Ags Connolly and Whitney Rose may hail from Oxford and Canada, respectively, but they both share a spiritual home in Austin. For Ags it’s the place he relates most to musically, while for Whitney Rose it now represents home following her move from her native Prince Edward Island. While Ags Connolly and Whitney Rose may be at opposite ends of the musical alphabet they are both ruggedly independent acts who demonstrate tonight that they should be filed under the letter ‘C’ for classic country.
Connolly opened proceedings with eight numbers as a solo acoustic turn. He’s grown increasingly familiar to fans of Americana through the release of his two studio albums, ‘How About Now’ and ‘Nothin’ Unexpected,’ alongside his heavy touring schedule. He’s very much from the Ameripolitan school of country and is capable of self-mockery for the sadness in many of his compositions – “this one is brimming with positivity like all my other songs” – he proclaims by way of introduction to probably his best known number, ‘I Hope You’re Unhappy’.
Ags takes the opportunity to road-test three new songs from his forthcoming new release, the best of which was probably ‘The Meaning of the Word’, but all sound on a par quality-wise with the songs from his two self-penned studio albums. He proves capable of traversing subtler, poignant songs such as ‘Get Out of My Mind’ with stirring and more passionate numbers such as ‘I Saw James Hand’ in which he recounts the times he’s seen the unsung and unpredictable Texan singer.
If anyone can be described as evoking the true spirt of authentic country then it’s this Oxford-based troubadour. I’d go so far as to say that his debut album ‘How About Now’ is arguably the best traditional country album by a UK based solo artist in the last 20 years.
Whitney Rose and her band opened their performance with the Don Williams classic ‘Tulsa Time’. It’s a fitting start as its bouncy, loose-limbed nature gives the four piece a chance to stretch out into an effortless groove. Rose describes her music as vintage-pop infused-neo-traditional-country and its in her ability to transition between a more traditional country sound to one that has its roots in the swinging sixties, aligned to a soulful edge, that makes her such a unique proposition. One of the standout songs from her latest album, ‘Rule 62’, followed and it’s with the more upbeat sounding ‘Arizona’ that Josh Owen, her lead guitarist, gets his first chance to demonstrate the depth of his playing and wonderful tone which sounds something like a fusion of the guitar style of Chris Isaak and that of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.
On her latest album Rose included a cover of the Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ and there are echoes of Spector-like 1960s stylings in the follow up number ‘Better To My Baby’. You could close your eyes during this song -and another of her feminist anthems, ‘You Don’t Scare Me’- and easily imagine her appearing on sixties pop shows and holding her own alongside the likes of Cilla Black and Lulu. She also extols the virtues of feminine financial independence on ‘I Don’t Want Half (I Just Want Out)’, a statement of rebuke on behalf of all those women traditionally accused in country music of gold-digging.
Rose then threw in the second cover of the evening with a joyous and uplifting version of Lucinda Williams’ ‘I Just Wanted To See You So Bad’. With its repeated line and build up of tension as the song progresses, she then showed that she’s learned a thing or two from her Louisianan counterpart on a newer number, ‘Thanks For Trying’, with the use of the song title as a repeated phase throughout.
While continuing to explore the familiar honky tonk trope of lost love on ‘Heartbreaker of The Year’ Rose managed to overcome any clichés with a stunningly drawn out vocal arrangement which was arguably bettered on her interpretation of Concrete Blonde’s ‘Joey’. Meanwhile it’s easy to see why she’s made the moody Lesley Gore song, ‘You Don’t Own Me’, entirely her own – a number released in 1963 but a feminist statement of independence which speaks with equal power to the Me Too generation.
There were six cover versions in total tonight, including Gram Parsons’ ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ where Josh Owen had the Gram role with Rose ably acquitting herself as Emmylou. Any possible accusation that cover songs are used as set filler to mask the absence of original material was swiftly despatched on ‘Trucker’s Funeral’, however, a song whose melody is redolent of ‘Gentle On My Mind’, which amply demonstrated Rose’s storytelling ability and lyrical acuity. A song based on a story told to her by a bank employee who only found out he had a whole other west coast based family when he attended his grandfather’s funeral in Texas, the itinerant life of a trucker provided perfect cover for a bigamist: “At that trucker’s funeral two women buried wedding rings / If you’re at a trucker’s funeral be prepared for anything”.
With a performance as magical as this the band weren’t going to escape without an encore and they returned for a powerful version of ‘Suspicious Minds’ which perhaps speaks to Whitney Rose’s aspiration. On this performance she’s certainly a contender for the major leagues.