The venue is, as ever, inspirational to both tonight’s acts, who were raised in varied Christian settings in the USA. The gig is sold out and the performers really thrive in this supportive atmosphere. Massachusetts’ native McConnell is now a well-seasoned UK visitor from his Nashville home. His latest album ‘Secondhand Smoke’ was widely lauded, even landing an elusive 10/10 on this website. He is currently darting across a dense array of European gigs crossing borders like a Euro MP who has just learned of the expenses allowance.
Playing solo acoustic, as he usually does when touring overseas, McConnell draws on his growing catalogue which, broadly, use a domestic tightly constructed narrative to make observations and reflections on the experiential nature of our existence. He is of course in extensive musical company on that front, and what distinguishes him are the quality of his lyrics; the clarity and emotion of his vocals (at times he is all but acapella, long lines powerfully sounded out over just a couple of chords), and his musicianship. He comes from a similar mother lode as the current likes of Robert Vincent, Noah Gunderson, and Rod Picott, so sits close to the epicentre of the AUK ethos.
‘Rest My Head’ narrates a state he describes, in impassioned style, as between dream and prayer. ‘Could Have Been An Angel’ is superb, the echoey guitar ringing as he contemplates the devil within him periodically losing the behavioural battle with his better self, in a song structure not a world apart from Jason Isbell’s ‘Travelling Alone’. ‘Secondhand Smoke’ itself describes a poignant reunion between father and son after a gap of “seven years of things we had to say.” ‘Mercy’ is a co- write with Brett Young and the anguished ballad has a cross-over appeal that has been one of the commercial highpoints of his career. ‘Nothing Without You’ and ’Don’t Know How To Love You’ are both done as duets with Garrison Starr and their harmonised vocals are a superb blend.
‘Save Our Soul’ is a twanging hypnotic stripped back blues song – its refrain, “We all need a second coming/the rebirth of rock and roll”- alluding, a la Patti Smith, to the inner power that music can bring its followers, whilst ‘Don’t Want to Know’ is an elegy of youthful passion, “Tangled in blue.’
McConnell was ably supported by Garrison Starr (an AUK debutante, it appears) who was a truly uplifting surprise. Mississippi raised and now resident in Los Angeles, her CV has more than a dozen albums over 20 years, with various tracks on film and TV soundtracks. She has a refined pop-rock tinged take on Americana, so if you dwell in the sonic tent of the likes of Patty Griffin and Hannah Aldridge you may well find her a treat, with her melodies often having Springsteen-esque traits. She says early on, “I didn’t have a good relationship with the church,” as a young gay small-town Southerner, and songs such as ‘Don’t Believe in Me’ and ‘The Devil In Me’ illustrate this. ‘Train Bound For Glory’, a self-penned gospel song which closes her 40-minute set however suggests that as she has become older she has found a better religious place. Another highlight is a stirring heartfelt take on Tom Petty’s ‘Southern Accents’. With an emotive yet gritty voice, she plays an acoustic set and her lively banter has some choice earthy words scarcely used when the church is doing its day job. She merits wider attention this side of the Atlantic with such fine material.