The phrase ‘small venue hero’ could’ve been invented to describe Peter Bruntnell, as could the term ‘underrated,’ but that’s a whole different story… His career in the UK americana scene is longer than most of the beards you often see being sported by middle-aged men watching his concerts – myself included.
Just in the past few years, I’ve caught him covering Nick Drake songs in legendary London pub, The Betsey Trotwood, playing solo and with a full band at The Railway in Winchester, Hampshire, supporting Richmond Fontaine at their last ever UK show at The Electric Ballroom in Camden, performing at the 100 Club, and at the new-look Borderline, not that long before it closed down.
Born in New Zealand, the English singer-songwriter, who released his twelfth album, the wonderful, stripped-down and melancholy, ‘Journey To The Sun’, last year, is pretty much a permanent fixture on the UK alt.country/americana circuit, whether he’s playing solo, or with his band, or teaming up with other guest musicians, including pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole or gunslinger James Walbourne (The Rails, The Pretenders).
Incredibly, gig / festival promoter, writer and Bruntnell super-fan, Oliver Gray has put him on 32 times. “They were mostly full-band affairs but also solo, duo and trio formats – he’s also played all eight of our sxsc Festivals,” he tells AUK. “We call him our “lucky mascot” because he never, ever lets us down. If you add in all the occasions I’ve seen Pete performing shows that we haven’t promoted, it adds up to over 70 times.”
Gray first saw Bruntnell and his band opening for Neal Casal at the Tower Arts Centre in Winchester, in February 2000. “It was a storming performance and I knew immediately that this was the music for me – tuneful, unpretentious, serious yet with an underlying element of humour and above all, supreme musicianship, full of integrity, commitment and joy. I’ve followed his career avidly ever since,” he says.
“Almost all Bruntnell shows are memorable because you can never be entirely sure what’s going to happen. There was the time in a roadhouse outside Austin, Texas where we were all high on an evil home-made concoction called Devil’s Piss. Another time was when his trio played in a wedding marquee in East Sussex, with rising flood waters lapping around them.”
And what would Gray say has been his best Bruntnell show? “It was in a pub in a tiny village called Badshot Lea. You had to walk through the band to get to the loo and it was almost impossible to avoid stepping on the effects pedals. The band played the most incredibly intense show that night – Bruntnell always has outstanding band mates.”
AUK asks Gray why Bruntnell isn’t a household name, as he certainly puts the hours in, doesn’t he? “Although he’s often referred to as ‘under the radar’, he actually makes a reasonable living from music – something that’s very hard to achieve. He does this by working incredibly hard. He currently has four separate bands and plays several times a week in the London area, as well as managing himself, doing his own booking and releasing his records on his own label.”
He adds: “He certainly doesn’t fit the mould of the traditional singer-songwriter. For a while, he was lumbered with the ‘alt-country’ tag, but I’ve always preferred psychedelic pop – plus, don’t forget, he’s a brilliant electric guitarist. He’s always taken an alternative path from the mainstream music industry, but he’s much-loved and highly-respected, particularly in the US, where any musician you meet will express their awe and admiration for him.”
Last year, AUK readers voted Bruntnell’s 1999 album, ‘Normal For Bridgwater’, as the sixth best americana album of all time in a poll. Isn’t it about time we gave him an award for being a small venue hero too?