The last time that they played London, some four years ago, it was at The Green Note, so the somewhat austere setting of Hall 2 at Kings Place is a sizeable step up in audience numbers for Pharis and Jason Romero, if something of a step down in cosiness and intimacy. Not that this offered the duo any problem with forging audience communication – from the first bars of ‘Gambling Man‘ they pulled the room into their world of guitars, banjos and crystal clear vocals – that’s Pharis – and the timeless complementary strong baritone of her husband Jason. Their sound is a blend of Old Timey tunes elevated by Pharis’ lyrics, some straight bluegrass and stone-cold country flecked folk. They also have a relatively new album ‘Sweet old religion‘ out, which perhaps plays up the guitar side their music a little and also forms a good portion of the two sets played on this night.
As well as taking the majority of the lead vocals Pharis Romero contributes most of the context particularly when relating to their family life in the bucolic wilderness town of Horsefly – an idyll of banjo making, punctuated by incursions by untamed nature. Dogs disappear – ‘Lost Lula‘ is a banjo tune dedicated to one such loss – and neighbours get killed among their apple trees when the bears come into civilisation, as was the fate of the hero of the ‘Ballad of Old Bill‘. The first half of the evening featured several banjo tunes on Jason Romero’s current favourite banjo. And whilst we’re warned that a man can have too many banjos – the purchase of his 52nd led to a friends’ divorce – there are none of the easy laughs at the expense of this finest and expressive of all stringed instruments. Jason is a fine picker whose clear and ringing tones take us into what Pharis describes as the “banjo vortex.” It’s a swirling and entrancing sound and a pure joy to listen to – and he seems to be currently be favouring three fingered bluegrass picking . And that’s no bad thing either.
It’s the songs too that mark this particular duo out as distinctive – be it the contemplative carrying on in a confusing world of ‘The Salesman‘, or the gentle paean of love that is the two-stepping ‘You are the best thing‘ or the achingly sad and low ‘Lonesome & I’m going back home‘. Each one is complete in itself – it has a story, it has a strong visual element and they are all sung and played beautifully. Pharis and Jason Romero have some more dates in May, it would be a pity not to catch them if you have the chance.