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Gig Reviews: Abigail Washburn and John Grant at the SummerTyne Americana Festival, Gateshead

July 24, 2011 Comments: 0
Abigail Washburn
Photo: Martin Sharman

Though Abigail Washburn is billed as giving a solo show, in reality the interplay between her and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch is key to the performance. They have the rare talent of making a sound far larger than the sum of its parts – Washburn's sparse plucks on her bass banjo evoking broad tones, Welch's accompaniment, whether on keys, mute trumpet or acoustic guitar, perfectly complementary. The interplay between the two is quite remarkable, exemplified by the breathtaking “Bright Morning Stars” – performers at opposite ends of the stage, nothing but their vocal harmonies and a touch of trumpet to carry the spiritual lament.

Elsewhere, Washburn turns the traditional murder ballad on its head, with the woman getting the best of the deal for once. We are treated to a brief treatise on the whys and wherefores of Chinese opera, something of a passion for Washburn, having travelled the Silk Road and learned Chinese Mandarin. The song cycle that ensues effortlessly blends Eastern and Western influences that usually go together like oil and water. This is global Americana.

That Washburn can do more conventional material is almost taken for granted, but there are no faults in her well-rounded repertoire, which even touches on electronica at times. It cannot be overstated how well she and Welch interact together, with an almost supernatural understanding, a perfect pairing which it must be hoped will endure even as Welch's solo career develops, as it surely will. This is the future of Americana, and it is in safe hands.

John Grant is fresh from winning the Mojo award for best live act a couple of nights before, and proud of being featured on the front page of a national newspaper – surely a rarity for an Americana arist? In comparison to the lush, 70s-inspired arrangements on his recent (again, Mojo-award winning) album Queen of Denmark, this a pared-down performance, with just grand piano and a couple of synths for company. As such, the impact of the pained, self-confessional material has no filter, naked emotion in plain view. Purists will appreciate the one Czars song, and there are a couple of new, unfamiliar pieces, including a memorable ode to his late grandmother, in tribute to her blue polka-dot house. Otherwise, we are guided through the dark journey of Queen of Denmark – bitter odes to inadequate ex-lovers, with just the occasional saccharine moment, such as in Caramel: an ode to a slightly more adequate ex-lover. Grant's sonorous baritone has a metallic edge, akin to a 6-cylinder BMW engine at high revs, the underlying piano not shy to show off its complex chops when the song requires it. Clearly a talented musician, it seems difficult to believe Grant languished in the doldrums for as long as he did.

Relentless in its intensity here, on record the emotional impact is balanced by the clever production and instrumentation of collaborators Midlake. Tonight is perfect for dedicated fans, who want to hear the songs in all their stripped-down glory, but for those who prefer their dynamics to be more than just how loudly the piano is hit, it would be worth seeking out a rare performance with Midlake. No doubt that would be a truly award-winning show.

Martin Sharman

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