Joan Shelley is no stranger to Glasgow’s Glad Cafe. Returning to the venue for a fourth time, the Kentucky-born artist has built up a loyal following. Whether a long term fan or a relative newbie attracted by Shelley’s 2017 self-titled album, a sell-out crowd filled the intimate south side room anticipating a night of fine music. Tonight’s openers were Maiden Radio, an all female trio consisting of Cheyenne Marie Mize, Julia Purcell and Joan Shelley herself. It’s arguable that Shelley has been making music with her band for as long as under her own name, both self-releasing debuts in 2010. Purcell confesses that this is their first non-US tour in the ten years they’ve been together and you can’t help but feel a little regret that we’ve waited so long for them to explore beyond their home shores. Firmly rooted in classic country and Appalachian traditionals, it was a chance for Shelley to show another side of her musical talents with which many fans may be unfamiliar.
Well chosen covers (‘Adieu False Heart’, ‘Weary Blues’) sat alongside traditional instrumentals (‘Cold Frosty Morning’, ‘Kitchen Gal’) and band originals (‘You Know The Reason Why’, ‘No More Crying’) that sounded authentically “old time”. The trio’s tight vocal harmonies and sympathetic fiddle, banjo and guitar were clearly evident. ‘Charlie’s Neat’ was given new verses by Shelley, an attempt to address the gender imbalance in the song narrator viewpoint of many early Appalachian and country songs (and let’s be honest here, traditional songs like ‘Little Sadie’ don’t exactly have the happiest outcomes for the likes of poor Sadie). An imagined jingle for Dr Bronner’s soap proved a fun reminder of a bygone era when radio ruled and when sponsorship money was vital to even future bedrocks of country music such as the Grand Ole Opry.
Warm up duties discharged, the trio returned to the stage after a short break joined by long time Shelley collaborator Nathan Salsburg. The headline set took in songs from across Joan Shelley’s catalogue of albums with songs from earlier releases sitting comfortably beside the likes of ‘Over and Even’ and ‘Where I’ll Find You’. That Uncut Magazine ranked her self-titled latest disc the fifth best album of 2017 is no surprise given the powerful, emotionally affecting music on that record and that’s only heightened by her live performance. ‘If The Storms Never Came’ had a suitably deep and uneasy undertone like the ominous sight of a horizon filled with the darkest of clouds and Shelley joked that she may need to chat with Richard Thompson over a suspiciously similar sounding song from his latest album when she joins him on tour. Her humour showed again as Joan, Cheyenne and Julia walked off without warning at the end of a song, a surprised Nathan Salsburg then relieved to see the trio return to the stage sharing a group giggle and poking gentle fun at their compatriot. It’s another chance for Shelley to show that despite her raw and haunting music, she still knows how to have a little fun.
It’s easy to become lost in Shelley’s perfectly polished and delicately balanced songs, each one giving the listener just a glimpse of the raw emotions of the their protagonists. Her music is beautiful. There’s just no other word that does the marriage of Shelley’s carefully crafted arrangements and her wonderfully lonesome voice any justice. Her warmth on stage captivates and balances perfectly with her raw and deeply moving songs. Her voice is capable of both breaking your heart and then piecing it back together again and you’re left feeling like you’re sharing in the most intimate of encounters rather than a public concert.
The show ends with an encore of sorts but the group don’t leave the stage. Instead they convey their heartfelt thanks to those in attendance, as well as old friends amongst the venue’s extended family who have been with her since her first Glasgow show. They’d rather reward us with another couple of songs than waste time hiding in a cupboard off stage awaiting some thoroughly deserved applause. ‘First of August’ is a particular highlight amongst a night of superb music and the show closes with an unamplified rendition of ‘My Only Trouble’. It finishes a night of music that has showcased Joan Shelley as a musician of exceptional talent, celebrating the old time traditions of her home state and her striking singing and songwriting craft.