Frankie Lee + Native Harrow, Paper Dress Vintage, Hackney, London, 4th September, 2019

Frankie Lee isn’t your average Americana singer-songwriter: his latest job involved the herding of 20 sheep on a small farm in Afton. For the recording of his latest album he retreated to his hometown of Stillwater and found that the house he grew up in was still available. In a backwoods setting and resembling a log cabin, he converted the property, Bon Iver style, into a recording studio, gathering fellow musicians to record the eponymously titled record over a mere three days.

The intimacy of Paper Dress Vintage is ideally suited to Lee’s well crafted take on folksy americana, accompanied tonight by a crack group of musicians on drums, pedal steel, fiddle and bass. If these easy going melodies sound somewhat effortless in a live setting, that may be a result of the way in which many of the tunes appear to come to Lee almost fully formed. He sings in a high tenor register which is a vocal style that won’t please everyone, but his regular use of harmonica infuses these tunes with a plangent feel, as on country rocker opener, ‘Broken Arrow’. Arguably the best song on his latest release, ‘Downtown Lights’ features early on – his ode to Jessica Lange who lived in his hometown when he was growing up – it was inspired by a dream he had where he was walking down Main Street, Stillwater, with her. It’s also an indication that much of his hard hitting lyrical subject matter comes camouflaged in mellifluous melodies, the song a reflection on how Lange felt the town was being killed by gentrification, the condos and tourist shops proving the catalyst in her decision to move away. Its chorus of “I can feel your heart baby, breaking in my arms tonight is immediate and accompanied by a melancholic middle eight harmonica section.

The spareness of the music on the album is given extended life with the full band he has behind him tonight, ‘High and Dry’ – with its “Grow your own” chorus is no tribute to cannabis smoking – but instead extols the virtues of growing your own food, seeing as the ruling class “are going to leave us high and dry” at some point in the future. On this number he gives the supporting members of his band the full opportunity for an extended work out, as he does on an accompanying song from his ‘American Dreamer‘ album, ‘East Side Blues’. It’s another song with a sting in the tale about how Austin has been ruined by property developers who’ve helped ruin every side of town and features some lovely atmospheric pedal steel courtesy of Joe Harvey-Whyte and more harmonica blowing from Lee.  

The slowed-down nature of ‘(I Don’t Wanna Know) John’ is counterpointed to the more uptempo and rockier sounding ‘Buffalo’, and ‘Where Do We Belong’, a song which seems to encapsulate the duality at the heart of much of Frankie Lee’s writing – the desire to escape the confines of his home town vying with the comforts of family and domesticity.

With a set that evoked memories of Neil Young circa ‘Harvest Moon‘, finishing with an encore of Neil Young’s ‘Comes A Time’ seems particularly appropriate this evening. A song on which Young seemed to reach a degree of acceptance with himself, it’s perhaps further indication that Lee has reached a place where he’s also now happy – able to express himself through his songs, living a simple life with few necessities – giving him the freedom to go where he pleases.

Earlier on, Loose label mates, Devin Tuel and Stephen Harms as Native Harrow, delivered a surefooted performance of songs from their ‘Happier Now’ album, another record that was recorded in just three days. Its echoes of Joni Mitchell and a new take on the Laurel Canyon sound suggest that even more impressive things are to come from this duo.

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