Heather Lynne Horton + Michael McDermott, Water Rats, London, 25th September 2017

“If you’d told me ten years ago, that I would put a song on one of my records about my kid, I would have thrown up!” was how Michael McDermott introduced his song ‘Willie Rain’, about the daughter that he and Heather Lynne Horton so obviously adore more than anything on earth, even each other; and that’s saying something, as the love and affection they have for one another is sooo evident from the way they relate to each other onstage.

Parenthood has a powerful effect: it can make people (men mainly) run away as fast as they can, or prove to be a stabilising influence that changes the way they live every second of their life from the moment they become aware of the conception. There are some obvious similarities between Michael McDermott and Heather Lynne Horton, and Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires – two married couples on whom parenthood has had a lasting impact. Prior to becoming a dad, Jason and Michael were both a little too fond of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. With the help of their pregnant wives, two women of strong character, who are both mighty fine fiddle players, both men sobered up, swore off the booze and self-medicating and focused their energies on providing for their family. Oh yes, and all four of them make amazing music.

On their first tour together as solo artists, and the first time together in the UK, Horton and McDermott proved their worth as performers and songwriters of great imagination and sensitivity. Horton took to the stage first to cheers and whistles from an enthusiastic audience. Setting the tone for her set with a powerful rendition of the emotive I Wanna Die in My Sleep, which can be read as a declaration of her love and devotion for Michael, but which also relates to Heather’s early childhood as an orphan and her longing for security. Heather informed us that she “wept like a baby” while recording most of the songs for her album Don’t Mess With Mrs Murphy, adding that “I feel things. I’m a feeler, and this is a dirty song,” with a wink before a saucy version of Do You Feel This?

Feeler she may be, but Heather is rapidly becoming known for her social conscience. Flesh and Blood, a song that is an outlet for her thoughts on collective responsibility, which includes the Black Lives Matter campaign and also the 30,000 gun deaths in the US each year, “meant,” she said, “that it’s hard not to get political”. Fed up “with the lies of politicians” and the excuses of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association, she says that she “used to say bullshit to the TV a lot.” There’s a bit near the end where Heather sounded like Dusty Springfield or Dionne Warwick, singing an ascendant ‘Hey you, get under my thumb: flesh and blood’ – glorious!

As well as saying “bullshit” a lot, she revealed that she also used to shout “Fuck you! Motherfucker!” quite often, around the time of the Presidential Election; a practice that led to the humourous cut F.U., which she transposed into a hilarious tale of an on-the-road stalker after her beloved man, her “mirrored, walking song.” Closing her short set with Murphy’s Law, Heather beckoned to the wings and out stepped Michael ‘Murphy’ McDermott with his guitar and harmonica neck holder and Heather proceeded to accompany him with her fiddle on These Last Few Days.

As he introduced a rousing and harmonious Getaway Car, Michael said: “My father grew up by the theatre where John Dillinger was shot and he used to go on about him all the time, so much so that it was almost like he was a relative of ours, you know: Uncle John.” When it came to the transformative vibes of the beautiful Butterfly from his acclaimed album Willow Spring, after he’d sat down at the piano, Michael shared with us: “I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict and always will be. As Stephen King once said to me, “Once you become a pickle, you can never go back to being a cucumber.”

Following on with the poignant and familial Shadow in the Window, Michael reminisced about his father: “Dad was arrested in front of me when I was 26. They took him to Cook County Jail (in Chicago). A god awful place. I know because I was there myself five years later (for possession of cocaine, after being frisked on his way into a Jakob Dylan concert). Dad was a pilot in World War 2. He used to stand in the window and watch me when I used to leave the house, to make sure I didn’t crash the car on the way out. It wasn’t until the day of his funeral and I went back to the house that I realised that I was missing Dad’s shadow in the window.”

The McDermott/Murphy/Horton family featured a lot tonight. They’re obviously a tight-knit clan. After his remarks about his younger self’s reaction to songs about babies, Michael said that when he first nervously played Willie Rain to his daughter, Willie Rain, while driving her to school; after regaling her with the song and eager to see her reaction, she just shrugged and said: “Can we put One Direction on now, please?” Thanks a lot, kid!

John Travolta and Olivia Newton John would have been as delighted with Heather and Michael’s cover of You’re The One That I Want that the Water Rats crowd were. The whistles intensified and everyone got clap-happy.  Michael then accompanied Heather on the piano while she sang a slightly different arrangement of her hypnotic and enticing Pauper Sky; her answer to the song Pauper’s Sky that Michael had written for The Westies Six On the Out album. Pauper Sky is also the name of their own label in the States.

‘I know a thing or two about being knocked down sang Michael, during Cabs, a song that recalled some long-past, uber-wild adventures and spinning out of control with a cab driver in some way out town- Somewheresville, USA. As Sadiq Khan might have commented, “Your licence is hereby revoked!”

Mrs Murphy senior, Michael’s mom, proudly said to him, “You finally wrote something we can sing in church,” when he played her A Kind of Love Song which we all found lovely too. Bars brought the set to a poignant and sweat-soaked end. A stroll down an emotional alley after dark, while fortified with a few jars. Soul-stirring stuff.

The very last song of the evening The Great American Novel from the literary-minded Mr. McDermott’s Hey La Hey album, name checks some of the American greats: Hemingway, Salinger, Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers; but no mention of Jonathan Ames, Michael?

In an ideal world, we would be hearing the rhapsodic delights of Horton and McDermott’s music bursting forth from national radio and watching this husband and wife perform their intimate, combustible magic on Later…with Jools Holland. Jools, what do you reckon?  (Not forgetting your sagacious producers, Alison Howe and Mark Cooper.) Talk about chemistry! These days all the chemistry happens onstage, as opposed to backstage.

I can’t forget the support act, poet Paul Cookson, who performed a brilliant and original poem about his mum who took her dog for a walk in the park. The dog dropped dead (of old age, we were told) and Mrs Cookson dragged him behind a bush, then went home and got a suitcase big enough to fit the dog within. On her arrival at the tube station with the suitcase containing said beloved pet, a gentleman offered to help her through the turnstile with it, while she used her Oyster card. Once she was on the other side, the errant gent scarpered with her case. He must have had quite a shock when he opened it.

I don’t think he would have been as delighted as we were, heading out, onto the dirty pavement of Kings Cross with Heather and Michael’s songs ringing in our ears. Mr and Mrs Murphy had finished by telling us they were off to Face Time Willie Rain, who was staying with Michael’s brother at home in Chicago, and whom they were missing like life itself.

Photograph by Adrian Read

Author: Muff Fitzgerald

Muff Fitzgerald has worked as a roadie, publicist, broadcaster and journalist.
Music makes his world go round and round and round. Somebody make it stop, please!

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