Monday, 25 September 2017

Michael McDermott + Heather Lynne Horton - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 24th September 2017

While the Kitchen Garden is renowned for its warm and intimate atmosphere, occasionally its hardened stone floor and bricked walls can be the perfect setting for the steely songwriter. Michael McDermott is one such artist who fits this bill and certainly packs a powerful punch when fully immersed into his songs. Along with his wife and fellow performer Heather Lynne Horton, Michael made his Birmingham debut in this Kings Heath oasis and left an imprint as profound as the way he approaches the subject of his songs. There was probably a varying degree of artist awareness at the start of this show within a healthy gathering that frequented the venue on a Sunday night. However, at the end each left a lot wiser in understanding a songwriter personifying the well-worn statement of ‘heart on your sleeve’.

Think the poetry of Dylan, the ground game of Springsteen and the inspiration of Van Zandt, to begin to unravel this Chicago-based artist. The tough fa├žade did at times mask a tender interior, but it’s these traits and the sharpest of minds that make Michael McDermott a compelling artist to discover. A particular thought cropping up during and after this gig was, ‘did music save Michael McDermott or is he saving music’. No doubt there is a touch of both, especially the latter in the evolution of the literary songwriter.

On an evening that sprang a number of surprises, the first act on was a Northern poet by the name of Paul Cookson who capably crossed the line from writer to performer to share the wealth of his creativity in an interactive manner. While adrift from your usual opener, there was an engaging appeal to his twenty-plus minutes in the spotlight and in the context of an evening when words mattered, his billing proved a shrewd move.

It transpired that first and foremost, Heather Lynne Horton was accompanying Michael on the tour to re-enact the duo role with her violin playing and sumptuous vocals. Although their solo work stretches back a few years, indeed Michael as far back as the nineties, they have become better known recently, especially in the UK, as recording act The Westies. This project in name seems to be put on hold with Michael now back into the swing of releasing solo albums and indeed Heather herself returning to the studio to release a record this summer. In a fairly short second support slot, Heather shared four of her new songs with the audience to give them a sample of what to expect should they make the sensible choice to delve deeper into DON’T MESS WITH MRS MURPHY. This was clearly Heather’s tentative first steps in taking her new music out of the studio following a lengthy family-raising hiatus. The chosen songs, especially those she stripped down organically ‘Did You Feel That’ and ‘Fu’, sounded great and the challenge now is for her to re-connect with the appetite to share more of her fine music in this capacity.

For those in the audience who had only previously engaged with the recorded music of Michael McDermott, the next hour and half proved to be an eye opening and moving experience. Although primarily accompanied by the acoustic guitar, the two gut wrenching moments when the delivery mode was switched to piano were absolutely stunning. ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Shadow in the Window’ were both on Michael’s latest solo album WILLOW SPRINGS and proved the most revealing of heartfelt ballads. The general backdrop to these songs has been widely shared online in articles and interviews, also Michael is quite candid onstage about some of his past troubles, but the strength of the live delivery was simply straight to your heart.

For a little respite across the board, Michael and Heather followed these two songs with their alternative take on the pop classic ‘You’re the One That I Want’; the hidden track on her new album. Elsewhere, Michael kept up a brisk pace of carefully selected songs mixed with revealing, informative and entertaining chat. The encore pairing of ‘I Know a Place’ and ‘Still Ain’t Over You Yet’ were stellar choices, with the latter acting as a fitting finale in the way that Michael dives deep into the passion of a song. Right from the off, Michael and Heather found their groove with ‘These Last Few Days’ and ‘Getaway Car’ also proudly representing his latest album. Perhaps the strongest pride was reserved for the song about their daughter ‘Willie Rain’, with Michael poignantly remarking what he would have thought about recording such a song in his darker days around a decade ago.

Other highlights from the set included ‘The Great American Novel’ featuring Michael in full literary flow linking the names of Salinger and Hemmingway with Wilco and Ryan Adams. There was also a new song presented which sounded great and further post-gig investigation revealed the funding process is underway for a brand new Michael McDermott album.

While acclaim is widespread in his native US, many more shows like this Birmingham one will raise the awareness of Michael McDermott tenfold in the UK. He is an outstanding songwriter with an unbelievable strength of living and breathing every lyric of his work and exposing them for an audience to share the effect. Michael and Heather are a dynamic force at the moment and their artistic trajectory is taking the singer–songwriter genre to another level.

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