“We have lift-off. I’m so excited to be here,” declared My Girl The River, with a combination of both joy and relief. Warmly the audience echoed her sentiments. With that began a lovely evening of Americana that encapsulated the togetherness music creates between performer and listener. The intimacy of the much-loved Green Note tied that bond closer.
On record and usually live, My Girl The River is Kris Wilkinson Hughes and Joe Hughes with guest appearances from daughter Ruby, but tonight it was solo Kris. For those familiar with her two fine albums it was a chance to savour her impressive vocal range. Noting that both she and Kate Ellis come from Louisiana she went straight back to her hometown, opening with ‘Covington’ from her first album, ‘This Ain’t No Fairytale’. At a brisk pace Wilkinson conveyed southern warmth and fragrance “full of azalea and pine”. Such was the authentic folk of ‘I Try’ Wilkinson might have been singing in a 1960s Greenwich Village coffee house on this deeply touching tribute to her late mother. Others from last year’s ‘Cardinal in the Snow’ album included the layered emotion of ‘You Do Not Deserve My Tears’ and ‘Slow Mover’. Written deep in the pandemic her new single, ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’ had a lovely Woodstock sound, “We are stardust, we are light”. Joni also sprang to mind. To finish, Wilkinson served up some Louisiana ‘Hot Chicken’, a cautionary tale that sizzled with New Orleans heat.
Kate Ellis, who hails from the other side of Louisiana, was with her regular band of co-writer and husband Andy Hobsbawm, Joseph Paxton on fiddle and mellotron with a mouthpiece (honest) and Joe Bennett on keyboard and bass. Opening with ‘Can’t Not’ Ellis gave an elegant introduction to her vocal subtlety. The gentle fiddle and keys swirled around her lush country-folk voice.
How the years seem to fly by as it is now four of them since Ellis released her very well-received debut album, ‘Carve Me Out’. Fortunately there is more on the horizon with a new album due early next year. From that came a new single, ‘Bluebirds and Rye’, a lovely letter of reassurance from Ellis the mother, soothing her daughter’s present anxieties and future apprehensions because “there will always be bluebirds and rye”. ‘Another Way’ stayed in the family, this time Ellis the daughter forgives her father for remaining resolutely stuck in his ways. Bennett’s keys rolled the years back for Ellis’s haunting voice, infused with love for the man who first got her into music and to whom she owes her southern country-folk music roots. ‘Wonderland’ evokes the beauty of the natural world that we are losing so fast. In advance of Cop26 this will be released as her new single in collaboration with the art of Geraldine van Heemstra. Compared with her debut record these new songs have a more English folk sound, something that particularly resonated on the new album’s title track ‘Spirals’.
Though they usually write together ,Hobsbawm’s own new compositions ‘Scars’ (described by his wife as “a dysfunctional love song”) and ’I Am The Tree’ inspired by his mum’s portrayal of a family, show his own vocal subtlety gaining more prominence on stage. For her own inspiration, as Ellis admitted while introducing ’The Story You’ve Been Told’, she draws on her various insights about who we are and why. Perhaps that explains her frequent return to family ties. Ellis excels in taking the listener into these intimate thoughts, crafting lines of great empathy. The sensitivity of the musicians around her creates another family.
Compared to her new songs, those from her debut album, ‘Carve Me Out’ and ‘I Believe’ do have a more American folk tinge. But that stylistic adaptability must have been there all along. Ellis just needed more songs to bring out those various strands. Underlining that versatility was the way she put her mark on ‘Other Side of the Street’ a countrified take on the indie of Tom Hackwood.
My Girl The River joined Ellis and her band for a loving tribute to two greats we have lost since they last performed regularly. Their heartfelt ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’ that John Prine and Nanci Griffith sang together brought this return to live roots music to a moving close. From Louisiana west to east all the way to Camden central, Kate Ellis and My Girl The River told stories, shared thoughts of love and heartbreak that bring us all together. How we have missed that.
Thanks to @bullfishfighter for all photos