Almost two years ago to the day, Tyler Childers played a solo acoustic set to less than 100 people in a small basement venue in central Manchester. Today he is again in town, only this time he is playing with a five-piece band at a sold-out Academy 2 (capacity 950). That’s a considerable upgrade over such a short period of time. It’s particularly impressive for a young man who avowedly describes himself as a country singer and whose recorded output, whilst reflecting the present, is so deeply rooted in past traditions.
The band, followed by Childers himself, took to the stage with minimum fanfare and went straight into ‘Trudy’ a 1970 Charlie Daniels cover. All very country you might think, only hold on, ‘Trudy’ is not ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, moreover, it comes from Daniels’ debut album and has a more bluesy, country-soul feel to it. It’s a track that would have fitted nicely on to one of those ‘roots of southern rock’ style compilations that did good business a few years back. Childers’ arrangement is very true to the original with guitar and keyboard taking the lead. It proved to be a bit of a window into what would follow in an evening that left those present divided in their opinions.
A glance at the musicians on stage offered no clue that this was a country music show – no hats, embroidered shirts or sequins, and some of them were even wearing trainers for God’s sake! Actually, the fact that Childers spurns such icons and images is a positive; too often they end up caricaturing and limiting an artist. Instead Childers sported a hoodie, clearly confident in his country credentials.
A look round the room revealed a far younger audience than is typical at country music gigs. No bad thing of course, the genre needs new fans as much as it needs bright new performers like Tyler Childers. It was also apparent that a good proportion of them knew many of the songs word for word and created a sometimes raucous party sing-along atmosphere, which others were clearly uncomfortable with. The occasional utilisation of a banjo, a fiddle or the pedal steel, reminded us now and again that this was a country show. However, those traditional instruments were not prominent in the mix, offering low-key supporting roles to the songs, rather than more starring roles. As each song came and passed, it became clear that this live show was going to bear only a passing resemblance to the recordings with which we were more familiar. Pounding drums, powerful guitars and sometimes crunching keyboards were creating a new, much more large arena rock sound. Many in the hall lapped it up, whilst others were slipping off early before the end.
By the time Childers reached the fifth song ‘House Fire’ with its slow-burn introduction building to a crescendo of sound, it was clear that the path was set. The delivery was very much ‘Copperhead Road’ era Steve Earle, which, perhaps tellingly, remains his best-selling album. In addition to this more robust sound, songs were often extended by guitar or keyboard solos, or by repetitive jams. The majority of the rest of the set continued in a similar vein. Familiar songs were redressed as anthems, good for clapping, stomping and singing along to. It all seemed a long way from the traditional two minute country song.
From time to time, a song would be played in a more recognisable guise. ‘Country Squire’ stayed closer to its recorded version than most. The choice of Kenny Rogers’ ‘Tulsa Turnaround’ was a similar reminder of where Childers had come from. However, it wasn’t until the very end, when the band left the stage and Childers delivered three wonderful solo acoustic performances, that his true talent was allowed to flourish and express itself. Starting with ‘Nose on the Grindstone’ and following on with ‘Lady May’ and finally ‘Follow You to Virgie’ it was as if the soul had been poured back into the songs.
Tyler Childers is a talented and ambitious artist. It was great to see him pulling so many people into his show, it was great that so many of them were of his own generation and it was great to see him trying a new approach. However, in forging that new live sound, it was hard not to think that Childers had hammered much of the subtlety, nuance and emotion out of his songs. This is not a plea for a return to country orthodoxy, merely an observation that this time the plan didn’t quite come off.
Support act The Local Honeys, a female bluegrass duo, combined sweet vocal harmonies and deft playing of guitar, banjo and fiddle. Their set was split between traditional songs and self-penned material. Those close to the front and able to hear them above the loud and inconsiderate chatter of many others (don’t get me started!) enjoyed a very fine set indeed. Incidentally, the pair were also the support when Childers played that intimate solo gig two years ago. It was nice to see that, even with his new found success, he was still promoting his fellow Kentuckians.