Monday, 11 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno - Thimblemill Library, Smethwick. Friday 8th June 2018

The duo format has been a winning formula for as long as country and roots music has sought popular appeal. This has even proved the case when only a single name is used to front the act. What worked well for Gillian Welch alongside Dave Rawlings is perfectly set for Vivian Leva and her musical partner Riley Calcagno. The inaugural tour of the UK is billed as a duo event, although the route of their famed associates is repeated in a solo titled album acting as the focal point to direct folks to some recorded output. Vivian Leva’s TIME IS EVERYTHING was released to critical acclaim earlier this year and it did not too long to deduce the positive critique when finally tracking it down. Riley is intrinsically involved on the record and the way the pair sparred and blended on stage did more than suggest that the chemistry is working.

A progressive move in recent times to establish Thimblemill Library in Smethwick as a hotbed for American roots music has proved a hit. A periodic yet successful, formula recently reaped dividends for a Rachel Baiman and Molly Tuttle show, and it was in the vicinity of those heights that greeted their compatriots this evening. The relationship extends further than a shared love of old time roots music with Rachel and Vivian both signed to Free Dirt Records; a label deeply woven into the fabric of ensuring country tradition retains its relevance. The youth of Vivian and Riley is a prime factor in viewing them as a significant hope, but enormous adeptness and skill removes any age relevance as good music knows no restraints.

The contrast in styles on stage was stark to even the casual observer. Riley is the clear instrumental maestro excelling all evening on a constant switch between guitar, banjo and fiddle. The latter often saw the brightest spark from this Seattle raised musician, while extoling the fiddle heritage of Washington State alongside the more widely known Appalachian influence. Indeed, it is Virginia in the south east of the United States that serves as the home for Vivian, born into a family rich in musical influence to provide a guiding light. It is her steely statuesque poise twinned with a voice etched in the fabric of the old time country song that left an emerging impression. A simple yet subtle guitar playing style joins her song-writing prowess in harnessing the talent.

Solo composed songs from the album like ‘Bottom of the Glass’, ‘Wishes and Dreams’ and ‘Why Don’t You Introduce Me As Your Darlin’’ helped shape this show. Although it was the title track off the album, which was co-written with Riley that probably shone brightest. Another memorable choice from the record was the arrangement of the traditional song ‘Cold Mountains’, heavily re-interpreted by Vivian’s chorus addition and Riley’s musical input. Additionally, a song written by Paul Burch titled ‘Last of My Kind’ had a decent feel to it and thus land a place in the memory bank in the aftermath.

Outside the new record, which proved a popular purchase on the night, a cover of Guy Clark’s ‘Anyhow I Love You’ and an encore version of ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ by Lafayette based outfit The Red Stick Ramblers showed an acute ear for further influence than just studying the traditional past. A new song without the title being mentioned sounded excellent, a common theme from a tour beginning to pick up pace, and a fair few new fans on the way. Riley took the limelight a couple of times with a spritely fiddle tune, one memorably titled ‘Obama’s March to the White House’. His vocal contribution was mainly confined to harmonies, but he did take lead on a rather good song from his own catalogue ‘Whiskey and Wine’.

Delving deeper into the background reveals that Riley has been playing music since the age of seven and a band named The Onlies, of which now Vivian is a part, has been active on the local scene for a number of years. Recently the collaboration has branched out into a new project under the name The Ruglifters, a remarkably extensive bout of experience for a pair so formative in their years.

Across the two sets played, the impact of the musical presence visibly grew in line with the confidence of the two performers. You felt you were in the company of a couple of artists steeped in talent and destined to take their music a long way on a scene that nurtures and champions its best. This was country music in its purest form.

Enlisted to open the show was local based singer-songwriter-guitarist Amit Dattani. A regular on the Birmingham scene, he aptly opened with ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ before settling to share some tunes and songs from his new album SANTIAGO. His booking proved a good fit for the evening, especially with the finger picking guitar style that set the scene perfectly for Vivian and Riley to perform.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno join an impressive alumni set at Thimblemill Library alongside fellow American artists such as Erin Rae, Caroline Spence, The Wild Ponies and John Craigie, as well as the previously mentioned Rachel Baiman and Molly Tuttle. They certainly held their own and contributed to a fabulous evening visibly enjoyed by all. With a great deal determination and effort, the team behind these presentations are fully utilising a poignantly positioned art deco building, filled with acres of knowledgeable font and one increasingly fondly remembered by those passing through. Long may whispers and recommendations prevail and nights like this get repeated in the future.

Thanks to Andy D for the images