This was a tremendous double helping of diverse roots music at the cosy Camden Town venue often featured – and always warmly praised – on this website. If you triangulate Nickel Creek, Old Crow Medicine Show and Turnpike Troubadours, then the sweet point in the middle could be No Coward Soul. Relatively new as a band with the current line up (which is Brad Schmauss – Lead vocal, Mandolin and Guitar, Egg Phillips – backing vocal, harmonica; Martin Gray – backing vocal, guitars; Jules Clement Smith – Bass Guitar; Sam Kinsey – Drums), the roots were laid some five years ago when Schmauss and Gray started up as a duo. The band all have full time jobs outside their music so have an extra challenge in crafting such accomplished music and performing so slickly. They are primarily British with the notable exception of front man Schmauss who made the quirky relocation from Alaska to South London; a trade off of tundra for musical opportunity.
The 70-minute set majored on their recent debut album, ‘The Almanac’. Schmauss has a dexterous voice that can do menace, passion, sardonic or straightforward rattling narrative, all of which options are included in tonight’s set. His charisma and photogenic demeanour won’t do the band any harm. Many of the lyrics are set in USA scenarios. Second song, ‘Holy Toledo’, has a staccato lyric as if Alt J have pitched up in New Mexico. ‘Orpheus’ narrates a greyhound bus trip while ‘Bullets’ describes “North Carolina/there’s a lady named Jemima” and a chugging rhythm underpinned ‘Little Mikey Mountain’, a tale of an adolescent’s raising of awareness through his early teens. ‘Fireflies’ followed and was a radio friendly track with its stirring sing-along chorus, “Hallelujah, count your blessings”. ‘Braves’ has a slower reflective melody whilst another stand out was ‘Gotta Believe’, set in the Alaskan autumn, with Schmauss describing how he pursued his now-wife whose blueberry picking “leaves stains on your clothes.” ‘Nighthawks’ adopts a London setting, with the stripped back instrumentation showcasing the vocals, whilst ‘Benjamin Franklin’ is another lyrically rich cut, taken from the band’s 2014 ‘Scarecrow’ EP. The final song of the set was the classy, mature single ‘Death In Texas’, about a soul in imminent peril, “I feel you shivering and quivering/shout the goddamn devil down tonight”. The encore was somewhat idiosyncratically a cover of a Dr Dre song, ‘California Love’, with only the drumbeat hinting at its hip-hop lineage and the arrangement becoming very much the band’s own.
Another powerful finely honed vocalist was a feature of the support in the form of Lisa Redford whose consistently polished material surely merits wider attention. She has recorded material going back to the early 2000s. At her best on stirring tracks such as ‘Dragonfly’ and ‘Never Was a Yesterday’ or ‘Wild Flower’, a song about the solitary unpredictable but inspirational moments when a creative person has the spark of a new idea, her song structures, guitar pattern and vocal style recalled Patty Griffin. Her set picked out numbers from her recent EP ‘Another Place And Time’, recorded with Norwich band The Vagaband (though she is solo acoustic tonight) and her voice was crystal clear. ‘Anything But Easy’ shared sonic ground with Ward Thomas and was part of an Under The Apple Tree session in Bob Harris’s Cotswold garden studio, the rural mid England setting ideally chosen for her sound and image. Set closer ‘Carolina Rain’ (clearly some distance west of rural Oxfordshire!) narrated a scene of trying to hold on to an idyllic memory amidst the southern rainfall.