La Rhue is, probably, the best live music location around here. Run by a Dutch couple, it’s an old stone barn, converted into a restaurant, bar and live music venue and it has a particularly eclectic selection of acts. So, we finally get a bone fide American americana artist in our little corner of the world.
Martha Fields’ last album, “Headed South”, was reviewed on Americana UK by our colleague, Russell Murphy, just over a year ago, where he noted the quality of the songs and the musicianship on the album and gave it an 8/10 score. Having listened to some of the tracks I had high hopes for this gig. We don’t get a lot of genuine americana and country music around here so I really wasn’t sure what to expect but this would’ve been a top notch gig wherever it was held. La Rhue might not quite have been packed to the rafters but there wasn’t a lot of room in the place when Martha Fields and her band took the stage around 9.30 in the evening and, right from the opening bars of the first number, you knew this was going to be a bit special.
They kicked off with a great track, ‘Paris to Austin’, a song about life on the road and, particularly, about Martha’s life on the road, as she splits her time between her native U.S and touring through Europe. It was a nice, gentle introduction to what would become an increasingly raucous set as the evening progressed. Martha Fields writes some good songs and we got plenty of them in the first set – ‘Headed South’, ‘Levada’s Lounge’, ‘Johanna’, ‘Fare Thee Well Blues’, ‘Let the Phoenix Rise’. It’s a testament to her writing that, while few in the audience would’ve known these songs, they were all received as positively as they were delivered and the audience responded really well to her easy, down-home style as she quickly built a strong rapport that had many up and dancing as the evening progressed. Martha and her band finished out the first set with some great country blues, in the form of a cover of Janis Joplin’s ‘What Good Can Drinking Do’, where Martha showed that, while a warm country drawl may be her dominant singing style, she can cut loose and rock with the best of them. They followed this up with a fine rendering of the Bluegrass classic, ‘Rollin’ in my Sweet Babys Arms’, before they left the stage for a well-deserved “beer break”.
Something to note here is that, while Martha Fields herself may be the real deal, an Appalachian born American who moved to live in Austin, Texas, her band are all French to the core. And what a band it is. She has to be commended for putting together one of the best roots-based bands I’ve heard in a long time and, while they may not be American, I reckon they could go toe to toe with the best that Nashville or Austin has to offer and give them more than a run for their money. Lead by an amazing multi-instrumentalist, Manu Bertrand, who would, in the course of the evening, play dobro, lap steel, banjo and mandolin, the whole band meshed together seamlessly and were impossible to take your eyes off all evening. A really tight unit that provided the perfect backing at all times.
After a short break, the band returned for a second set and picked up the tempo right from the off. It’s always impressive when a band comes back onto the stage after a break and instantly resumes that same vibe with the audience. The second set was the same mix of original material and well chosen covers, the pick of the original material probably being a driving bluegrass number called ‘Hard Times’, an almost anthemic ‘Demona’ and the quite beautiful ‘Where the Red Grass Grows’. There was time for guitarist Urbain Lambert to show off his chops, including some fine slide playing, on a country-tinged version of ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ before we were into the finale and one of the most pyrotechnic versions of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ anyone could witness. Driven by the band’s outstanding fiddle player, Olivier Leclerc, this was a musical workout that scaled new heights every time the main theme came around. The interplay between fiddle and dobro was really special but the whole band was on it and just kept building the excitement, with the impressively solid rhythm unit ruthlessly controlling the tempo and with Martha Fields herself out in the audience leading the clapping and the stomping. It pretty much brought the place down. Inevitably, after two great sets, there was an encore – a nicely judged, traditional song, ‘500 Miles’, sung in French and English, settling the audience down and providing a perfect end to what had been an amazing evening.
I hadn’t really known what to expect from my first professional americana concert in France, but it’s reassuring that this music sounds every bit as good in a French setting as it does in an American or British one, a sentiment the whole audience seemed to share. Martha is, apparently, predominantly based here in France for the foreseeable future, though she does get back to the U.S on occasions and frequently tours around Europe. If you get the chance to see her and this amazing band of hers, grab it with both hands, you won’t be disappointed.