It’s something we “critics” (aka fans) seldom get to do, and it’s many years on from my days with David Bowie and Mick Ronson on the Ziggy tour. Some things change and some things stay the same, goes the old cliche.
I don’t know who chose these four venues, but the essentially different audiences and the changing dynamics between the performers made for a fascinating insight into how songs affect people.
Gretchen Peters, new darling of the UK pop charts (how strange is that?) brought songs from her terrific new album Blackbirds, and wove in old favourites including St Cloud, the poignant Five Minutes and cinematic The Matador.
Newlywed Eliza Gilkyson has reached that certain age of nights interrupted by fears for the planet, humankind and mortality, and she plundered her lengthy back catalogue for songs like the extraordinary Default to Flatline Captain, Jedediah and Coast, as well as the songs from her latest, Grammy nominated Nocturne Diaries. Hers were the “happy” songs of the set – fast, sad songs, she prefers to call them.
Mary Gauthier, the baby of the trio, is the most unlikely Grand Ol’ Opry singer of all, in old jeans, handmade cowboy boots and a t-shirt, singing songs of personal heartbreak, family trauma, dead hobo kings and alcoholism. It’s not a Mary Gauthier set without I Drink and Mercy Now, and the constant audience affirmation was that she’s “the real thing.” She also included some of the songs she has recently written with soldiers, back in the US and traumatised from their experiences in the desert wars.
It started at the non profit music cooperative that is the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, lined with wooden planks to provide a warm acoustic that has welcomed the world’s leading folk and roots musicians. There Eliza delighted audiences with visceral accounts of her stay in the French Hotel, with its original century old carpets.
And the audience left still singing the tour encore song, You Ain’t Going Nowhere, out in the streets.
Then on to Don Quixote’s in Felton north of Santa Cruz, an arched performance room leading out of the restaurant, where old friends met, people at the bar hadn’t known about the gig, and everyone relaxed into the show.
The third venue, the venerable Lobero Theatre in the affluent Santa Barbara, was very different. This is California’s oldest remaining theatre, grand and beautiful, and filled for the occasion with sponsors and subscribers. Many of the audience knew only one of the performers, or came from curiosity. If it was more restrained than the previous shows, and if the singers seemed on their best behaviour (no politics from Eliza, no lesbian at the Opry references from Mary) the performance thrilled the listeners and once again – as at every venue – it ended with a standing ovation.
Then south again to the McCabe’s guitar shop in Santa Monica, where they remove the centre stands and seat an audience, surrounded by guitars and plucked stringed instruments from makers and players whose names have created musical history, and the sounds from the tiny stage resonate. Here they were joined by Gretchen’s husband Barry Walsh, playing that beautiful accordion.
Two performances that night and by the late show everyone was caught in a tired elation.
The name of the tour – Gretchen’s choice – was inspired by Harlan Howard’s description of country music as “Three Chords and the Truth” They agreed without realising their acronym would be TWATT, but all agreed by the end that TWATT Rules!
Thanks for the shows, the stories and most of all the songs. Come to the UK soon, please.
** Six minutes on defrost and three on high – and your pic, thanks Mary