Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Jonathan Byrd - Kitchen Garden, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Tuesday 13th June 2017

A good test of a touring artist’s growing popularity could be when the audience spontaneously joins in with the singing barely two songs into the set. This scenario greeted Jonathan Byrd upon his return to the Kitchen Garden and an enthralled Birmingham crowd latched onto to every facet of the stage show starting from the aforementioned song ‘Chicken Wire’. The multi-instrumentalist Johnny Waken once again joined Jonathan for a UK tour and the pair continually sparked off each other all night as they gave an individual interpretation of a genuine brand of country and folk music emanating from North Carolina.

A key feature of the Jonathan Byrd style of music is his literate and articulate approach. He has been a recording artist for a number of years during which an increasing amount of albums have been stock piled. However, there does appear to be a core of special songs which have featured in his UK shows on what is now becoming a near annual visit. His association with British audiences seemed to take off after a slot at the the 2012 Shrewsbury Folk Festival and a number of songs remembered from that appearance are still staples of his set almost five years on.

So songs such as ‘I Was an Oak Tree’, ‘Wild Ponies’ and ‘Father’s Day’ still retain a memorable streak each time you hear them especially when accompanied by the usual stories. The latter of this trio took on an enhanced poignancy with the British version literally only a few days away from this gig and Jonathan’s description of his colourful late father never fails to raise a smile.

While it has been indicated that Jonathan has toured with Johnny before, the last time I saw the Kitchen Garden show was two years ago when he played his set solo, although he was touring at the time with fellow American singer-songwriter Natalie Gelman. This time the presence of Johnny, whether on mandolin, electric guitar or with great improvisation – a bog standard saw, greatly upgraded the level of rounded entertainment. Alongside his frequent comedic input, there were two prime moments when Johnny’s musical prowess stole the show, namely the extended outro instrumental parts on ‘Starlight’ and ‘Working Offshore’. Mandolin and electric guitar were the respective choices for these two outstanding segments which co-incidentally proved to be the climax points of both sets.

Of course, this well attended gig packed with many established Jonathan Byrd fans was not going to let the stars of the show ride off into the sunset without a couple of extra songs and their enthusiasm for more was instantly repaid. ‘Love is the Law’ closed the evening with Jonathan in a conciliatory frame of mind, just after Johnny bade farewell after joining him for the lively and instantly gratifying ‘A Big Truck Brought It’.

Although we were treated to a couple of sets from the billed attraction, the evening was further enhanced by an impressive opening slot from a ‘new on the horizon’ folk ‘n’ roots trio named A Different Thread. The core of the group, namely guitar playing singer-songwriter Robert Jackson and cellist Isaac Collier, hail from nearby Lichfield and they have recently been joined by Alicia Best on fiddle/vocals who co-incidentally also comes from Jonathan’s home state of North Carolina. Together they played a tight set of original compositions (‘Big Crane’) and traditional arrangements (‘Long Black Veil’/’Prickly Bush’) to such a high level that it would be of little surprise to see them booked again especially to open for touring American acts of a similar style.

Jonathan Byrd has an innate style for painting vivid pictures and sharing engaging insight with his words and music. This lure continues to serve him well as a touring artist, and whether you take the view of him being a country or folk music performer, the twin appeal adds an element of real life romanticism to what he stands for. This is pure and authentic music from Chapel Hill North Carolina delivered by a strikingly convincing and highly accomplished artist who is set to remain a firm favourite on these shores for many years to come. 

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