There must be something in the water in Kentucky given the proliferation of independent americana music performers from there in recent years. As proof, there’s not just well established acts such as Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Angaleena Presley and Tyler Childers, but also up and coming artists such as Kelsey Waldon, Eric Bolander, Korey Rose, Jeremy Pinnell, The Local Honeys and Dillon Carmichael. To this impressive list, Ian Noe deserves to move towards the head of the queue as he was responsible for one of the best debut albums released in 2019, or any other year for that matter.
He opens his show at Omeara tonight with the title song from his debut, ‘Between The Country’, unaccompanied except for an acoustic guitar and some well judged reverb in his voice which echoes around a sold out Omeara. The song title is supposedly an expression to suggest what passes for all human life in his home state of Kentucky, but it’s also a place where the cast of characters in Noe’s intimately judged portraits often don’t make old bones – even the promise of salvation on numbers like ‘Junk Town’ being the preserve of those in the afterlife.
If the old expression is one that you should write about what you know, then Ian Noe’s pen portraits are often bleak, second hand character studies steeped in drug abuse, crime and failed love affairs, although he still seems to be able to wear the hopelessness of many of his ill starred characters’ travails lightly, the album opener ‘Irene (Ravin’ Bomb)’ about an unrepentant alcoholic greeted with whoops of familiarity from his adoring audience.
Noe learned to play guitar from his father and grandfather and as a young boy spent years trying to emulate Chuck Berry’s way of playing guitar. It’s clearly time well spent as evidenced on ‘songs like ‘Loving You’ and ‘P.O.W. Blues’ where his fingerpicking style is used to highly impressive effect tonight. If trailblazing rock ‘n’ rollers were Noe’s entry point into music then it’s the influence of artists like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and John Prine that most clearly predominate on much of his material such as the murder ballad ‘Dead On The River (Rolling Down)’. The train noises from the underground at London Bridge station provide appropriate background to its follow up, ‘Barbara’s Song’, although you’d hope for a better outcome for any tube travellers than those blown off a bridge into the Colorado river in his evocative lyrical number about a train crash in 1904.
Explaining how his native Eastern Kentucky provides so much literal inspiration for his muse, Noe recounted how he and a friend had been driving around the town of Franklin recently where there are Native American artefacts in fields, as well as caution signs warning of anything from deers to babies, babies on meth – which suggests he doesn’t take himself too seriously – and how the tune ‘Road May Flood’ was the result. Interesting too to hear a song which draws inspiration from Bonnie Tyler seeing as the song segues into ‘It’s A Heartache’ for its last two verses.
Any concerns that newer, self-composed material might struggle to reach the dizzy heights of the songs on his debut album are swiftly assuaged by ‘The Last Stampede’, the obvious quality of which leads someone in the audience to shout out, “Why’s that not on the album?” To which Noe replies, “There’s other albums.” Meanwhile, the song ‘If Today Doesn’t Do Me In’ probably best exemplifies the profound impact that John Prine has had on his songwriting, so it’s perhaps only fitting that he concludes his performance with a cover of ‘Hello In There’, Prine’s paean to the loneliness of old age.
Throughout the performance, the assembled throng at Omeara are largely silent throughout, give or take the odd cheer or whoop of familiarity at the beginning of a recognisable number, although the rapturous applause at the end of each song is a measure of the high regard in which he’s held. It’s appreciation that’s clearly reciprocated as Noe says, “this is one of the best crowds I’ve played to in a long time,” and he sounds like he really means it.
For an encore he finishes with arguably his best number, ‘Letter To Madeline’, recently shortlisted for ‘International Song of the Year’ at the Americana Music Association UK awards, which has the same ethereal quality as The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ – seemingly forged in rural America sometime in the 19th century. Ian Noe may wear some of his influences heavily on his sleeve, but on this evidence he’s clearly more than capable of forging an identity and voice entirely his own.