Laura Cantrell - Club Academy, Manchester
The last time Laura Cantrell played in Manchester, so she told us tonight, she'd been pregnant but not yet aware of it, despite clues given by strange yearnings for fish and chips and for Guinness. Her daughter is now five years old, which maybe accounts for why Laura is only now undertaking another UK tour. She played a couple of dates over here in January this year, restricted to Glasgow and London, but apart from that it's been that long, too long, and it's been much the same with her recorded output. Not that she's been inactive - it turns out the Kitty Wells project with the Country Music Hall Of Fame has been ongoing a couple of years. It's just that as Laura put it, she's not that good at getting things finished.
Tonight in the the basement Club Academy in Manchester, there was a certain audience keenness to finally see her again. The support was virtually ignored, people knew what they were there for and instead sat out the opening act in the comfy seats, where you can't even see the stage. By the time Laura got on though, there'd been a seismic shift and it was suddenly a full venue. The stage was sparse, Laura being joined onstage only by Jimmy Ryan on mandolin and Mark Spencer on guitar and lap steel. These guys are just so good, Jimmy even gave us a bit of improvised New Order on the mandolin, just for fun.
They opened with 'Trains and Boats and Planes', off the 2008 EP of the same name, and 'California Rose', from 2005's Flowered Vine album. And then they fluffed the opening of '14th Street', tried again and stopped. Laura explained how they'd been doing - or not doing - their homework, getting the set worked up for this tour. I could see from the list that they'd been over this a few times, plenty of scribbling out, and the keys noted alongside each song. Worryingly, Laura and Mark didn't even have the same running order. She decided to move on, promising to come back to '14th Street', alleviating my disappointment slightly, it being one of my favourites.
In truth, it was always going to be a charming night, given the more than sympathetic audience; the club ambience with people sitting on the front of the stage, but I think this admission of fallibility actually broke down any remaining barriers. To make up for it, Laura's voice was as pure in the flesh as it is on record, the lack of practice has done that at least no harm at all.
She gave us the story of the Kitty Wells songs, being asked by the Hall of Fame to undertake this project and re-record Kitty's work from the 50s and 60s. I was already aware that Kitty had been a pioneer, making country records all those years ago, but it was a surprise to find out that those songs were in fact written by Wells' husband Johnnie Wright and his writing partners. That he could produce such 'girl power' music at that point in history might explain why they are still married after 73 years.
Laura also spoke of her relationship with John Peel, of the encouragement she had received from him to "keep writing those narrative songs", and how she hadn't quite understood what he meant, so that he'd had to spell it out "you know, the ones about all those women country singers". I was glad that she told us that was talking about John not "in a sucky way" but to explain why she'd kept at it, right the way through to the current Wells project. It must be difficult when you're saddled as the most-famous-DJ-ever's avowed favourite-artist-ever, but they clearly had an easy and mutually supportive relationship. She described him tonight as the 'coolest person she'd ever met'.
We got an unreleased track, by way of 'Nothing Came Easy', which Laura told us was the product of the Radio Free Song Club. This is a loose internet based group of writers, with a monthly song contribution deadline, this being her spur to get things finished. As someone shouted from the audience "finish more stuff".
Some professional northerner kept calling out for 'The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter', to point of being a nuisance in an otherwise lovely atmosphere. Someone else piped up "tell him to sod off". Laura's response - "I think you just did that much more eloquently than me" - resulting in wry smiles and laughs all round. Whatever, we got 'Whiskey' before the encore. They played out the main set with 'Trembling Kind' and went off for mere moments before coming back for the encore ("We weren't going to tease you too long"). This didn't save them from the Sunday night curfew imposed by the good burghers of Manchester. As Laura put it, they'd "gotten the hook" allowing only for two more songs, 'Two Seconds' and the slightly saccharine but still gorgeous 'Love Vigilantes', a cover of the New Order song.
Despite living with her records for years, it was the first time I've seen Laura live. Her voice really is that bell clear, the stripped down band allowing for an easy fit between alt and trad country, the strength of the songs breaking down any such barriers anyway. As a kid, I had a mohican and a lot of those punk sentiments remain. Laura has been the one that allowed me to make sense of all that country stuff from Nashville. Her live delivery is just what it should be, the distillation of all that's great about her records. The time flew by for me as quickly as it evidently did for them. If you get half a chance, get to a tour date. It'll repay the favour. All I need now is to get to another date myself to finally see them do '14th Street', that's all.