Tuesday, 29 January 2019

GIG REVIEW: Caroline Spence - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 28th January 2019

As the two-year anniversary of discovering the music of Caroline Spence approaches, it is worth reflecting on her steady ascent to becoming a wider recognised and respected artist. This is especially pertinent to the UK, which seemed a distant place when a copy of the album Spades and Roses inadvertently crossed my path via a US press agency in early 2017. Eventually, opportunities gathered momentum and the album in an intended pursuit found its way across the seas, soon to be followed by a number of touring visits. Since an initial run of touring dates last February, she followed things up in partnership with Robbie Hecht in the summer; a trip that also took in higher profile festival slots at End of the Road and Long Road.

On the back of a Midlands show at Thimblemill Library during the first tour, and calling in at the nearby Kitchen Garden with Robbie in August, Caroline made a return to the latter this evening to bridge the gap between appearances at Celtic Connections and the AMA UK showcases in London. The big news accompanying this Nashville resident-Virginia native on the latest trip is the recent revelation of a new record due out soon, with the added boost of it getting a label release via the Rounder Records operation.

One consistency linking these developments is the high quality of the music, coupled with its distinct approach to bring southern sensibility to the broader brush of quintessential American folk music. Foremost Caroline Spence thrives as a folk singer steeped in Americana, dedicated to the acoustic guitar and sparked to conjure up the most compelling of songs, all delivered through a delicately hushed voice.

Across a pair of sets afforded to Caroline this evening, the bulk of songs off Spades and Roses made the set list, along with a smattering of tunes reflecting the distant past, near past and imminent future. However, before the main event we had the honour of a short set by another Nashville singer-songwriter Michaela Anne, who had little hesitation in joining her friend on a rare chance to play a joint show, albeit 4000 miles from their home city.

Michaela Anne is another artist no stranger to Birmingham audiences after opening for Sam Outlaw at the neighbouring Hare and Hounds in 2017. In contrast to Caroline, she takes her cue from a traditional country outlook and successfully blends a timeless approach in a steely contemporary wrapping. Further contrasts exist in Michaela Anne using the subtle tones of a gently strummed electric guitar. While her songs are less familiar than Caroline’s, numbers like ‘Luisa’, ‘Stars’ and ‘One Love Song’, the latter originally recorded as a duet with Sam Outlaw, came across exceptionally well in a tight schedule to open proceedings. More will likely be heard of Michaela over here in the future, one that includes an upcoming new album and a support slot opening for Mandolin Orange on a UK tour date.

Inevitably, this was not the last we heard of Michaela Anne as the opportunity for the two to team up for a duet was too good to miss. The obvious song had to be ‘Softball’, as Michaela was one of several female artists enlisted for the making of the track’s striking video, which further forced home the important message. More surprising, but no less welcome, was the impromptu rendition of ‘Passionate Kisses’ as the delightful parting gift to an audience thoroughly entertained throughout the evening.

It may be early days to associate Caroline Spence with the likes of Lucinda Williams and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but there is a strong indication that she possesses the writing talent to travel a long way down the song highway.

From the songs shared this evening, few crossed the floor from performer to listener more evocatively than the immaculate ‘All the Beds I’ve Made’ and the infectious ‘Slow Dancer’. Close on the heels of this pair were the emotional ‘Southern Accident’ and the rejuvenated ‘Hotel Amarillo’, the latter with the freshened up intro courtesy of Robbie Hecht.

On the topic of Robbie Hecht, ‘Trying’ (a song they co-wrote) headed a quartet of numbers away from the Spades and Roses album, a record still sounding as good as when first heard two years ago. ‘Whiskey Watered Down’ from an older album surfaced as a request, and Caroline was not going to let the night pass without sharing the two new songs that previewed the upcoming album. Of the pairing ‘Long Haul’ and ‘Mint Condition’, the former made the greater initial impression, but her songs have enough depth to develop and grow once subject to devoted listens.

Of the remaining tracks enjoyed during the show, ‘Heart of Somebody’ and ‘Wishing Well’ had the honour of opening each set. From memory the former has been the opener on each time seen, which sometimes is not the best slot for a song. ‘You Don’t Look So Good (Cocaine)’ and ‘I Can’t Complain’ completed the song set. The latter had the introduction of being an optimistic piece grateful for making a living as a singer-songwriter.

As a performer, Caroline Spence’s assuredness grows with each gig seen. The fruits of Spades and Roses sealed the deal as an effective songwriter and the development as a touring artist has been an added bonus. The settling of the dust on this successful revisit to the Kitchen Garden is likely to be a temporary zone, as a return to support and promote the new album means the UK is set to see a lot more of Caroline Spence in 2019. There are few complaints here. 



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