Israel Nash is on tour opening for Band of Horses, but this was a night off and an opportunity to play if not quite a secret gig then at the least an incredibly intimate one. The Islington is not such a big pub, and the performance space is tiny – a capacity of sixty or so perhaps, and not surprisingly it was sold out. Tonight was to be a duo performance – Israel Nash on acoustic guitars and Eric Swanson adding waves of the most perfect pedal steel. Who needs a band ? Opening at some volume with Women at the Well gave Israel Nash an early chance to shake the room. The volume was many times more than the space really needed but any concerns that the vocals would be wildly distorted all through were soon lain aside on Parlour Song where Nash went off mic’ for a verse, showing a delicate touch on this song encroaching on delicate matters “Sooner or later we’ll give up our guns” Nash sings before adding the stinging coda “only once we’ve shot everyone”. Here’s an anti-gun song that doesn’t beat around the bush. Parlour Song is one of Israel Nash’s finest – a perfect blend of acoustic rock with dark sentiments that can’t help but bring Neil Young at his best to mind. That, surely, is a comparison that doesn’t get old , although as the on-stage fans blow ever harder it’s difficult, tonight, not to think of another Laurel Canyon dweller’s lyrics : “there you stand your long hair flowing”.
The Texan isn’t heavy on his political messages – he’s not here to talk about Trump other than to say that music can bring us together and that it’s better to focus on that than on hate. Right-on to that, man, right-on. The country-bluesy Rexanimarum takes on the bitterness of life and tries to find the good “Oh, my baby, settle in / Take your worries and put fire to them / Pour me out just like sour wine / Got the money so you’ll be all right”. The interplay between guitarist and pedal steel player is a constant joy, Israel Nash losing himself, closed eyed, in the music whilst Eric Swanson effortlessly adds note by note the perfect counterpoint to the fierce guitar and screaming vocals of his companion. There’s such passion in the rendition of the touring too long and wasted too often LA Lately which shimmers with an unsettling mental disconnect from reality. It’s beautiful in its distorted questioning “where did all the hills go, swallowed by the sand”, like a grip being loosened on reality.
Taking things right down to the musical core the pair shifted to the front of the stage – perched on stools and both playing unplugged guitars. It can’t get closer than this, really, there was no barrier between artists and audience through a trio of contrasting songs – the suicidal desperation of Evening, the jaunty Louisiana about a troubled girl who can only be trusted to make things worse, and the classic rock fist puncher Baltimore – like a lost Lynyrd Skynyrd track, but here stripped back to its swampy essentials. This was something to behold. When Israel Nash talks about gigs like this being special, keeping him connected with the core of his musical drive, well you can take him at his word. Moving back to plugged-in music for a set closer of the truly majestic Rain Plans brought the set to a finish in the most splendid of ways. Rain Plans is Israel Nash’s finest moment to date – blending the contemplative songwriting of After the Goldrush with the desperate beauty of On the Beach and holding its own against any song on both those albums. This was musical greatness in full flow, and a lot of that flow was down to Eric Swanson’s endless golden notes pouring out from his delicate pedal steel playing.
As a closer the pair took to the floor, handing out a couple of lesser guitars for some audience participation on Dylan’s I shall be released. Remember those barriers that couldn’t get any lower? Well here they were swept away completely in an ecstatic moment. Israel Nash is the real deal – he rocks with a band, but this duo setting was exquisite. If you’ve missed him this time, make the effort to catch him on his next, which will be his 21st, swing through Europe – you won’t be disappointed.
Women at the Well
I shall be released