Last time Tyler Childers played Celtic Connections he was hunched behind his acoustic guitar, every inch the talkative Kentucky hillbilly, regaling the audience with tales of “snipe hunts” and the story behind his song ‘Purgatory’. Two years on and he’s an AMA award winner (although he’s not a fan of the term Americana) and, with his buddy, Sturgill Simpson, selling out stadiums in the States. No surprise then that this was one of the hottest tickets at Celtic Connections, sold out with a queue of folk outside this east end church looking for spare tickets.
The place was packed as Childers led his well-drilled and red hot Food Stamps Band into the opening southern country funk of ‘Trudy’, a Charlie Daniels cover. From there on in Childers and the band steamrollered their way through a set of songs with barely a word from the man until well into the show. With slatherings of organ, pedal steel, fiddle and guitar flaying around him, Childers was in serious form and the crowd were loving it. ‘Bus Route’, ‘Creeker’ and ‘House Fire’, all from his latest album whizzed by with ‘Creeker’ stone cold country gold while ‘House Fire’ was preceded by a guitar and banjo freakout ending with a bass guitar solo! It wasn’t until after a powerful delivery of ‘All Your’n’ that Childers said hello and introduced the band before they played what seemed to be a crowd favourite tonight, ‘Feathered Indian’ from his ‘Purgatory’ album.
Songs such as ‘Whitehouse Road’, ‘Country Squire’ and an excellent ‘I Swear (To God)’ sashayed by as the band tuned into cosmic cowboy and outlaw country before Childers despatched them to perform a short solo set which was received with the same rapt attention as the band numbers. Here, Childers’ lyrics were easier to hear and with songs such as ‘Nose To The Grindstone’ and the sublime ‘Lady Mae’ and then ‘Matthew’, it’s easy to see why he has had such a powerful impact on the modern country scene. His hard hewn words are the opposite of what passes for country in Nashville these days, and how often do you get to hear a song which name checks Clarence White?
This was a tremendous show as Childers, armed with his killer songs and killer band, took no prisoners, and didn’t bow to any show biz conventions. The band returned for a barnstorming finale starting with a soulful rendition of Bobby Charles’ ‘Tennessee Blues’ which morphed into what was perhaps the best song of the night, ‘Honky Tonk Flame’, which blossomed into a grand melange of squalling guitars and fiddle before they wound it down with ‘Universal Sound’. A fine end to a fabulous show.
Keeping it Kentucky, the support band was the effervescent The Local Honeys, two gals who, through sheer force of personality, grabbed the audience from the start. Theirs was a short set (they had their own headlining and sold out show on the next night) and they only played one song, ‘I’m S.A.V.E.D.’, from their recent album of secular gospel numbers. Instead they honed in on the opiod crisis hitting the States and had some hard-hitting social commentary on ‘Cigarette Trees’, a song about the lethal legacy of mining. Excellent players and grand harmonisers, they had a great Appalachian sound while they paid tribute to Emmylou Harris with a fine rendition of ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ where they were joined by Senora May, an old Kentuckian band mate and, incidentally, the spouse of Tyler Childers. They ended their set with a chilling ‘Talk About Suffering’, their voices in perfect harmony, with the packed crowd cowed into a grand silence.