Gig review: JT and the Clouds at the Live Theatre, Newcastle
JT & The Clouds initially come across as four polite Chicagoans; their show starts with a few similarly humble ditties which, whilst beautiful in their own way, are tunes for introspective nodding rather than boogieing on down to. There's a song about seahorses, for instance. But don't be fooled: their recent album Caledonia has been garnering all sorts of plaudits, and as the gig wears on, it becomes clear exactly why.
JT himself has a nice line in laconic, self-depreciating banter, and is reminiscent of a Faces-era Rod Stewart in his vocal performance – if only Rod grew his hair ginger and long underneath a leather bandana. The band are needle-sharp when they get motoring, the absence of bass made up for by a tight keys performance. Genuinely world-class three-part harmonies abound.
All the while, uneasy narratives are bubbling under; funerals are celebrated a little too much: we are exhorted to shake it like somebody died; JT finds it apposite to ask is that blood on your hands little girl / or were you out picking berries with your sister... It's probably best not to ask about the inspiration for these morsels of lyrical disturbance.
JT sheds clothing (easy ladies, just his boots and cardigan), and the band shifts up several gears: their songs never lose the backbone of monochrome dustbowl weariness, but instead acquire a groove which is more 70s California than 50s Appalachia. A cry from the audience of "It’s JT and the Family Stone!" sums up how the gig climaxes – a bittersweet, fiery hooch brewed of several decades of American stylistic development, distilled by a band who know the recipe by heart, led by a man with country in his veins, and funk in his soul.
Support for the evening was Steph Macleod, an ex-homeless, ex-alcoholic singer-songwriter from Leith, a budding classical guitarist until he smashed his right hand against a brick wall in a drink-induced rage. Macleod didn't pick up the guitar again until a few basic recording sessions in rehab reignited the spark of talent that alcohol had suppressed for many years. Having survived and documented the “Rattle” – boozer slang for withdrawal symptoms – he set out to write a handful of songs describing his journey.
The world is a better place for Macleod’s sobriety: he’s blessed with a creamy soul voice many would commit sin for, and his years of classical training have matured into a masterclass of rootsy Celtic fingerpicking. His material leans heavily towards the spiritual: having found religion in a moment of clarity, he wants to tell us all about the wonder of God, his wife, and his one-year-old son. And yet... he must have rich seams of sinful drunken escapades lurking in the depths of his memory which would add a much-needed edge to his somewhat saccharine odes to the power of redemption. Maybe all will be revealed in his second album