Live Review: Jolie Holland + Mark McKowski, Portland Arms, Cambridge – 1st April 2024

Photo: Chris Doody

The Portland Arms in Cambridge (capacity 200) had a hard time getting punters out for this exceptional gig on the fag end of Easter weekend. Consequently the usual competition to get to the front was non-existent with the audience shyly retreating to a safe distance.

The support act, Mark McKowski handled the rather deflating atmosphere well and played about a 40-minute acoustic guitar set to the small but appreciative audience. McKowski has a pedigree with The Lost Brothers and this is his first tour as a solo artist supporting his recently released instrumental album, ‘Notes From The Boneyard’. He included several tracks from the album and a couple of covers by Jimmie Rogers and Nick Drake, illustrating the range of his influences. He had a quiet but confident manner about him and was an extremely competent musician. When he was joined by two members of Holland’s band for an instrumental reminiscent of a Sergio Leone score (complete with eerie whistling from the drummer) it boded well for the rest of the evening.

Jolie Holland quietly took the stage and took a short while setting her levels before being joined, initially by her lap steel player. Holland rather unusually stayed stage right for the entire performance. After the opening number, the remaining band members came on board. Given his excellent support set, it was a pleasure to see Mark McKowski again. This time showing he was equally adept on the electric guitar. From the first number with the full band of four, it was obvious they had a strong chemistry that worked. Playing mostly recent material from the latest album, ‘Haunted Mountain’, probably still unfamiliar to most of the audience, including this reviewer, they quickly built momentum for the rest of the evening.

Highlights in a very consistently high-quality set included the title song, ‘Orange Blossoms’ and ‘Highway 71’. Holland’s haunting lead vocal was backed by harmonies from various members of the band but most notably by the drummer whose sympathetic playing was also a feature throughout. Holland doesn’t do easy listening and this material consequently requires several listens to process the lyrics. In acknowledging the copious applause after one song Holland alluded to a previous conversation with an audience member describing it as “sounding like syrup”. This could be applied to most of the set, certainly not in the overly sweet sense but rather like being caught in a captivating musical spell. Holland kept her introductions quite brief but she did do “a word from our sponsors”, skit where she pushed the CDs and t-shirts at the merch table. It’s always bittersweet to see artists of this quality have to make a pitch to a small audience. On the evidence of this gig, the album should be a winner. A great set, just a pity more couldn’t have been there to appreciate it.

About Adrian Dzialdowski 6 Articles
My 1970s LP purchases included Rickie Lee Jones, Steve Forbert and T-Bone Burnett but we didn’t call it Americana then. Hard to believe they are all still currently working. I had a hiatus in the 80s and got into blues and jazz in the 90s. However a chance purchase of an UNCUT sampler in the 2000s has led me to the current golden age of Americana.  
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Alan Peatfield

You were into Jazz? Jazz?? Ah well, at least you finally found Americana nirvana.