Clint West, AUK’s features editor writes: Welcome to A Night to Remember, a brand new weekly feature in which AUK writers reminisce about great and memorable gigs that they have attended in the past. It’s a reminder of those magical nights that we’ve all missed so much over the last year. With the prospect of a return to full live gigs still some way off, particularly those featuring overseas artists, this seems a fitting time to wallow in a bit of nostalgia. AUK’s videos editor Andrew Frolish kicks the series off in magnificent style.
It is just over a year since I last attended a live show. In person, that is, rather than through the wonders of the internet. The gig in question was the captivating Sam Lee at the Junction in Cambridge on 10th February 2020. At that point, we had no idea what was about to happen and that the magic of that evening would have to sustain us musically for the indefinite future. And magical it was. The songs from the latest album, ‘Old Wow’, are timeless explorations of our relationship with the natural world, full of depth and purpose. Along with his superb group of players, particularly the soaring strings, Lee created an enchanting evening that truly made me feel connected to something bigger than myself, a communion with the musicians, the other listeners and a world beyond the venue. If I’d known that it would be the last gig for the foreseeable future, I may well have chosen it as such.
Like all you music lovers, I’ve missed being part of a crowd, part of something larger, the joy that can only be found in shared experiences and communal events. Music has continued to be a huge part of my life throughout the pandemic but the social aspect of music and that magical connection between the audience and performer has been lost. At AUK, we’ve offered some wonderful ‘mini-gigs’ to provide a little light to lift the gloom. But it isn’t quite the same. Now, as coronavirus case numbers fall and vaccines are being rolled out, we can begin to be a little optimistic about the future. Perhaps, ironically, now that we can begin to look forward, it is the time to look back on the memorable live music events that have captivated us in the past, without it making us feel that sense of loss so keenly. Here, then, is a very personal list of ten of my most memorable gigs. As ever, with a list of this sort, there are so many artists and events clamouring for inclusion and not quite making the list this time. Ask me again tomorrow and the names and dates will probably change! Where footage of sufficient quality from the actual gigs could be found, this has been shared below. Otherwise, similar recordings from other gigs has been used. I hope my personal recollections of memorable gigs will help you reminisce about yours.
10. The Unthanks, OPEN Norwich, Norwich, 6th March 2015
The Unthanks were touring their new album, ‘Mount the Air’, back in 2015 and their magical gig in Norwich makes it into the list at number ten. The entire evening was a thing of beauty. The vocal harmonies and melodies rose up, hymn-like, and soared. I spent the evening entranced by the sisters’ timeless, ethereal performance and the quality alone is sufficient for the gig to be carved into my musical memory. However, four things made it particularly memorable. Firstly, the new material blew me away, especially ‘Mount the Air’. Secondly, Richard, who was along for the ride (and is usually to be found at a rock gig) had never heard of The Unthanks and had no idea what to expect – his reactions were a constant source of amusement throughout. Thirdly, the Unthanks sisters, Rachel and Becky, came out and signed albums after the show – always a nice touch. Finally, we got lost on the way there (which is a habit of mine and my regular gig-buddy John’s) and actually found ourselves on Unthank Road in Norwich. Just by chance. Nowhere near where we were supposed to be. It was a surreal start to a gig that only became more enchanting.
9. Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin, Easton Farm Park, Suffolk, 7th October 2015
When John and I arrived, the car park was empty. It was in the middle of nowhere. And dark. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place. In the end, we were treated to a wonderful show and, even though there was a very modest crowd, Schmidt and Elkin sang their hearts out. It was intimate – almost like a private house-gig – and all the better for it. Song introductions were personal and, at times, emotional. ‘Company of Friends’ is one of my all-time favourite songs and to hear it performed live and full of feeling just a few feet away was humbling. Like all the best performers, they were out there afterwards, signing CDs and chatting to fans. Should you ever get the chance again, take the opportunity to see the pair in concert. Their songcraft is outstanding and their voices are pure.
8. Rosanne Cash, Union Chapel, London, 24th July 2018
Union Chapel is a special place and a fitting venue for a truly special musician. The legendary Rosanne Cash, accompanied by her husband, John Leventhal, filled the space with her sound and soul. Her characterful vocal was flawless and, of course, the songs were sublime. Old favourites sat comfortably alongside newer material and I was perfectly enraptured from start to finish. I love the ballads but, in a live show like this, it was the more upbeat numbers like ‘Modern Blue’ that had real power. We watched from the upper-level, close to the stage, with an uninterrupted view down Cash and Leventhal, whose music rose up to meet us. Memories were reinforced on the walk back to Alex’s flat when we happened upon an urban fox in the middle of the street, lending the evening an even more magical feel. It stared us down and owned the road.
7. Nils Lofgren, Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea, 12th June 2011
Nils Lofgren is, quite simply, an incredible guitarist. When he’s not playing with Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young, he’s a frequent visitor to the UK performing acoustic sets alongside regular collaborator Greg Varlotta. Lofgren’s shows offer everything from virtuoso guitar to playing the harp and tap-dancing foot percussion. He’s another of those artists who takes the trouble after gigs to meet fans, pose for photos and sign merchandise; he is a warm, humble man whose personality comes through on the stage. For this particular gig in Southend-on-Sea, I was right in the middle of the front row and Lofgren could have been playing just for me. Although I’d seen him perform previously with the E Street Band, this was the first time I’d seen one of his solo shows and it was thoroughly absorbing. Catch him live if you can – the solo in ‘Black Books’ is simply sublime.
6. J.S. Ondara, The Louisiana, Bristol, 28th April 2019
Okay, so this was actually a gig I missed…sort of. I had the great pleasure of interviewing the Grammy-nominated J.S. Ondara for AUK shortly before he took to the stage in Bristol (a gig I was, unfortunately, unable to stay for after our conversation). While waiting for the interview, I watched Ondara complete his sound check and warm up his voice. Aside from the sound engineer, I was the only person in the room. This was like a private show just for me. If this had been a house-gig, it would have been busier. Simply put, this was a rare privilege that is unlikely to ever be repeated. Ondara’s vocal range is astonishing, his voice at once delicate and powerful. When it rises, it’s like he’s singing a hymn or a heartfelt plea. He went through many of his best known songs, including ‘Torch Song’ and ‘American Dream’ but also tried out a new, unreleased number called ‘Downtown Tokyo’ that he wanted to practise on a new audience. This was breath-taking.
5. Jarrod Dickenson, Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich, 7th February 2019
Having seen Jarrod Dickenson several times, I know that he is a consistently superb performer with a distinctive, warm and characterful voice and songs to match. This particular gig stood out because of the excellent support from JP Ruggieri and the evident rapport between the artists. After his own set, Ruggieri then joined Dickenson for the rest of the evening, playing guitar and pedal steel, adding real depth to the songs. Dickenson opened with the atmospheric ‘The Northern Sea’ from his first full-length LP, ‘The Lonesome Traveler’. Ruggieri’s haunting pedal steel introduced the song and set the mood, before Dickenson’s studio-perfect voice delivered this beautifully constructed tale. With Ruggieri once again layering the music, this time with expressive, bluesy slide guitar, Dickenson launched into the powerful ‘Take it From Me’, which was lapped up by the appreciative crowd. There were old favourites, like ‘Rosalie’, with its beautiful finger-picking and warm, open vocal, and ‘Come What May’, on which Claire and Jarrod Dickenson’s voices blended perfectly. From ‘Ready the Horses’, an inevitable highlight was ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’, an unselfconscious love song, showcasing the fine vocals of both husband and wife as the lovers in the story share the verses and talk back and forth. It was such an intimate song and performance that the crowd was hushed. The interaction of the three performers, who clearly love working together, was a joy to watch. From the humorous tales of their friendship to the inclusion of one of Ruggieri’s songs in the middle of the set, it was a pleasure to see their effortless bond. This was reinforced when, halfway through, the three gathered round a retro-styled handmade condenser microphone and Dickenson declared that: “We wanted to make this an intimate affair.” Indeed, it effectively created the impression of three close friends connecting through an intimate sing-song. Throughout the evening, Ruggieri’s accompaniment added a new dimension to Dickenson’s songs, particularly his expert pedal steel solo on ‘A Cowboy & the Moon’. This was one of those evenings that transported the audience away.
4. Black Deer Festival, Eridge Park, Kent, 24th June 2018
The Black Deer Festival is a passionate celebration of both the music and the culture of country and americana. The award-winning festival is a joyous, communal experience. Although we have only had two Black Deer Festivals, it already feels well-established thanks to the incredible line-ups and outstanding organisation. 2019’s selection of artists was remarkable with particularly good showings from the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Ida Mae, Ryan Bingham, Lucero, Yola and Band of Horses. There was a moment when Ida Mae were singing ‘Easily in Love’ and the glorious fiery glow of the setting sun bust through the entrance to the Supajam tent, setting the stage alight. However, it’s a bit of a cheat to have an entire festival on this list, so I’m going to linger on a single evening: Sunday 24th June 2018. To be right at the front for Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit was an unforgettable experience. Isbell, Sadler Vaden and the rest were note-perfect. If this had been a stand-alone show, it would still have been worth the price of admission for the whole weekend. Isbell played a flawless ‘best-of’ set with tremendous presence. Then, Passenger took to the same stage. Anyone who has seen him live will know how captivating he is: engaging stories, beautiful music and humble before the appreciative crowd. This special evening made me a Black Deer fan for life. (Good to catch up with Mr Whitfield at Black Deer too!)
3. Bruce Springsteen, Wembley Stadium, London 15th June 2013
Most of my memorable gigs were in small, intimate venues. But some artists can just blow away huge audiences in vast open spaces. Springsteen is truly a phenomenon live: it’s the energy, the fanatical crowd, the huge back-catalogue of anthemic songs and the sheer stamina to sustain the quality of performance for four hours. I’ve been to many of his shows, including the fabulous Hard Rock Calling gig when he was joined on stage by Sir Paul McCartney in 2010, but chose this one because of the craziness of the setlist. It must be such hard work for the members of the E Street Band to keep up. The first third was, essentially, like a DJ request show, with The Boss selecting from songs fans requested on signs. Then, he said that they could carry on this way or they could play ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ all the way through. That got the biggest cheer, so that’s what they did. The final third of the concert was greatest-hit party-time. The queue for beer was ludicrous. The queue for the cocktail stand was non-existent. So it was that Mark and I found ourselves drinking mojitos in the gorgeous summer sunshine dancing to ‘Badlands’. Brilliant.
2. Neil Young, O2 Arena, London, 11th June 2016
John and I left behind our families on a camping trip in weather so terrible that they would end up abandoning their tents and leaving the camp site. In the meantime, we were in London, warm and dry, soaking up the powerful atmosphere of Neil Young in concert. In particular, the performance of Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, playing as Young’s backing band, was like a controlled explosion. Through their talent, energy and force of will, it felt as though they were driving Young on to deliver the very best show he could. It didn’t matter that we were in the distance, way up the steep seating of the O2, because the show was so effective that everyone probably felt like they were sitting on the edge of the stage. This is how to play a cavernous arena and make every audience member feel like a genuine participant. The setlist was brilliantly conceived, building relentlessly and intensifying throughout the evening. Setlists matter. The version of ‘Words’ was especially memorable. Oh, and did I mention that Laura Marling was the support act? She was stunningly good.
1. Courtney Marie Andrews, Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich 21st August 2018
Courtney Marie Andrews first performed at the Norwich Arts Centre two years previously, solo and in support of The Handsome Family. A lot had changed since then. She returned with a full band and the confidence of an artist who had spent the intervening period largely on the road throughout Europe and the USA and having been awarded the UK Americana Awards International Artist of the Year. She was riding a wave of critical approval and delivered a performance full of emotional intensity. The venue, a characterful, converted church, is perfectly suited to these narrative songs; it is large enough to generate a buzzing atmosphere, yet small enough for the intimacy of storytelling.
When Andrews took to the stage, she was warmly received before launching into ‘Long Road Back to You’, the final song on her acclaimed album, ‘May Your Kindness Remain’. It proved to be a powerful opener, showcasing her range and control. She was focused, the band was tight and the intensity was high as the crowd were treated to a stomping version of ‘How Quickly Your Heart Mends’ from breakthrough album, ‘Honest Life’, and ‘Two Cold Nights in Buffalo’, a lyrically stunning, evocative tale, in which Andrews sang of the, “…American Dream dying, I hear the whispers of each ghost.”
Once the high standard had been set and the crowd were absorbed, Andrews began to interact more directly between songs, introducing ‘I’ve Hurt Worse’ as, “…a sarcastic love song for sarcastic lovers.” Andrews played the acoustic guitar for the first part of the gig but then she put down the instrument for an exquisite rendition of the plaintive ‘Rough Around the Edges’; then she played keys on ‘This House’ and the powerful ‘Kindness of Strangers’, displaying her versatility.
With the gig flowing and the appreciative audience fully engaged, Andrews dedicated ‘Border’ to the American Civil Liberties Union and child migrants detained at the American border, raising a cheer. Then she played an Aretha Franklin cover, ‘Chain of Fools’, in tribute to the Queen of Soul. It was a fitting celebration, with Andrews pouring emotion into the song. The main set concluded with an impassioned ‘May Your Kindness Remain’, which felt very much like a plea to the world because, “…kindness makes the beautiful and a kind heart don’t cost a dime.”
During the gig, there were shouts from the crowd, which Andrews enjoyed responding to: “Bloody marvellous!” and “Outstanding!” after a blistering guitar solo from Dillon Warnek. Indeed, the whole band formed a formidable unit that gave Andrews the perfect platform for her versatile voice. However, Andrews returned for the encore alone for a quietly intense, stripped-back version of ‘Honest Life’. She joked about needing help to choose the songs although one of the shouted requests was coming up next. Re-joined by the band, Andrews urged everyone to get dancing for the final numbers: ‘Irene’ and ‘Gone at Last’, a Paul Simon Cover.
Andrews noted, laughing, that she hadn’t remembered playing in Norwich before she arrived and actually recognised the venue. She went on to share two signs that show she’s been on the road too long: firstly, arriving at venues and only realising when you get there that you’ve played there before and, secondly, when your phone automatically picks up the wi-fi signal when you arrive in places you’ve already travelled through. But it’s this relentless touring schedule that has helped turn her into such a great performer. The music was pure and timeless, with a strong focus on vocal melody and emotional range. This performance was a statement.
For all that though, the reason that this was truly memorable was that it was the first gig I took my son to. I’ll always be delighted that Joshua’s first taste of live music was Americana UK favourite Courtney Marie Andrews. I hope it sparks in him the same love for live music that has given me a lifetime of joy. And, incidentally, the first gig I missed due to the pandemic last March was Frank Turner, which was meant to be Joshua’s Christmas gift. Let’s hope we can catch up with that in 2021.
Here’s to your own gig memories, dear reader.