“Is there anybody in there? / Smoking weed with God.” This song, ‘Waves,’ the fifth in their set tonight, typifies much of where Justin Osborne is at: namely songs about his drug taking past and the religious undertones of what’s described as “soul loss” (the loose translation of the Latin American term, Susto). All that – and maybe the search for some kind of meaning in an increasingly complicated and troubled world.
The band were headlining a show at Omeara as part of a brief promotional tour for their recently released second album, ‘& I’m Fine Today.’ It’s the first time they’ve performed in London with a full band and tonight feels like a special event for other reasons too: not least being the exceptionally high quality of pretty much every song on offer – allied to band members playing in complete harmony with each another.
Bearing some resemblance to a shorter, less hirsute, Eddie Vedder, Justin Osborne is the band’s focal point and it’s clear that the ‘interesting’ life he’s lived up to this point has provided a rich seam from which he’s mined so much of Susto’s material – starting his song writing career when he was only 12 years old, having first learned to play music in church. It’s not only the duality of temporal and spiritual matters that informs Justin Osborne’s muse, but also the contrast between an optimistic outlook and his occasionally bleak impulses.
Opening with the breezy sounding ‘County Line’, the confidence in the band is apparent from the off. Next up, Osborne says, “This next song’s about friendship: it’s called ‘Hard Drugs. Maybe it’s the best song he’s written to date, a fever dream both lyrical and moving opening with, “I had a dream that we were doing hard drugs in a street alley” which eventually leads to, “In the pouring rain we found you a hospital bed / And when they picked you up to move you, all the sheets were red.”
At times, Susto come across as something like a hybrid between My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses so it isn’t hard to see why Ben Bridwell is evidently such a fan. Apparently, it was his phone call to Justin Osborne that gave sufficient encouragement to the latter to pursue a full-time career in music and to write to his professor to say he wouldn’t be coming back to college. ‘Acid Boys,’ an amplification of the words tattooed on Osborne’s knuckles, is prefaced by a tale of him and his friends’ misspent youth taking LSD and riding around the neighbourhood on their bikes because they were couldn’t afford to go out drinking. There’s some lovely keyboards on the song provided by Corey Campbell who’s seemingly able to switch at a moment’s notice between guitar and electric keyboards. Indeed, part of the success of the band’s sound is in the artful layering of keyboards, guitar frills and jangly melodies into a spacey country rock sound, particularly on the previously mentioned ‘Waves,’ a rousing guitar and keyboard layered number, the waves of the song title being a metaphor for riding out life’s challenges. More than able support is provided throughout by other group members: Jenna Desmond on bass, Marshall Hudson on drums, and Dries Vandenberg on guitar.
In truth, every song sounds like a winner tonight. ‘Gay in the South’, a heartfelt and humane number about the struggle for acceptance in a still intolerant world alongside the country sounding ‘Cosmic Cowboy’ (“this next song has profanity in it”), while the song Osborne describes as having “perfect country music song lyrics,” ‘Friends, Lovers, Ex-lovers,Whatever’, attempts to navigate the complexities of personal relationships.
The conclusion of the song ‘Cigarettes, Whiskey, and Wine’ ends in a joyous cacophony of sound with Osborne coming to the front of the stage with clenched fists, a measure perhaps of his commitment to his music. Before the encores he says, “We’re not going to play any more songs about Jesus.” This prefaces a stripped down version of ‘Mystery Man’ accompanied by Corey Campbell on acoustic guitar, before the whole band reassemble for their last song, ‘Smoking Outside’. Another colloquial Spanish interpretation for Susto is fear, fright, or panic. On tonight’s evidence, Susto shouldn’t have too much to worry about.
Earlier on, Ferris & Sylvester treated the audience to a range of songs, including some from their new EP, ‘Made in Streatham’. They’ve got a refreshing take on a folk style with some heavy blues overlay – and a nice line in between song banter.