The Iambic Bar is a new “space” at the Courtyard Theatre in Hackney, consisting of a basement bar and an adjacent performance space. When the doors open there are, at first, just a handful of punters – a fact that is disguised somewhat when the smoke machine is turned on well in advance of the appearance of the support band. The dense smoke rolls out like the unclean miasmal fog rising off the imagined swamps around the decrepit motel depicted on Juanita Stein’s stage backdrop.
Tony Perkins doesn’t put in an appearance but more figures start to loom out of the gloom, like the shadowy figures that inhabit John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog‘. An appropriate thought, as it turns out, because the music that opener John P. Presley makes fits neatly alongside that spectral vibe. Heading up a power trio on guitar and vocals, Presley’s band is filled out with an impressively imaginative drummer and a keyboards/harmonium player who, too often, gets lost in the mix. The music is a powerful blend of psychedelic-blues, with big powering chords and some passionate slide guitar all driving apocalyptic visions in the raucously delivered lyrics. Impressive.
The stage turnaround reveals an intimate setting featuring homely mantelpiece lamps and a string of Christmas-lights draped across the speaker banks as the band take their places – a four piece of drums, lead guitar, bass and Stein herself on rhythm guitar. Juanita Stein is, of course, the Howling Bell’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist who has spent the last few years forging a solo side-career with a brace of impressive albums, ‘America‘ and ‘Until The Lights Fade,’ both of which have a strong Americana feel to them and demonstrate the correct trajectory – ‘America‘ was good, but this year’s ‘Until The Lights Fade‘ is even better. ‘Until The Lights Fade‘ provides the set opener ‘All The Way‘ which drifts in a hazy dreamlike way whilst declaring an independence and a reassertion of control over destiny, or, as Juanita Stein puts it “caught a ship headed for your freedom / escaped a fate worse than any you’d believe in / … / you got your fate mapped“. ‘Florence’ kicks the pace up a notch, with echoey twang on this song celebrating a woman’s strength, which has Stein’s vocal drifting up sweetly.
There’s a country-ballad feel to ‘I’ll cry,’ with a shuffling drumbeat and a slow booming bass, which has Stein mourning a lost love “call me frail call me a rose / call me anytime you’re high / or low / call me anytime you miss the way we were / just don’t call when you’re with her,” sung with a tear in the vocal. Which is not to say that this band can’t also rock out – ‘
’Forgiver’ is a hard paced put down of a heartless girl, with a switch to first person indicating some self-flagellation, who plays with the emotions of a naive young man. The gem of the set, though, is the intensely cool ‘Dark Horse,’ which has a drifting desert feel, like sand blowing off the dunes whilst vultures circle riders making their way to their next camp. Or maybe heading for that rundown motel. It’s like the theme to a really great sixties show that never was.
It’s a blaze of a set, over far too soon, which see’s Juanita Stein owning the stage – grooving between verses, in constant motion at the microphone. After the closer – an outsider’s gentle call to arms for the true spirit of ‘America‘ to reassert itself – there’s a brief encore of ‘Bang, Bang‘, sung slow and emotional. It seems to be Juanita Stein’s go to encore tune, but if she wants to close out with a slow number she’s overlooking her own rather gorgeous ‘Not Paradise‘ which would fit the bill just as well.
All the way
It’s all wrong
Get back to the city