Laura Cantrell - The Ruby Lounge, Manchester

Laura Cantrell’s Southern charm welcomes the audience, "Thanks for coming out, it’s great to see all you fine folks on Saturday night in Manchester. It's a bit wild out there, isn't it?" Cue laughter; it's Saturday night in Manchester after all. But for one and three quarter hours, the welcoming, almost capacity, Ruby Lounge on the industrial city’s tramlines is relocated to Nashville’s side streets. A city built of musicians like tonight's headliner. Cantrell's career is well travelled, New York based via a Glasgow label, but her Tennessee lineage is clear with Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline influences. In a song she describes a person with "a look in her eye” and “a catch in her voice" but she could be describing herself, tonight dressed in a long black skirt and short-sleeved blue blouse.

The Tennessee lineage is exploited in 'Queen of the Coast' about Bonnie Owens’s singing career aborted to serve her husbands' careers. Cantrell describes her meeting with Owens, "While we were having this conversation I was enjoying so much, the bus driver for [former husband] Merle Haggard showed up and he said, (gruff voice) ‘Bonnie, Merle needs his shirt ironed.’” The audience gasps before Cantrell wryly continues, “I guess our conversation was done then. This is where I got the idea to write this song.” Grateful Cantrell has remarked on never expecting a musical career, which informs this song consoling the late Owens, but its refrain “Does it satisfy you to have so little to say" reminds that time cannot be rewritten, and despite her clear writing not contained by country’s perceived genre trappings, she’s a traditionalist, pulling at the heart strings until the heart bleeds freely. An upbeat speaking voice turning on a sixpence to sing stories of the heartache of love and loss, and in this case, having no love to lose.

Cantrell’s familiar band member Mark Spencer, a great big bear hug of a man offering avuncular warmth as well as saucy feedback, is on feisty form. This man readies instruments to his own clock, with the confidence knowing he's playing for a tolerant woman who can be playfully instructed to tell another anecdote and can only laughingly reply, "I've just told the longest joke ever about Barry Gibb!" It's worth the wait, Spencer is saliently as nimble of fingers as he is of tongue, the talented multi-instrumentalist's steel and electric guitars adding depth to the full band, including Jordan Caress on bass and Blair Murray on drums.

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‘Kitty Wells Dresses’ is dedicated to another influence, together with non Nashville touchstones: the traditional ‘When the Roses Bloom Again’ – not written by Woody Guthrie as Cantrell politely corrects on overhearing two people discussing its history, discourteously, while she is performing ("I know there's at least a couple of song nerds in the audience tonight!") – references her Scottish ancestral past, while ‘Glass Armour’, written with Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell is from the present. But the emotional pull is the 1960s-country of her first album ‘Not the Tremblin’ Kind’: 'Little Bit of You' and 'Two Seconds' feature Spencer and Caress's beautiful backing harmonies, and the assertive title track is an antidote to Bonnie Owens's fate and Tammy Wynette standing by her man.

As an encore, likeable support Liam McClair returns for a Grand Ole Opry singalong, guesting vocals on a cover of local band New Order's ‘Love Vigilantes’. McClair endearingly struggles with his lines supplied on short notice, eye contact from Cantrell plays an encouraging teacher willing him on but not letting him get out of it. One wonders if she’d be so tough on Mark Spencer, but not everyone’s so feisty tonight. There’s further guest vocals, on hearing the audience singing along to the chorus, Cantrell announces "Hey folks, you all know this song, let's sing it with you this time." This is a lovely spontaneous moment, one of many that will linger in the mind, captured soon before Cantrell closes "I think this may be the best show we've ever played in Manchester", with a look in her eye and a catch in her voice.

Setlist:

Pile of Woe
Can’t Wait
Churches Off the Interstate
When the Roses Bloom Again
Kitty Wells Dresses
Queen of the Coast
You Don’t Have Very Far to Go
Glass Armour
Someday Sparrow
Starry Skies
Little Bit of You
All the Same to You
Big Wheel
Two Seconds
Not the Tremblin’ Kind
Love Vigilantes
Yonder Comes a Freight Train

Laura Cantrell’s reissued first album ‘Not the Tremblin’ Kind’, and new sessions album ‘Laura Cantrell at the BBC’ are available behind the links, and from all good record shops.

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