Nestled below corporate buildings and next door to Google’s HQ sits Lafayette, a new stripped-back venue. On a wet Tuesday it’s mobbed, the folks from these parts desperate for unadorned tales of small-town Kentucky: of gravel banks on river bends; mountain wine; black top crews and broken Vietnam veterans. The man from the poorest state in the USA says “I went to see ‘Back to the Future: The Musical’ last night- it was awesome.” It’s not irony. Part of the crowd whoops approval too and others groan.
Later in the set, with capo high up the neck, Ian Noe is closing out a solo version of ‘Ballad of a Retired Man’, the finger picking is hypnotic, and he has a way of delivering his rhymes that is simply captivating. Perhaps honed during his slot on his hero and mentor, John Prine’s last tour in 2019 and the subsequent two years working on this new album, longing for nights like this to return. The song ends his haunting solo section where he has the crowd silenced and hanging in anticipation of the resolution of every line on ‘Promised Land’ and ‘If Today Doesn’t Do Me In’, from his first album and ‘Dead on the River’, ‘One More Night’, and ‘River Fool’ from the new album.
The show had kicked off with the full touring band, bassist Michael Zimmerman and Steve Daly on guitar, with a knack for sometimes imitating a ghostly fiddle fill. On the bluegrass number, ‘Strip Job Blues, drummer Erin Nelson stepped out front on mandolin.
They pay attention to sound here and it was a perfect venue for the launch of ‘River Fools and Mountain Saints’ – even the monitor speaker in the toilets harked back to the tinny AM transistor radio of lost rural America, a notion so succinctly covered earlier in his song ‘Appalachia Haze’.
The album was reviewed by AUK in April and the Europe/USA tour returns to the UK in September. Tonight was a masterly example of the type of observational story telling that creates mini-films in the head with recurring characters, locations and, always, that muddy river never far away. The full band section could have been nicely supplemented by some keys, but times are tough these days and lately we all find ourselves doing the same job in smaller teams. The last track on the album sums this up and closed the show nicely. It’s a heartache.