Live Review: Nora Brown and Stephanie Coleman, The Green Note, London – 30th June 2023

Photo: J. Aird

The Green Note was presenting a hotly anticipated appearance by the duo of Nora Brown and Stephanie Coleman, who have been playing together, on occasions, for at least five years.  Stephanie is a talented fiddle player – she holds the record for most ribbons won in the renowned fiddle contest at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, WV- which is also where she first heard and learned the title track of the duo’s new EP ‘Lady of the Lake.‘  Nora Brown is, of course, the up and coming banjo player who has been making quite a name for herself at what we’re contractually required to note is a young age – at eighteen she’s already a great talent and, just as importantly, has a great feeling for her music.  As well as the banjo, Brown is also an accomplished acoustic guitar player and she demonstrated both musical strands in this gig.  Alongside some fancy microphones and a collection of instruments there was an open school style jotter in which the two sets had been written out – a piece of archival behaviour which seemed fully in keeping with the music to be played.

Nora Brown started the proceedings solo with a trio of tunes, two on the banjo and one on guitar.  ‘Southern Texas‘ demonstrated her subtle claw hammer technique; ‘Cowpoke‘ was a slow and lonesome cowboy tale – of the genuine kind, all poverty and hard times and ‘Beautiful Doll‘ was just a ringing banjo perfection with Brown’s seemingly effortless playing producing a wonderfully cascading sound, bright and sparkling.  She has a demeanour which one could mistake at first for shyness – but actually seems more a confident but intense focus on the musical performance.

Stephanie Coleman then joined Brown on stage for what would be two sets of top-quality banjo and fiddle interplay – many banjo tunes are, of course, transposed fiddle tunes so it’s little wonder that these two instruments have such an affinity of sound.  With a spectral version of ‘And Am I Born To Die‘ they transported the Green Note back a hundred years or more.  Refreshingly the duo are both really serious about the music they’re playing – that shouldn’t be a surprise – but they both really care about the music and are at pains to give credit and attribution to where a song comes from and who they learnt it from. Coleman perhaps voices this most clearly, explaining at one point by saying how much she enjoys playing music that comes from her home town and surrounds,  “there’s a rich tradition of Illinois music and I really like learning them as it feels like my music, or something.”  It’s a seriousness that gets reflected in a debate on the correct pronunciation of Holcomb when introducing their version of Roscoe Holcomb’s ‘Hills of Mexico‘ with Brown positing that it should be “Halcomb.

Photo: J. Aird

Dedication to the music is also demonstrated on ‘Lady of the Lake‘, the title track of the duo’s new EP,  which sees Brown switch to a different banjo brought along on tour for this song, and this song alone.  This fretless banjo seemed to have some heavy gauge – possibly nylon – strings which gave a deep booming tone which acted as a great counterpoint to the soaring fiddle – there’s still a sense of its origins as a dance tune, but this arrangement make it more mysterious and draw out a greater depth from it.  It’s another time when the pair’s playing really transports the listener back to an ancient and mysterious past.

Photo: J. Aird

Shaking things up a bit Brown switched to guitar and Coleman to banjo for Jean Ritchie’s ‘Now is the Cool of the Day‘, described by Coleman as “a subtle protest song” against the strip mining of Ritchie’s Appalachian home.

In case it’s all starting to sound a bit serious – well, that’s not the way it was at all.  The tune set of ‘Sally Ann / Money in Both Pockets‘ was introduced with a story about how they’d arrived in Denmark for the huge Roskilde festival with plenty of Euros.  Yup.  Euros they eventually changed for plenty of plastic pounds when they hit the UK.  Pounds that came in useful when they got lost on the underground and ended up at West Hampstead.   ‘Irish Polka‘ was wryly introduced as a strange tune, since “it’s not Irish…and it’s not a polka.”  It is fascinating to listen to, Brown had a neat trick on the first string producing a hammering tone by what looked to be a double pick on the string with some deadening of the notes in-between.  A better banjo player could doubtless explain it clearer and more correctly – but it’s noteworthy just how skilled a player she is, her right hand technique is quietly stunning.

Along the way there was a fine rendition of ‘Wild Bill Jones‘ and the guitar and fiddle set closer of ‘Copper Kettle‘ finally provided this writer with a description of Nora Brown’s hushed vocal style – it drifts out just like the faintest smoke rising from the approved style of fire under the moonshine: “build your fire of hickory, hickory ash and oak, don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke.

A wonderful night across the two full sets, it flew by so quickly it seemed all too brief – but who would not ask for more when the music is this good?

About Jonathan Aird 2777 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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