Although appreciation for Eilen Jewell traces back to the 2007 album LETTERS TO SINNERS & STRANGERS, opportunities to see her live have conspired to leave this ambition unfulfilled. Finally, circumstances fell into place to make the trip up to the Potteries on the eve of the Cambridge Folk Festival and catch a show at Biddulph Town Hall. Her previous visits to the wider Midlands area have tended to concentrate on the eastern side with last year’s Nottingham date attaining sold out status during the run up. That show was on the back of her 2017 album DOWN HEARTED BLUES, which once again saw Eilen take a break from original music and explore another fascinating aspect of the roots world. The clue to the style is in the title and it was set to feature prominently this evening. The early and middle parts of 2018 has seen Eilen and her long time trio of travelling musical companions cram in as many dates around the globe as possible before once again embarking on a little family downtime prior to the promise of new original material.
Ahead of Eilen and the band taking to the stage, a well-populated hall enjoyed a short set from singer-songwriter, Lissy Taylor. Hailing from Stoke-on-Trent, but audibly schooled in Lexington Kentucky, Lissy eased into the opening role with a bunch of original songs taking their influence from a host of personal situations and surroundings. Her sound was drenched in country folk sentiment, and although Lissy herself used the word 'pop' in her self-introduction, the added feel was one of indie, albeit from a slow moody perspective. You could quite envisage the songs getting the atmospheric electric treatment. She had a similar statuesque poise on stage to Erin Rae, and a tempo that similarly hooked you into the groove. A southern twang had infiltrated the vocals, although there was no mistaking her roots between songs. Overall, an effective opening act with heaps of promise at her feet. A name to look out for in the future.
Flanked by band members, Jerry Miller (electric guitar), Shawn Supra (electric/upright bass) and Jason Beek (drums/percussion), Eilen Jewell set out to show why she has cut a highly respected career as one of the most innovative and exploratory artisans of American roots music over the last decade. A sleek and classy style breezed through an impulsive set stretching the breadth of her career, with more than a slight bias towards the most recent album.
Eilen’s love of the blues may not be in her DNA, but it is certainly in her soul. Starting her set with ‘It’s Your Voodoo Warning’, she frequently dipped into songs covered on the recent record such as the title track, ‘Nothing in Rambling’ and ‘Don’t Leave Poor Me’. Names that have clearly influenced her shared during the evening included Willie Dixon, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie.
Such is the diverse aspect to Eilen Jewell’s music, the term ‘Americana’ as referenced by a pot pourri of American roots sounds could almost have been invented for her. Country music features strong and it was of no surprise to hear a Loretta Lynn song covered. In fact, ‘You Wanna Give Me a Lift’ was one of the tunes featured on her 2010 tribute album to the legend. ‘Heartache Boulevard’ and the requested ‘Boundary County’ also reflected this chosen style.
With the band that Eilen has assembled, good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll was always going to play a part. Plenty of upright bass was slapped by Supra alongside multiple scintillating guitar riffs and solos from the outstanding Miller. Beek had his moment in the sun towards the end when advancing from behind the drum kit to lead on the washboard, straight out of Columbus Ohio.
Outside her genre specific material, plenty of other old favourites thrilled the audience including the triple opening to the LETTERS album of ‘Rich Man’s World’, ‘Dusty Boxcar Wall’ and ‘High Shelf Booze’. When in full flow, few songs were better than a riveting foot tapping version of ‘Sea of Tears’. Perhaps when we just needed a helping hand down before heading home, Eilen ripped open her heart, and in solo mode accompanied only by harmonica and acoustic guitar she shone an adoring light on her daughter in the track ‘Songbird’. Quintessentially folk in the delivery style and likewise beautifully sung.
As indicated previously, this gig was on the eve of a return to the Cambridge Folk Festival. Not relevant regarding the Eilen Jewell tour schedule, but symbolic to the strains of musical variety that are likely to dominate this four-day event. The evening concluded on a note of mission accomplished. Nothing gained from harking back over lost opportunities, but fully blessed that the chance to finally see Eilen Jewell play live had been grasped, and this gig-going adventure become a little richer. If Emmylou coined the phrase ‘Boulder to Birmingham’, then why not evoke the alliteration ‘Boise to Biddulph’. Deepest Idaho and the Potteries interwove this evening.