Saving Grace + The Rails, Birmingham Town Hall, 22nd December 2019

Folk duo, The Rails, begin the evening’s proceedings with their crisp vocal melodies enhanced by the acoustic guitar parts flitting between lead and rhythm lines without missing a beat. Their set comprises of a variety of songs from their back catalogue mixed in with songs from their latest album, ‘Cancel the Sun’, including ‘Something Is Slipping My Mind’. This relaxed country number demonstrates The Rails’ capacity for harmonies and an immaculate sense of timing at the end of phrases that is appreciated by much of the audience.

Kami Thompson’s familial calibre is evident in her vocal performance, which has a Celtic potency that cuts through beautifully whilst James Walbourne’s laid back vocals complement superbly. The onstage confidence of the couple pervades their set as when there is a false start on ‘Other People’, Thompson and Walbourne continue without batting an eyelid and Kami happily grabs a new tuning pedal from offstage when required. The Rails end their forty-five minute performance with the title track from ‘Cancel The Sun’ that allows Walbourne to let loose on the acoustic and makes me wonder if he is missing an electric guitar to allow him to unleash the distortion as produced at the end of the recorded version.

The opening track of Saving Grace’s set, ‘Undone In Sorrow’, illustrates perfectly the nature of the evening’s performance; the impact of sensitive arrangements and dynamics that can be produced when a talented cooperative congregate. Suzi Dian takes the lead vocal line with its euphonic quality resonating round this legendary venue, executing a steady yet emotive crescendo and diminuendo in unity with the rest of the band. The five musicians work in glorious harmony from start to finish reworking a selection of diverse cover versions that have been collected from various places creating a musical journey in its truest form.

Robert Plant eloquently delivers some stories behind the choice of songs, usually connected to a person he has met on his travels and more often than not with a humorous aside. For example, his unlikely duet with bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley on ‘Two Coats’ which worked although Plant is not quite sure how. These tales of his accumulation of different musical styles, genres and techniques evidence Robert Plant’s refusal to be defined by Led Zeppelin and his ingrained desire to explore world music. However, you would be mistaken if you thought that Saving Grace are Plant’s backing band; this is a collective of which Plant is only one part. The percussion and drums of Oli Jefferson are exquisite; he instinctively comprehends what is required of each track appreciating that this may range from resonating bass drum in ‘Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday’ to the subtle use of brushes in ‘Cuckoo’. Considering the bands he has played in over the years, the guitar-playing skills of Tony Kelsey is unsurprising. Yet he transitions seamlessly between mandolin and guitar and genre-to-genre, intuitively bringing weight during a song such as ‘Season Of The Witch’ and tenderness to the likes of ‘Too Far From You’. Matt Worley flits between an array of instruments, including banjo, cuatro and guitar, considering what sound would best fit the band’s interpretation of the song. This true musicianship is evidenced by Worley’s use of keyboard-produced soundscapes during ‘She Cried’, reminiscent of Warren Ellis’s instrumentation on the last two Bad Seeds albums. Furthermore, Worley produces admirable lead vocals on the Levon Helm cover ‘Move Along The Train’ and delightful backing vocals on the other songs in the set.

The energy and appreciation that is flowing between the musicians is palpable. When Dian or Plant are singing they are intently watching the others play with nothing but elation in their eyes and a natural movement in their bodies. As a member of the audience, you cannot help but become engrossed in the positive vibe that is being generated in front of you, especially as “Stourport is the new Haight-Ashbury”, which explains why there is such demand for the band to return for an encore. It is at this point I am blown away by a phenomenal version of ‘Everybody’s Song’ from Low’s brilliant album ‘The Great Destroyer’, firstly, because I wasn’t expecting such a discordant number and secondly, because of the vocal delivery. Dian and Plant let rip wailing, “Breaking everybody’s heart” which is spine-chilling as Worley and Kelsey draw on the heavy emphatic stabs enhanced by Jefferson’s pounding of the kit to reiterate the darkness of the song. After taking us to the edge of Beelzebub’s lair, Saving Grace return us to acapella bliss with as they surround a microphone at the front of the stage to deliver a delectable cover of ‘And We Bid You Goodnight’. There could not be a more apt rendition to draw proceedings to a close surrounded by rousing applause and a standing ovation. These five musicians have produced a supreme ninety minutes of music with considered interpretations of others compositions, ensuring they present an innovative exploration of the songs whilst maintaining their true essence. Furthermore, this odyssey has been undertaken in the spirit of appreciation, musicianship, and exultation: they truly are a band of joy!

A huge thanks to Rob Hadley for his excellent pictures

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