and James harmonising or doubling on the choruses, James taking lead with Kami returning the honours or, when they pretty much sing all the song together as a straightforward duet, with the vocal balance even between them.
This last variation was particularly effective and had echoes of that ageless Rootsy, Americana feel captured by the likes of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
Of the two vocalists, Kami has the most distinctive sound I think but James's harmonies, particularly on the slower numbers have a sublime 'more than the sum of the parts effect' which takes the collective sound to another, beautiful level.
Understandably, many of the songs from 'Fair Warning' got an airing and as my ears were used to the recorded versions, not all rested easily within a purely acoustic setting. Broadly speaking, the slower numbers fared better than the faster ones. So 'Send Her To Holloway' and 'Fair Warning' for example sounded wonderful and came across as very powerful songs in their own right. Whereas others such as 'Jealous Sailor' and 'Panic Attack Blues' that are real rockerss on the album, sounded a little forced. That is, not forced in terms of vocals, but in the instrumentation. As with all the shows I believe, Kami played rhythm guitar and James a mixture of rhythm and lead, with all the songs having some sort of solo from him. Herein rests the problem I think, in that despite her lofty heritage Kami is a very functional guitarist at best and did seem to have a very limited palette, strumming the same chords for most songs and using a capo to change the key accordingly. This in turn led to James somewhat over playing at times and as impressive as this was at one level, it did not seem to serve the songs well and felt a little jarring and messy on occasions. Of course, on record, these particular songs have great, rollicking electric guitar solos amongst other things going on and this is a hard act to reproduce live.
However, on the slower songs, Kami generally played very little or much more quietly which left more space for James to use and I thought his playing here was wonderful and the solos had that lovely, restless, musical discordance so reminiscent of Richard Thompson in acoustic mode.
In addition to songs from 'Fair Warning', several tracks from their just released 7 track EP 'Australia' were played. Without exception these sounded very strong, both as songs on first listen and as performances. Two were covers, one an Edwin Collins song 'Low Expectations' and the other the Martin Carthy arrangement of the traditional 'The Trees They Do Grow High'. These were very impressive but the originals were more so, especially the wonderful 'The Cally'. According to James, he wrote this following a conversation with his Grandfather about colourful characters he knew from the streets of Camden Town and it was certainly a very evocative song. Despite these tracks from the EP being first listens, for myself they came over as the stand out performances of the set.
Throughout Kami and James were well received from a fairly full theatre and happily came back for a 2 song encore to what was by then a very enthusiastic crowd! On this tour they are apparently travelling light without any road crew and almost before the house lights were up they were out behind the merchandise desk selling and signing with good grace and humour, which brought a lovely ending to the evening and certainly seemed to be shifting the CD's!
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