The origin of the expression “skeleton at the feast (or banquet)” has been traced back to the Egyptian custom of bringing a skeleton or mummy to a feast as a reminder of mortality amidst the festivity. Generally, it was meant to refer to someone or something that brought unpleasant memories or put a dampener on proceedings, not an accusation that could be levelled at Gill Landry who has been touring Europe in order to promote his excellent ‘Skeleton At The Banquet’ album. For while his music has certainly got its moments of melancholy, it’s also leavened with genuine humour, poetry, and human insight, alongside a cineaste’s ability to conjure a widescreen picture from a Noirish soundtrack.
Upstairs at The Old Queen’s Head in Islington has a somewhat unusual set up with leather seats and banquettes around its periphery, reducing the available space somewhat for those standing in front of its makeshift stage. The venue has been subject to one of those typically north London pub makeovers designed to make it look older and shabbier than it really is, the walls adorned by Victorian reliefs advertising wonder wasp corsets and celebrating heavyweight boxing champions.
Although the stage is set up for a full band performance, Gill Landry bookends his performance tonight with a brief solo set of songs – what he describes as “a few mellower ones before the band come out.” The stripped down nature of Landry performing alone with just guitar and harmonica allows the audience to focus on his distinctive, rich baritone while the song lyrics are nothing if not evocative and quietly affecting. He opens with the gentle fingerpicking of ‘Funeral In My Heart’ from his self-titled debut, perfectly suited to the emotional undertow of its lyrics – “There’s a funeral in my heart and everyone is dressed in black / With Chrysanthemums and voodoo dolls trying to bring you back.” The following song switches from a first person narrative to a number about two lovers in New Orleans that the Louisiana-born singer/songwriter met when he was a younger man (‘Between Piety and Desire’), before he returns to more personal subject matter with ‘The Woman You Are’.
Once he’s joined by his band members on stage – running the gamut of trumpet through to upright bass, pedal steel and drums – the more intimate folky style of delivery is replaced by a much fuller sound which allows him to realise the more cinematic style of the moodier, recent material from the ‘Love Rides A Dark Horse’ and ‘Skeleton At the Banquet’ records.
The latter album he’s described as “reflections and thoughts on the collective hallucination that is America” but in beginning with ‘I LoveYou Too’, with its leisurely but poised sway, Spanish style guitar, and lonesome moan of pedal steel, he chooses one of the few love songs he elected to include on the new album “for good measure.” Maybe, it’s with the follow up song ‘The Wolf’ that he best manages to capture the spirt of the newer material, its opening couplet – “The wolf is at the door again, dressed like my best friend / Promising me everything, if I’ll only let her in”) – perhaps a metaphor for our times, where fake populist politicians make phony promises.
Landry then announces that he’s “still got the residuals” from the time he recently spent at the Days Inn in Coventry, which he accompanies with a story of soiled hotel bedding that isn’t for the squeamish. This acts as a precursor to the song ‘A Different Tune’ (dedicated to “the lovers” in the audience). It’s a tune that continues the loose political themes of his new album, its lyric about a mysterious woman riding a black horse referencing the 1975 BJ Thomas hit ‘Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song’. It’s a great example of his vocal range and expressive tone which he continues with ‘Just Like You’, the intimate nature of which leads him to say that the song makes him think about the guys in his own band “except we don’t have sex together…but I do think of them fondly.” Cue much audience laughter at this tender and humorous reflection.
Nick Etwell is then called to the stage for his contribution on trumpet for the mariachi stylings of ‘Fennario’ which also includes some lovely Spanish style guitar, while Landry sings the opening parts of the song ‘Emily’ almost apacella – “at the altar of your body I was down on my knees..”
Gill Landry may enjoy a joke at the expense of Bedford, a town he recently visited on tour (“If my depression was to build a town, it would be like this”) but he leavens it by saying that “he kinda enjoyed the place,” and it’s clear that in the song ‘The Place They Call Home’ that he not only empathises with, but speaks from first hand experience of what it’s like to live the life of an itinerant musician and it’s this which underscores the importance of finding a place to call home – a song whose sentiments are also echoed in ‘Lawless Soirez’, a high watermark for this reviewer. Both songs stand in marked contrast to soul baring numbers like ‘Denver Girls’, a tune about a Buddhist dominatrix in Colorado, and ‘Waiting For Your Love’ – and it’s in the breadth of Landry’s material that you recognise the strength of what he’s managing to achieve with his muse nowadays.
Landry encores with a cover of Willie Nelson’s ‘Hands On The Wheel’ which felt appropriate in a number of ways, not least because its lyrics about a world spinning hopelessly out of control feel more prescient by the day, but also because as with much of Landry’s own self-penned songs, Nelson’s evocative lyrics made it totally suited to a movie soundtrack (in Willie’s case, ‘The Electric Horseman’).
Watching Gill Landry sing and play, you know that he knows about love and loss. He also appreciates that matters of the heart aren’t reducible to trite sound bites or algorithms, but that life is the crucible in which you learn. But despite all this he’s still up for the fight – bloodied yet unbowed – ready to hit the road again and take whatever life throws at him. Landry sounds like a man whose sometimes unhappy – he’s lived the life of a hobo at times after all – but he’s also reached some accommodation with all the good and bad that life can throw at you – and that can only be a good thing – not only for himself, but for us as well. If you go to his website and become a patron to Gill Landry you not only get a song, a story, a playlist, photographs, but an advice column. It might prove money well spent.