That the Railway Inn in Winchester has become a hotbed of Americana is due, in the main, to the sterling efforts of promoters, SC4m.co.uk, AKA the husband and wife team of Oliver and Birgit Gray. Wind the clock back to May 2003 and, in Oliver’s own words, “We started off booking Peter Bruntnell, partly because he’s a mate and partly because he’s a crazed genius.” Since that seminal moment, Mr Bruntnell has reappeared at the Railway on umpteen occasions and it would seem, based on the packed room, that the good folk of Hampshire are still lapping him up.
But first things first and onto the wonderfully engaging and vocally blessed talents of Sophia Marshall. If there is one thing on which Gray insists it is full respect for any supporting act, demonstrated here by his animated imploring for the audience to move closer to the stage. To be fair, a lack of attention wasn’t the issue, more that they had simply stopped where they were, drinks in hand, as if in suspended animation, all the better to listen to and soak up the music.
Without the usual support and harmonies of sister Sarah who was excused duties with a sick note, it was just Joe Cartwright on bass to accompany Marshall here and she held the audience from the off with ‘Losing You’ from her 2017 album ‘Bye Bye’ and then ‘Call Them by Age’, taken from the earlier 2015 ‘Paper Thin’ EP. By then, to be frank, neither Marshall nor the enthusiastic Gray needed to work very hard on the audience. The quality of these openers was such that the perfectly formed set of six songs flashed by in a blur and the sense of disappointment when the set closed was almost palpable.
When a back catalogue goes as deep and is as varied as Peter Bruntnell’s, it is always fascinating at any gig to hear where he will delve, especially with a new album to promote. So, enter, to little fanfare, Mr Bruntnell and straight into ‘Cold Water Swimmer’ and ‘Domestico’ both from 2008’s ‘Peter and the Murder of Crows’. Brilliantly executed by such a tight five-piece band, the room was instantly instantly transformed. Volume up, sweat on the faces, rhythm pulsing through the walls. Then, further back in time to 2003 and the classic ‘Here Come the Swells’, a long-time favourite of Bruntnell champion Bob Harris, followed by ‘City Star’ from the same vintage.
From that point on, while the archives were still occasionally raided, new songs from the latest album, ‘King of Madrid’ were the focus. Kicking off with a brilliant rendition of ‘Dinosaur’, which has Bruntnell musing on Mark Zuckerberg getting hit by a meteor, and peaking with ‘Broken Wing’ which has the feel of an instant classic to add to an already extensive list of them, the energy of the gig never dipped.
Take a look at the venues on any Peter Bruntnell tour and it will tell you instantly how accessible this artist is. He is often out there, playing to converts such as he clearly had here at the Railway Inn, bringing a big stage presence to affordably intimate venues in places like Winchester and Witney and Montrose. While this hugely accomplished artist continues to showcase a rare songwriting talent and combines that with memorable live performances such as exhibited here, we lovers of all things Americana should offer up our immeasurable thanks to promoters such as the Grays who, with a genuine love of the music, make these things happen.
Many thanks to Paul Bevan for use of the Peter Bruntnell photographs.