Brandishing a new album full of introspection, honesty and renewed belief, Jess Klein returned to Birmingham to give a reminder of how fortunate we are to host so many fine Austin-based artists prepared to spread their talents far and wide. With the mission to nudge the fascinating experience of spending an evening in the company of such performers to more locals still work-in-progress, the task is made much easier when artists of the calibre of Mike June join the fray. Together Mike and Jess played a brace of enlightening sets to stamp an indelible mark on those selecting the Kitchen Garden Café for their Monday evening entertainment.
Jess’s new album LEARNING FAITH hit the airwaves earlier this year and represents a much deeper phase of her writing career with the second word of its title serving as the record’s inspiration. There is a more distinct blues infused sound to this release and, when hitting her stride, you could sense Jess getting deeper into the songs. Starting off on electric guitar which has so much appeal when turned down real low to match the intimate surrounding, Jess soon moved onto her trusty acoustic guitar and was at equal ease whatever her choice of accompaniment. Her vocals melted into the passion of each song and the chat was minimal yet incisive in parts. The latter included a glowing account of the spirit demonstrated from the power of protest and a reminder of the importance of the underdog role in furthering the cause of the neglected.
Politics was far more explicit in the songs of Mike June and it is great credit to Jess that his talents are being shared live with UK audiences for the first time. The lure of the song writing community of Austin, Texas proved too strong for Mike to resist but he draws on a lifetime experience from his Newark, New Jersey roots through extensive nationwide travel, currently with fellow Austin based artist Jon Dee Graham. There was a highly literate and perceptive grit in the song delivery of Mike which was focused on several memorable anecdotes documented in songs lifted from his pair of albums recorded in 2012. ‘Hard Times’ depicted a tough view of life courtesy of characters from small town North Carolina, while ‘Newark’ recounted love from the seedier side of life and ‘Charlie and Lily’ being a little more conventional. Whether or not Austin remains the permanent base of Mike June, he has acquired all the traits of what makes the town an exceptional source of song writing talent and the name of James McMurtry flirted across my mind a couple of times while enthralled by his half hour set.
Jess joined Mike on stage to sing harmony on one of his songs before building on the appreciative vibes circulating the Café’s dedicated gathering. As indicated earlier, Jess based much of her set around the new record but three particular tracks from the back catalogue still retain an integral charm to them. ‘Shonalee’ and ‘Soda Water’ were stand out songs when Jess played a nearby venue a little over twelve months ago and sounded just as good this evening. From the new record the title track ‘Learning Faith’ possessed great merit but was eclipsed by the fabulous ‘Dear God’, sung with such passion. One song you probably won’t hear on the radio is ‘So Fucking Cool’ but you’ll never forget the live version with its memorable source story and irony in the words of Jess that was probably better understood in the UK than Germany.
By the time Jess closed the evening with a return to simple low key electric and the beautiful ‘Bound to Love’, another successful gig packed with outstanding exported talent lodged itself in the memory banks of those present. The mission to educate those missing continues with evangelical endeavour but the music of both Jess Klein and Mike June ensures the process rolls on in fine style. A warm welcome will always be in place for such artists.