Reviewing Caroline Spence’s recent ‘Mint Condition’ album for AUK, fellow writer Rick Bayles awarded it that rare accolade a 10/10 score, describing it as “flawless” and “an early contender for album of the year.” A glowing testimony – but could she deliver the same quality live? The short answer on the evidence of this performance is an emphatic yes…and then some. Accompanied by her long time UK touring guitarist, CJ Hillman, Spence kept an appreciative audience spellbound for the evening with her striking voice, engaging stage presence and above all, a set crammed with songs of the highest quality. Those songs, drawn mainly from ‘Mint Condition’ and its predecessor ‘Spades and Roses’ were the platform for a performance that was, to borrow a word, “flawless”.
Opening up with ‘Long Haul’ and following it with ‘Slow Dancer’ Spence established a level of quality control with which she set herself a challenging task to keep up. She passed her own test effortlessly and with flying colours. Pausing to give a lengthy introduction to ‘Hotel Amarillo’ Spence informed and entertained her audience with her tale of too much wine and bad Chinese food, imploring them to, if ever in Texas, “eat Tex-Mex”. Her explanations added to the songs for both the unfamiliar and the devotees present, giving them life and meaning as well as an insight into the world of their composer.
Although the songs were front of stage, Caroline Spence, a self-confessed perfectionist, paid much attention to the tuning of her guitar, making frequent adjustments, some of which, to this untrained ear, seemed indiscernible. However, she even managed to turn this into an entertaining interlude joking about the effect on her guitar of a long plane journey along with the British weather. At times, as the tuning was readjusted, a hush descended that gave Spence the opportunity to praise the politeness and respect that she received from UK audiences.
Following ‘Heart of Somebody’ CJ Hillman vacated the stage whilst Caroline played a particularly fine rendition of ‘All the Beds I’ve Made’. She then talked about her problems with anxiety and depression and her partner’s overbearing desire to help her when all she wanted was for him to ‘Sit Here and Love Me’. This was a very moving highlight to an encapsulating evening.
CJ Hillman returned to the stage to add his subtle, yet animated guitar to the remainder of the set, beginning with ‘Wishing Well’ through to the wonderful ‘Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes?’. Spence then rounded off the set with the title track from her celebrated LP. Taking her time to explain to the audience the story behind the song, which she had written seven years previously. She recalled how her grandparents seemed to have had the perfect relationship, in contrast to her own relationship at that time. She then outlined how her grandma kept those memories alive after her grandfather had passed away, therefore keeping their love in ‘Mint Condition’. Spence explained how much the song meant to her and how thrilled she was when her hero, Emmylou Harris, agreed to sing it with her on the album, the just way that she had long dreamed of.
One last explanation followed for the encore choice of ‘Whiskey Watered Down’ a song about how modern Nashville songwriters ignored the great heritage of that city in favour of commercial advantage. The paradox, however, was that Spence had gained her first real break in Nashville playing that song at an open-mic evening at the Basement. From that performance she was then given a residency at the venue.
As the audience made their way out into the familiar Manchester drizzle, it was hard not to conclude that Caroline Spence has elevated herself from one of a number of good Americana songwriters and performers, to being in the top echelon of their ranks. Make no mistake, this was a thoroughly impressive performance.
The evening had kicked off earlier with a set from Scottish singer-songwriter Roseanne Reid, daughter of The Proclaimers’ Craig Reid. She played songs from her own recent Teddy Thompson produced album ‘Trails’ recorded in New York. The record has attracted favourable reviews and even an endorsement from Steve Earle. Her set was very warmly received and undoubtedly won her new friends whilst also serving notice that she may well be around for some time to come.
Thanks to Nick Barber for the fab pics