Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Joan Shelley - The Musician, Leicester. Monday 22nd August 2016

On a sweltering afternoon at a festival in Kentucky around a month ago, the hot sun was braved for fifteen minutes to catch part of a set by Louisville based folk musician Joan Shelley. Amidst an event dominated by fuller sounding brasher rock acts, thoughts turned to what Joan would sound like in a more intimate setting. This was not meant in a detrimental way, just a realisation of the many artists who have been witnessed flourishing in such an environment over the years. Admittedly at this point it was known that Joan was making a brief trip to Europe soon and choosing to play The Musician in Leicester as her only club show of the UK segment. It may not have been 38c in the English Midlands on the evening of her visit, but the positive promise of that afternoon materialised into a majestic sense of reality.

With its close knit layout and dedicated audience, The Musician provided the ideal backdrop for Joan to ease into her velvet groove of folk song delivery and embrace those present with her soothing musical presence. Joan’s vocals find the sweet spot with little effort and tantalisingly move around the scale of pristineness. The lo-fi elegance of her songs lures you into a fixated zone and swims around your senses with the smoothest of sensations.

While Joan’s festival performance was in a full band format, this evening’s show was in duo mode and the chemistry from working alongside guitarist Nathan Salsburg exuded in magical portions. Their contrasting playing styles complemented perfectly to create the ideal backdrop for her softly presented songs to prosper. With minimalist variety, Joan ditched her own guitar for a couple of songs, ditched Nathan for one and returned solo once more for the first encore song singing a wonderful unplugged version of the traditional Appalachian folk song ‘Darling Don’t You Know That’s Wrong’, previously popularised by Addie Graham.

Joan was recently featured in a ‘Guardian online’ article as one of the artists redefining the American roots agenda in the twenty first century. The retro effect of listening to Joan live is certainly minimal. Working alongside the accredited folklorist Nathan will always keep her musical heritage rooted in the ideals of the past, but her writing and persona freshens up the whole folk music process. Apart from the encore excursion and a cover of Kate Wolf’s ‘Here in California’, the rest of the songs populating Joan’s seventy minutes on stage were self-composed originals.

These were mainly based on her most recent album OVER AND EVEN, which is one of the most beautiful and tranquil records to hit my ears this year. The title track acted as the show opener, with ‘Subtle Love’, ‘No More Shelter’ and ‘Not Over By Half’ also surfacing as stand-out songs on the evening. The latter was placed in the pre-encore slot and probably emerged as the highlight on the basis of its immense melody. Either side of her most recent album, Joan dipped a little into an older record ELECTRIC URSO and previewed a couple of new songs promising more of the same.

The gorgeous array of songs, vocals and guitar playing held the audience’s attention in frozen capsule status, thus leading to frenzied activity at the merchandise table at the end. Joan prefers to let her songs do the communicating and kept the between track banter to a minimum. However when the effect of her songs are this good, few would argue with her chosen and probably most comfortable stage presence.

Two credits need to be made surrounding this show. Firstly, the innovative Green Man Festival for inviting Joan to the UK and the Magic Teapot promotion team for arranging a diversion to Leicester as the duo journeyed from Wales to Cornwall. Joan Shelley may be a name not widely known, but a return visit will further ignite interest within the folk, indie and Americana communities in the UK. Good people will relish a talented, respectful and progressive artist; all the qualities that make Joan Shelley one to watch and savour.  

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