It almost felt like the good old times. A storied concert in Perth’s spectacular concert hall, followed by a late night gig in the revamped Perth Theatre – Southern Fried was back. It wasn’t however the full four day jamboree which, pre-covid, had seen Perth’s annual festival of Americana and Roots music – rivalled only by Glasgow’s Celtic Connections – as the premier Scottish event to see artists such as Steve Earle, Graham Nash, John Prine and Rodney Crowell over the years, bundled along with a host of acts playing late shows or on the outdoor stage, including, always, a fair dash of local artists.
This return was a one day affair, a toe dipped in the water perhaps, to see if the audience would come. And indeed they did with the concert hall comfortably full for the headline show, a tribute to the late Nanci Griffith, Griffith having played at the inaugural Southern Fried back in 2008. This show, put together by Southern Fried organisers Horsecross, had premiered earlier in the year at Celtic Connections (it was one of the few scheduled shows which went ahead after Celtic Connections was decimated by the January Omicron variant) and it seemed quite fitting that it be revived here tonight.
A very fine clutch of Scottish singers –Kirsten Adamson, James Grant, Jill Jackson, Karen Matheson, Dean Owens, Lisa Rigby, and Emily Smith took turns at singing songs written by Griffith or performed by her. They were backed by an incredibly astute and empathetic line up of musicians who were able to switch from country to rock to folk on the turn of a dime. Bandmaster, Stuart Nisbet (playing pedal steel, Dobro and banjo) had well honed his troupe for the night and their playing was, throughout, a delight. With Ben Nicholls on electric and double bass accompanied by the inventive percussion of Signy Jakobsdottir holding the sound together, guitarists Steven Polwart and David Paton (remember Pilot and their song, January? He wrote and sang it) meshed well while fiddler Patsy Reid (who arranged the strings heard on Gretchen Peters’ latest live release) and Kate St. John (for those who know of her, a legend via work with Dream Academy, Teardrop Explodes and others too many to mention) on keyboards and accordion, added the necessary colour.
The show commenced with a most appropriate song, ‘The Road To Aberdeen’, written by Griffith when in Scotland and which she had sang acapella at Southern Fried in 2008. A true ensemble piece with all singers involved it, was led by Karen Matheson as the band played a Celtic drone with bowed double bass and whispers of fiddle and pedal steel. It was a breathtaking start and with the song bowing out with the words, “We are all one family,” a reminder of the power of music to unite us in troubled times.
Thereafter it was two hours of musical joy as the singers took turns, solo or in various combinations to sing their Nanci song while offering an anecdote or two about the song or, on occasion, their memories of working with her. By and large the band stayed close to the original versions starting off with ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About Love’ and ending with ‘From A Distance’, both delivered with a stunning sense of poise while there was space for a rootsy banjo led ‘Banks Of The Pontchartrain’ and a fired up ‘Ford Econoline’. One of the most powerful performances of the night was on ‘It’s A Hard Life’, sung by Lisa Rigby (with Emily Smith and Kirsten Adamson on harmonies) with its dramatic percussion building up a tremendous sense of tension while Nisbet’s Dobro snaked throughout it.
Over 20 plus songs the ensemble continued to delight while the audience seemed particularly fired up to hear ‘Love At The Five & Dime’ (sung by James Grant) and ‘Speed Of the Sound Of Loneliness’ and ‘Lone Star State Of Mind’ (both sung by Jill Jackson). Aside from the John Prine cover, Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Tecumseh Valley’ was aired by Dean Owens while the whole ensemble gathered on stage to end the first half of the show on a rousing version of Pete Seeger’s ‘If I Had A Hammer’.
As befits a tribute to a not too long departed artist there was a degree of reverence throughout the show with memories of listening to or playing with Griffith mentioned but special mentions to James Grant and Dean Owens for leavening their comments with some humour. They paled however in comparison to Jill Jackson who, aside from her excellent renditions of the songs, provided some Glasgow (Paisley really in her case) gallousness. She had the audience in stitches at times and surely won some new fans tonight.
A glorious version of ‘Gulf Coast Highway’ led the way into the closing number, ‘From A Distance’, a song not written by Griffith and overshadowed by the chart topping version by Bette Midler. Nevertheless it is in Nanci’s cannon and, again, with the whole ensemble joining in, it was quite an emotional moment. The song was dedicated by Stuart Nisbet to the memory of a Southern Fried stalwart, Gavin Munro, who had tragically died just a few weeks before.
With that, the concert hall emptied and the hardier folk made their way to the renovated Perth Theatre for a late night show which went on to 1am. Katie Whittaker, an erstwhile member of The Red Pine Timber Company, Gavin Munro’s last band, performed a powerful set of soulful and at times rocking numbers with guitarist Chris Small blazing away on telecaster. She’s an avowed fan of Etta James but on the evidence of some of the songs tonight, slated for her debut album, she also has the country sass of Loretta Lynn with one song in particular, ‘Ten Years Together’, a winner.
Local music veterans, Wang Dang Delta who play a blend of classic blues, juke joint spinners and Commander Cody like country rockers closed the curtain on this episode of Southern Fried. This reviewer has to confess that, somewhat wearied, we missed them but they were being enthused over the next morning by some fellow breakfast hunters.
At the end of the day, one night spent at Southern Fried, while not matching a whole weekend with its attendant events and various stages, was still a welcome return. It’s testament to its pull that over the course of several hours, your reporter met several folk who we had last met at the last Southern Fried and even enjoyed a pint or two with some of them, earlier in a sun kissed outdoor bar and then post gig in a late night bar. Roll on next year.
All pictures copywrite of Marc Marnie and a huge thanks to Marc for sharing them here.
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