Jess and the Bandits - The Louisiana, Bristol
Slightly strange bedfellows occupy the tiny space in Bristol’s Louisiana venue on this late summer Sunday evening. A small audience - much discussed in an overhead toilet conversation (“Do you think it’s demotivating?” “What? Playing in front of this few people? It’s got to be.”) - was in the room for headliner Pete Molinari and by small we’re talking 40ish bodies. To be fair, the room only holds about 120 people maximum but still, cats could be swung.
Molinari and his band don’t hold back though. They’re full of humour and bonhomie, tight playing, and manage to keep up with the singer even as he swerves from the setlist into the unknown. It's a spectacle for sure with Molinari sounding a little like John Lennon, while his music swings between The Kinks and Bob Dylan in its sound. There’s something missing though: maybe he’s an artist out of time, or maybe he owes just a little too much to his obvious influences. A certain Jake Bugg has done well out of something very similar.
Support band Jess and the Bandits are a newly formed mix of the country singer formerly known as Jessica Clemmons and four guys who are tight as a ferret in a pipe on the drums, keys, guitar, and bass. Due to a set time snafu, they started twenty minutes early; the first five minutes of the show are gone and the band are fully into their stride by the time your intrepid reporter has arrived.
Clemmons never quite made the breakthrough on her own but her voice is massive, almost too much for the little Louisiana. Lacking a country twang, they’d like her on X-Factor (“It’s 1000% yes from me!”, etc) and she has the personality to match, taking on the room in a perky, chatty fashion.
Songwise the quintet cover all the bases: ‘If You Can’t Be Mine’ is a big ballad that tests the wall structure to its limits; ‘My Name Is Trouble’ is catchy and commercial, the perfect choice as their new single; while ‘Single Tonight’ ticks the pure country box. Covers of The Lumineers, Bonnie Raitt, and a bloody good effort at ‘Wichita Lineman’ fill out the set. But therein lies the problem, one Clemmons had throughout her solo career and one shown by their pairing with tonight’s headliner - where do they sit? They’re not pop, or country really; there’s a folkishness to their look and playing, but they’re not folk. There’s nothing to say that every band needs pigeonholing but until they solve that conundrum the success that their ability and songwriting deserves may continue to elude them.