Bristol’s Wardrobe Theatre is a bohemian gem of a venue in a neglected but vibrant corner of the city, offering up a mix of independent productions and cutting edge Americana to an audience made up of old and young. A taste for low key performances and local craft ale seems to be a prerequisite for this minimalist Victorian dance hall setting and tonight Rachel Baiman and friends touched down from Nashville to a seasonal West Country welcome.
Those who had braved the freezing weather were quickly thawed by the remarkable speed with which Baiman settled into her new surroundings, not put off by the frosty British reserve, and she soon had the crowd eating out of her hand with her fiery brand of old time and bluegrass. With just a harsh bare bulb, a jumbo surround mic and her wingmen in the form of Cy Winstanley on guitar and Shelby Means on double bass, she formed a three pronged attack against any unbelievers out there among the Brits. At least, that might’ve been the case had it not been for the fact that she had actually been over here a few months previously in cahoots with fellow rapidly rising Nashville bluegrass star Molly Tuttle in support of her sophomore album ‘Shame’, and been extremely well received to boot. It was as she came to the end of a faithful rendition of the title track and started engaging with the audience that it became clear that she was actually suffering with bronchitis. As the evening progressed Baiman had to rely on her friends more and more for vocal support until, by the end it was clear she suffering quite badly. Many, and by that I mean most singers, would’ve brought the evening to an end before the curtain even came up, but she saw it right through to the end with a courage that endeared her to this Bristol crowd.
This time around Baiman is here to promote her new EP ‘Thanksgiving’ and it was evident that it had arrived in town long before she had judging by the buzz that went round the old place when Baiman launched into ‘Madison Town’. The new material is left leaning and this reworking of the John Hartford classic echoes Baiman’s sentiments of social inclusion, matching the vibe of this holistic theatre. The vocal harmonies were as close as they come while Winstanley and Means continued to take over main duties whenever Baiman’s vocal chords threatened to give way. Baiman in turn made a joke of the whole thing which was perfectly judged, especially to a British audience who in turn lapped it up. By the time ‘Getting Ready to Start Getting Ready’ had been introduced as a surfy song – coming across more like Buddy Holly on a mountain top, toes were tapping, and ‘Wicked Spell’ just emphasised the irony of the virginal gown clad Rachel Baiman of the ‘Shame’ album cover as she snarled and snapped and stepped out in time with Winstanley and Means providing a mesmerising trail in her wake. ‘Let Them Go To Heaven’, ‘Tent City’ and ‘Times Like These’ were all highlights but there was plenty of heart, soul, guts and flair to go around throughout this evening of high quality entertainment.