God but The Slaughtered Lamb was busy – upstairs was rammed and the beats of the music being played by the DJ easily penetrated into the basement music venue, a small space, similarly at capacity for what was surely a hotly anticipated gig, Kassi Valazza’s first time in London. To add to the intimacy of the venue is the unusual layout where there is no backstage and so the musicians have to make their way through the crowd from the back of the room and, maybe, Kassi Valazza will lay a hand on your shoulder to maintain balance as she steps up onto the cramped corner stage. On stage with Valazza were keyboard player Tobias Berblinger and on pedal steel Erik Clampitt, making for a tight three-piece with Kassi Valazza on guitars. There is an upcoming album ‘Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing‘ on Loose Records, it’s out at the end of May but there have been several singles that have already highlighted its magnificence.
Valazza’s languorous vocal launched the set with ‘Little Dove‘, a song that draws on imagery from the natural world and has a somewhat melancholy twist to it as the titular bird is encouraged to fly and leave – like all the other birds already have. ‘Room in the City‘, from the new album, has a similar feel of being somewhat lost and deserted as Valazza sings of longing for home whilst out on tour – big open skies are no compensation for a lover’s breathing and a familiar bedroom’s ceiling. And whilst it is a very country song there’s something in Valazza’s voice and, especially, her lyrics that add a gorgeous “cosmic Americana” to the proceedings. She brings an elusive something to her music that is hard to pin down but you know it when you hear it. There’s an easy turn of phrase that seems to carry so much significance, it’s reminiscent of Gene Clark at his best. Or there’s a powerful metaphor wrapped up in a lovely melody which leads to thoughts of Clark again, but also Townes Van Zandt or even the early years of Jefferson Airplane. It’s all done with a lightness of touch, the brilliance of the songs almost played down as they are revealed to have their origins in events from Valazza’s life. So the metaphysical ‘Rapture‘ is explained as having been inspired by her oldest friend whom Valazza has known since she was two and was always the bolder of the pair and who declared, when admonished to be more cautious during her “pyromaniac phase” that “Kassi – you don’t know how fire works.” It’s a great line – but not everyone would have carried that with them for years to become the heart of a song that yearns for a more reckless spirit, that dared to set those fires either literally or metaphorically.
There’s a rapt attention throughout – somewhat broken every time a song finishes and the pounding beats from above can be heard again. And although they make light of it – Tobias in particular was inspired to a display of his “big fish, little fish, cardboard box” dance moves – you have to think that it was less than welcome. Nothing, though, could detract from the majestic ‘Watching Planes Go By‘ with its imagery of plans and dreams coming to naught and a guitar melody that unfolds in a classic simplicity. It’s woozy and blissed out in equal measure, and when the Velvets like chorus arrives it’s just so impressive – keyboards and pedal steel taking it drifting a full eight miles high. It is a standout on the new album and it’s no less impressive in this reduced band setting. The come down was the wistful ‘Corners‘ which tells a Lee Hazlewood-like tale of love fully held only on one side of the romantic equation. It is a song that is built around the notion of loving a man who doesn’t treat you right, such a common country trope, what’s different here is that Kassi Valazza makes it feel real. These are not just words strung together.
The pandemic was, it seems, somewhat different for Valazza – at the least it gifted her a song after she took a lot of ‘shrooms and went walking around the deserted streets of Portland. ‘Early Morning Rising‘ is a slow builder that flashes with visions of nature and a reconnection with the world and reflects on the disconnect from the normal activities of life, “waded through the ripples / of some long lost dream / time moves a little slower / and I couldn’t tell you why.”
It’d be wrong to suggest that this was all a sombre music appreciation though – Valazza is too light-hearted for that. She’s appreciative of the audience, and admiring of support act Ann Liu Cannon; she suggests we should all visit the merch stall later to help out – quipping that “you should buy it – it’s heavy.” And, as the closer ‘Chino‘ demonstrates it truly is heavy – inspired by her home town Chino Valley it touches at first lightly and then increasingly darkly on torn-asunder family relations “It’s home…but I can’t stay. Farewell Father I’ll be coming through once in a while won’t you keep my room the same? And I guess that I’ve been doing fine…and I reckon that I could ease my mind…if my bills were paid.” By the end it has moved to a bleak desperation.
And with thank you’s – and no encore – the set was complete and Kassi and her band could mingle with the appreciative audience – and maybe offer an impromptu pedal steel lesson. It sure was a relaxed gig – but boy was it a gig that’ll long shine in the memory. Next time – much bigger room.
Opening performer Ann Liu Cannon, from Wiltshire Chalk Downs, was well deserving of Kassi Valazza’s praise. At first seeming to be a perfectly good singer-songwriter with a folky acoustic guitar style she displayed a wide range of vocal styles across her short set. There’s a hippy bent to songs such as ‘Men-A-Tol‘, but the family saying inspired ‘Clever Rabbits Need Three Holes‘ is full of edginess and confusion as London reveals itself to not be the same as those Marlborough Downs. Any lingering thoughts of Cannon being a quiet and delicate folky are dispelled with the declaration that she had “Time for two more songs then I’ll fuck off” especially as this led to her deploying what can only be called her rock voice. It’s still pure but with an added force and gutsy anger. Quite the revelation – headlining at The Slaughtered Lamb next time, surely.