Unsure about the origin or even the mythical existence of the coined phrase ‘old punks turn country’, but it’s a good one and starts the engine when referring to duo Hope in High Water. Not too sure whether ‘old’ is the apt word to describe Josh Chandler Morris and Carly Slade, yet the sound they’ve morphed into ploughs a traditional furrow. One certainty is that the past in some form or another has strongly influenced their music, whether in redemptive song writing or framing a vocal style. Perhaps country is a too narrow window to open onto their music, although a fair proportion of the new material shared this evening had a sad song twang about it. Folk and blues also play a significant part as the wider roots world is captured in a subtle mix of sincere originals and incisive covers.
A return to Birmingham’s Kitchen Garden was one of the last stops on an inaugural headline tour for this Milton Keynes based couple. They had previously supported Worry Dolls and a songwriter’s session at the venue. However, they were the main songwriters on show this evening and revelled in the opportunity to expand their set to over double the usual forty-five minutes. Bridged only by the obligatory mid performance break, the songs fell into three distinct camps: material off the NEVER SETTLE album, new unrecorded pieces and a celebration of some of the finest work that has had a profound impact upon them.
Hope and High Water present themselves as the classic duo. A combination of shared duties in the vocal and song writing stakes, while a clear instrumental demarcation. The guitar playing of Josh and Carly’s banjo (occasionally joined by u-bass) came over as simple but effective, while providing the most satisfying of backdrops to some infectious melodies and thought provoking lyrics. There is a distinct contrast to their vocals, with a slightly bruised harshness to Josh’s, probably subject to the battering taken in the past. This refinement is perfectly tuned for the gruff Americana song and soaks up the intent. Carly has a far more expressive versatile style. These differences lead to a required adjustment when heading into close harmony territory and they increasingly blended really well as the evening proceeded. Frequently, solo vocal pieces took over, with a no finer example in the first half of the gig than Carly’s rendition of ‘She Cries’ from their album.
NEVER SETTLE came out the middle of last year to positive reviews and tonight’s set featured inclusions such as ‘When Sorrow Calls’, ‘Who’s Gonna Hold Your Hold’ and ‘Time Shall Pass’. Like on the record, the latter opened proceedings and re-enforced comparisons drawn to Shovels and Rope. The new material sounded superb, a little more on the shadier country side, and should eventually surface once the usual obstacles of an independent release are overcome.
Covers songs were inevitable to fill this expanded time, but when you turn to the work of Justin Townes Earle, a winner is going to emerge. They supported Justin on a Bristol date last year and their version of ‘Ain’t Waitin’ was probably the pick of the bunch, marginally pipping Carly’s take on the song ‘Just a Closer Walk’ inspired by the Avett Brothers’ version. Josh’s early schooling (pre-punk) in the blues was featured in the Elmore James song ‘Anna Lee’, while most in the room were suitably acquainted with Leadbelly’s ‘In the Pines’.
A strong feature of Hope in High Water is the substantial depth to their musical approach. Emotive personal experiences play a large part, and a high degree of therapy is reaped. Back-story narrative is candidly displayed, but they are not too aloof to suggest that each and every one of us has an important one as well. They are clearly embedded in the soul of music and whatever inspired this calling is proving a wise path to follow. Most important they make music that greatly resonates with an expanding fan base, many of whom are deeply into the roots that form their sound.
Josh Chandler Morris and Carly Slade have a valuable entity in Hope in High Water and a well of creative endeavour to fuel a meaningful journey long into the future. The Kitchen Garden headline show of 2018 may well become a major staging post on this journey.