It can be tricky to find live music of any meaningful kind on the North Yorkshire coast, save for a few functional local indie / rock bands and the odd acoustic covers session. There is also a bit of a folk scene here and there but, with the Spa in Brid’ seeming to have given up the ghost of putting on anything other than mainstream seaside attractions and Scarborough’s Futurist long gone, the opportunities to see visiting artists of any substance are rarer than rocking horse scat. With both Leeds and Newcastle (plus, occasionally, York) drawing most of the significant tours that venture this far north, the chance to experience a bona-fide award-winning American Americana artist such as Sara Petite in the vicinity of south bay beach is a rare treat.
Promoter Chris Lee deserves massive credit for his commitment to Americana in the region (check out his Filey Americana Festival coming in September) and was rewarded with a pretty full house for tonight’s gig; a crowd that we are reliably informed is the best house of the tour so far. To open the show, local solo artist and Woolgatherers’ frontman Phil Hooley appears with his “world weary Willie Nelson” demeanour, battered ‘cowboy hat’ and clutch of reflective self-penned “cowboy songs”. Hooley holds the audience’s attention with the odd wryly amusing line and melodies that are as immediate as they are unassuming. In truth, a solo acoustic performance such as this is perhaps more suited to the surroundings of The Old Parcels Store community arts venue than the raucous shenanigans we are expecting (and eventually get) from Ms Petite. The walls are adorned with art from Leeds Fine Art collective, there’s a trestle table selling warm beer and Pinot Grigio (which turns out to be la Petite’s tipple) and the house remains brightly lit throughout courtesy of the evening summer sun and the prominent skylight. This incongruity is perhaps the first of a number of contradictions that characterise this evening’s show, most of which add to the enjoyment though it’s fair to say.
It seems, as four pairs of scruffy boots belonging to Petite and her UK band take the stage, that she may also be wary of the glare in which she is about to perform. Her ‘hello’ is diffident and the first couple of songs seem tentative and a little sluggish. Ultimately though, what this cautious start does is work to emphasise the authority and attitude which she (and her excellent band) bring to the majority of their set. Just a case of warming up properly perhaps? It seems unlikely that, with the experience and confidence she carries with her, that nerves has anything to do with it.
Pretty soon we are urged to forget about our comfy seats and somewhat un-rock’n’roll circumstances and are delivered instead to the San Diego Biker bar that crops up in more than one song intro tonight and in which Petite is a welcome regular. Dedicated to George and Tammy being dysfunctional on the Muppet Show, we are offered a raucous reading of the rockabilly/honky-tonk mash that is ‘That Was You and Me’ from her latest LP ‘The Empress’ and the show begins to take off. What we get then is a gig with a clear arc to proceedings. Petite emerges from her ever-so reticent, even hesitant opening, into a more confident eager to please performer who is happy to engage us in a professional and well-rehearsed way. Finally she surfaces the don’t give-a-fuck hellraiser, with a taste for, if her tales and lyrics are to be believed, copious quantities of sex and drugs and rock n roll – even though the only hard evidence of this is a single glass of Pinot Grigio delivered to the stage as per her urgent request.
She also displays a wicked sense of humour, often targeted at herself and her family/friends in a compellingly self-deprecating manner. Occasionally though the band may bear the brunt, or even the unsuspecting punter who, on emerging from the conspicuously positioned facilities, is asked, for the entire audience’s curiosity, if it was a number 1 or 2? Some of North Yorkshire’s more decorous Americana devotees seemed less than amused at such an intrusion, the rest of us thought it was piss funny (so sorry, but it just had to be, didn’t it?).
As Petite relaxes into the gig and her natural personality comes to the fore, the band also seem to settle in and their playing ramps up to match the leader’s delivery. They loosen up whilst maintaining a real propulsive edge that pushes the songs out into the room with a vigour that very nearly gets us out of our seats! The rhythm section of Jamie Dawson (drums) and Scott Warman (electric bass and bull fiddle) are powerful and rock solid with Warman offering some lovely melodic lines on occasions. Joe Coombs on guitar is a revelation though. He is given plenty room to stretch out on a number of occasions and does so in a way that rocks hard without losing any of the subtlety or nuance of Petite’s songs. He also unleashes the full gamut of rock ‘n’ roll guitarists’ faces, the like of which we have not seen since maybe Carlos Santana in his 70s heyday (other suggestions for gurning guitar greats gratefully received)?
Coombs twangs, riffs and jangles in all the right places and his big moment comes when there is a problem with Petite’s acoustic and he takes an extended solo at the end of The Empress (I think). This issue eventually forces the band off the stage but is quickly rectified and they return with a renewed energy and seem eager to up the ante even further in search of a reciprocal energy in the audience. Throughout all this the four of them are having a great time performing together, occasionally getting lost in the camaraderie they obviously share and this only adds to their communication with the crowd.
The set draws heavily from Petite’s latest ‘The Empress’ and highlights of the show include the saga of her family and their hometown that is ‘Bringing Down the Neighbourhood’, the out-and-out roots rock monster that is ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (we nearly sang along!) and the encore of ‘The Misfits’, an earlier song and almost a Mission Statement for Petite’s approach to her music and life in general. She tells us the song was inspired by a night on the lash with her musical compadres and tells of the artist’s need to speak their truth and is a real eulogy to the power of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a fitting way to end the show, the supremely catchy chorus may be just a little hokey but it really should have roused the audience more than it did. Perhaps we are back to the surroundings again but a performance of such heart-on-sleeve energy and righteous joyous swagger really deserved more response than it got. If North Yorkshire wants to keep attracting artists of Petite’s calibre then a little more reciprocated ‘ooomph’ on our part is probably needed.