The immaculate surroundings of Birmingham Town Hall and the music of Gretchen Peters are the perfect fit. A hushed environment absorbed every word from the most meaningful array of songs you are likely to hear in a single set. This was Gretchen Peters in absolute control, cashing in on a lifetime of experience, association and striving to pen the momentous song. The success of the latter set the tone at the outset of a lengthy career, yet growth has been organic and a testimony to an artist pursuing a multitude of avenues in maximising the depth of their talent. The West Midlands, and its outer area, have been kind to Gretchen Peters over the years, whether playing host in Birmingham, Bilston, Bromsgrove or Leamington Spa. This evening saw a return to the grandeur of the city centre Town Hall and the faithful were repaid with another priceless performance.
2018 is the year of DANCING WITH THE BEAST, an album recently unleashed on another fruitful and exciting journey. It is also the year Gretchen has re-enlisted the services of two Northern Irish guitarists in Conor McCreanor and Colm McClean to join her and husband Barry Walsh in re-enacting a winning stage formula of the past. With all the pieces in place, it was just left for a special ninety minutes to evolve inducing shivers, tears, goose bumps and a realisation that happiness can accrue from gorging on sad songs. It was literally a case of ‘you know the drill’ as seventeen imposing songs elaborately enriched the minds of a few hundred willing accomplices.
There were a couple of slight adjustments to this evening’s presentation in comparison to past formulas. Chat appeared to be streamed down alongside sporadic track introduction. The focus was more profoundly on the songs with each composition thriving on the space afforded to let the listener absorb their value. Of course, older songs like ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’, ‘The Matador’ and ‘Guadalupe’ need no introduction, with the latter still inducing recollection of it being heralded as her and co-writer Tom Russell’s ‘Townes’ moment.
Being a paid up member of the school of thought that Gretchen Peters’ songs mature like a vintage tipple is a sound investment. Title track ‘Blackbirds’ and ‘When All You Got is a Hammer’ from her last album BLACKBIRDS are well on their way to such status as is ‘Idlewild’ from the now six years old record HELLO CRUEL WORLD. However, the emerging jewel in the crown from that period ascended to the pinnacle of a special evening in the form of the spellbinding reflective piece ‘Five Minutes’. This exhibition of succinct and majestically crafted song writing continues to raise the emotive tempo with each listen, rapidly accelerated in pin drop environments like experienced this evening.
The cellophane is barely off the new record, but incisions are starting to be made with a raft of songs implicated tonight as being heavily gender focussed in character assimilation. Unexpectedly and with a barrage of records to be sold, a vast complement of the album made the set list. In line with the album running order, ‘Arguing with Ghosts’ opened the set and ‘Love That Makes a Cup of Tea’ acted as the parting gift. Referring back to the intimated change in formula, the finale saw Gretchen ditch all elements of plugged-in assistance as she used every sonic capability of an acoustic-friendly hall to leave the audience comforted with a slice of rare positivity.
Treat yourself to the album and the early-perceived riches of ‘Wichita’, ‘Truckstop Angel’ and ‘Disappearing Act’ will reveal themselves. ‘Lowlands’ was one of the few songs afforded an impassioned intro as the result of the 2016 US election took hold in her song writing mantra. An inspired quip from the audience at this point suggested the grass is not that much greener over here. ‘The Boy From Rye’ will continue to raise eyebrows when its subject content is increasingly grasped, but the surprise feature on the evening was the impressive performance of ‘Say Grace’.
For this song, opening artist Kim Richey re-entered the stage to join Gretchen on vocals with a substantive effect. Earlier Kim had confirmed her status as a smart choice to play on this tour and re-affirm a long relationship that she has had with UK audiences over a number of years. Similarly to Gretchen, a brand new album was in tow, with tunes like ‘Pin a Rose’, ‘Chase Wild Horses’ and ‘Your Dear John’ providing a solid showcase to what can be expected from the record, titled EDGELAND. Older favourites such as ‘Chinese Boxes’ and ‘Straight as the Crow Flies’ gave folks a timely reminder of why Kim Richey is one of the most respected singer-songwriters operating on the Nashville and wider American folk and country scene. Birmingham fans will not have to wait long until she builds upon this half hour slot in the city, with a planned return for a headline gig at the nearby Kitchen Garden Café in June.
There was added surprise to the cover Gretchen and Barry selected for the encore. Joining classics from Gram Parsons, John Prine and Rodney Crowell on recent tours, the band turned to the work of Mickey Newbury with a rocking version of ‘Why You Been Gone for So Long’. While this was not quite the evening finale, it did bid farewell to the stellar work of Barry on piano and accordion; Conor on upright and electric bass, and Colm on lead guitar. Gretchen remained steadfastly secure to her acoustic guitar all evening, resisting the temptation to re-unite with the keys. Maybe future shows can see this return alongside some version of the song that first led many folks to her door in the form of the seminal ‘Independence Day’.
The precedence of a new Gretchen Peters album is that the tours quickly follow each other. One summation is to revisit the more ‘audience with’ shows where the songwriter can spend greater time on slicing each song with informative chat. Appreciatively, tonight’s show was designed on maximum song exposure and rightly so to seize the moment. Gretchen’s versatility has been one of her greatest strengths in the two decades that she has crossed the ocean to share her songs in person. Therefore, the end of each show does allow a speculative thought of what next.
The bond between Gretchen Peters and this section of her widening UK fan base strengthened a great deal more on the back of this successful show. Being on board with her work is one of the wisest decisions advocates of significant song writing can make. Whether you joined in 1998, 2008, 2018 or contemplating joining now, a lifetime’s body of incredible material is at your disposal to enjoy. The live format is pretty good as well.
Review of Dancing with the Beast