Saturday, 20 April 2019

GIG REVIEW: Amber Cross - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham.Thursday 18th April 2019

The impetus of what a live show gives to an album can never be underestimated. This is certainly the case for Amber Cross, a singer-songwriter from California currently spinning the wheel of fortune in foreign lands. While the riches may be modest in some sense, the enormity of her approach to making music is landing directly onto ears taking a calculated chance on an artist ripened for appeal. When her most recent album headed across the ocean in renewed re-boot mode earlier this year (originally released in the US in 2017), you knew something was bubbling without being quite able to nail it down. Having now witnessed the live show, the multiple pieces effortlessly slot together to propel forward an artist capable of forming a deep niche on the international roots touring scene.

Scheduling Amber Cross in the Kitchen Garden for one of the dates on her UK tour was a wise move, even more so treading the same floor as compatriot Molly Tuttle did just a week earlier. Differences between the two may be aplenty, but the pair intrinsically link via a capability to deliver a song right from the heart of where country music should align itself. Amber Cross may be no upstart from the southern states, in fact just an idealistic roamer heading out of a corner of Maine at the first opportunity to finally make creative peace in northern California, give or take the odd inspirational moments from the romanticised south-west.

Given a hefty two- hour slot, either side of the obligatory break, was an opportunity seized upon by Amber and her guitar-playing sidekick, husband James Moore. Little time was wasted in playing the bulk of songs from the recent album, SAVAGE ON THE DOWNHILL, but more pertinently, flush out huge chunks of the Amber Cross backstory and the many fascinating experiences, roots and associated stories to her special songs. Leaving this show without falling for her traditional leaning vocals and simple yet such thoughtful music was an option not on the table. (Literally. the table had the most interesting of merch in the form of a range of flannel shirts for sale alongside the CDs).

Listening intently throughout rattled the brain for voice comparisons, which eventually settled with Iris Dement. The traditional flavor compounded on the evening in the shape of the sole cover, and cue for folks to look up the work of Rose Maddox in light of her contribution to country music in the Post war years. However, the show had its defining moments in recent times with a sizable chunk of inspiration coming from a rural background, highlighting water shortages out west and more specifically hunting stories and experiences of wild boar and wild turkey relevant to Amber. Characters also featured strongly, exemplified in three tracks from the recent album: ‘Tracey Joe’, ‘Trinity Gold Mine’ and ‘Echoes’, the latter focusing on relationship breakdown.

We learned a lot about the new album especially the process of hooking up with producer Ray Bonneville and heading down to Austin to record it. One of the premier songs on the album, also a candidate for the standout show moment, is the title track. Gaining further insight to ‘Savage on the Downhill’ was fascinating alongside learning about it starting life as ‘Cattle Trails’ (a line in the lyrics)  before Amber let others loose on one of her favourites.

Musically, Amber and James gelled perfectly. His 1932 guitar did the bulk of the solo inserts, with her 1961 version keeping to the three-chord remit. Occasionally, James switched to mandolin and for the ‘silly song finale’ a slice of harmonica cut in.

To give the latest album some respite, Amber checked back to her previous recordings. ‘Selma’, ‘San Joaquin’ and ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ were three selections from YOU CAN COME IN and off her gospel record MY KIND OF CHURCH, the self-penned ‘How Do You Pray’ featured. Perhaps for the key moment on the evening though, we have to go back to SAVAGE ON THE DOWNHILL, and say that ‘Pack of Lies’ came across as Amber Cross at her best.

This Kitchen Garden gig was one clearly not requiring a support as the main act brought their comprehensive ‘A’ game. Birmingham was fortunate to be on the Amber Cross horizon and a seriously impressive performer saw her credentials rise in the vivid minds of those sauntering down Kings Heath way on this Thursday evening.