When great musicians and songwriters come together, they can feed off one another and elevate their performances. That was certainly the case at Junction 2 in Cambridge when the Songwriters’ Circle played the third date on their short UK tour. It was an evening of engaging music, soaring songs and intimate conversation. The four talented players were Annie Dressner, Dan Wilde, Luke James Williams and Lucy Grubb, who recently took a well-deserved third place in the AUK Twang Factor (check out her exclusive performance of ’18 Miles’ here). Between them, these artists have released critically-acclaimed albums and EPs and have appeared at various festivals, including Glastonbury, Cambridge Folk, Green Man, Red Rooster and Black Deer. Each is a gifted acoustic player but they also share a deep love of the art and craft of songwriting, which is where the concept for this tour comes from. This was a show in two parts. First, the artists took turns playing their own songs solo before they then collaborated, performing a set of songs as a band. The structure and the balance of song and chat was perfect for an evening’s entertainment.
On the surface, these are all similar artists: strong voices and smart lyrics accompanied by an acoustic instrument. However, the format helped to demonstrate the distinctive and positive qualities of each performer. Also, in this first section, one of the joys was watching those who weren’t playing; they were utterly absorbed in one another’s songs, lost in the music, swaying and nodding, eyes closed and respectful. While listening to each other, they were also one of us, one of the crowd. It was delightful to see the pleasure they took in sharing their songs and this experience together, making for a powerful, collective experience even when playing solo.
Dan Wilde started the proceedings with ‘Lies’, demonstrating his smoothly melodic vocal. The highlight of his songs was ‘Pictures’ from the 2013 album ‘With Fire in Mind’. This gorgeous song featured bright, delicate finger-picking over which Wilde shared lyrical images of times spent with his grandfather. It was intimate and steeped in the sort of personal nostalgia we can all recognise and associate with. Annie Dressner played second in each round of songs and she opened with one of her most striking songs: ‘Nyack’. It’s beautifully tuneful and, again, deeply personal and nostalgic, full of memory and the detail of places visited and times past. The twist at the end, “I never wanted to be there at all,” is disarming and honest. Her second song was ‘Look What You’re Doing to Us’, which she played with a powerful strum. Her words are intense and personal, contrasting with her understated, almost conversational, singing-style. She had played this song, taken from 2020’s ‘Coffee at the Corner Bar’, for the very first time in a previous show at this very venue and spoke fondly of returning. Indeed, all the players agreed that Junction 2 is one of their favourite venues, a nice touch for the local audience.
Luke James Williams’ songs were notable for the emotional intensity of his vocal and his unexpected melodic twists. There was a real tension in ‘Rabbit Hole’, a song about watching the impact of mental ill-health on a loved one. ‘Still in Bed’ was particularly powerful, his voice soaring over a melodic motif repeated on his guitar. As with his collaborators, Williams’ sensitive, well-chosen words are at the heart of his songs. Lucy Grubb followed up with a series of fabulously written and performed country songs. The melody of ‘Storm’ was captivating but the highlight was the classic country sound and rhythmic shuffle of ‘You Don’t Do Anything’. It’s a timeless song that demonstrates her outstanding songwriting gift and her clear, pure voice, which is just right for country.
Of course the structure of the evening allowed for the artists to share a little about the songs and to talk to the audience in an intimate way. The conversational chatter was warm and served to make the show all the more personal. There was praise for one another that felt genuine and unforced. The show also benefited from plenty of humour: Wilde was encouraged by the others to talk about the car hired for the tour that they struggled to drive and lock. He also had the audience and fellow performers laughing with his joke about a penguin, an amusing and unexpected interlude that they returned to throughout. Another moment that was enchanting and memorable was when Dressner’s children took to the stage, at their request, to sing on ‘I’ve Always Been Like This’. This recent single is an open-hearted song for the lonely and those who feel different from their peers. When she sings: “Am I alone in wishing that I was more like anybody else? // Am I alone in wishing that I was a lot less like me?” it is disarming in it’s honesty and it stirs a genuine emotional response.
The second part of the evening, with the four performing together as a band, was exceptional. It began with Grubb’s excellent country song ’18 Miles’, which really benefited from the layers provided by her colleagues, especially Williams on percussion. Williams’ ‘Punchbag’ was also really effective; it’s a song inspired by foreign words that can’t be translated directly into English, specifically backpfeifengesicht, a German word meaning a face that begs to be punched. Catchy and upbeat, this translated well with the full band. Wilde’s song ‘Safia’ was written for his niece, living far away in Russia but clearly close to his heart. Beautifully played, this was emotionally real and honest, a song Safia will no doubt delight in hearing in years to come. The final song of the set was a cover of Foo Fighters’ ‘Big Me’ that featured all four singing together in an uplifting harmony vocal that was strikingly good. Should they tour together again, more moments like this – all four voices rising and falling together in a gorgeous vocal dance – would be very welcome.
After the gig, all four performers took the time to meet the audience at the merch stand, telling stories and signing records. Wilde told us about the photograph on the cover of his 2012 album ‘This is the Place’ – thoughtful, meaningful and emotionally resonant. It’s his story to tell. Overall, the impression from this gig was of the privilege of sharing an intimate evening of music with friends and the image that remains is of these talented musicians lost in the music, absorbed in one another’s songs. Spellbinding.
Dan Wilde – Lies
Annie Dressner – Nyack
Luke James Williams – This Says
Lucy Grubb – Magpie
Dan Wilde – Pictures
Annie Dressner – Look What You’re Doing To Us
Luke James Williams – Rabbit Hole
Lucy Grubb – Storm
Dan Wilde – Somebody Else
Annie Dressner – Dance We Do
Luke James Williams – Still In Bed
Lucy Grubb – You Don’t Do Anything
I’ve Always Been Like This
Didn’t We Run
Big Me (Foo Fighters)