Tuesday, 31 July 2018

GIG REVIEW: Rachel Laven + Hannah Johnson - Spotted Dog, Birmingham. Monday 30th July 2018

The status of Texas country music is legendary and the fact so much of it crosses the seas in touring mode is an added bonus. Only in the last week, Austin icon Kelly Willis played a Midlands show and Steve Earle has been back in town adding to the proof that you can take the person out of Texas but… Maybe we are sliding down the scale a touch, but Rachel Laven is firmly in the camp such is the class, poise and songwriting acumen that pour from her stage demeanor. For her hour in the spotlight on this Birmingham return, the Lone Star shone brightly down on the Spotted Dog, not your usual state of play in Digbeth. Hooking up with Birmingham’s very own country music aficionado and keeper of the flame Hannah Johnson for this double bill was a sensible choice and those heading into Town for their Monday evening music fix were dealt a treat.

Hannah played the courteous host and opened up with a duo set alongside her Dad, Stewart, on Dobro. This slimmed down format is aiding his recovery from heart surgery earlier this year and there surely can be no better tonic than being able to play forty-five minutes of real deal country music to willing listeners. Apart from a couple of originals off the latest album SHAKEN, Hannah tended to focus her set on select covers, mixing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash standards with lesser known snippets from Iris DeMent and Skeets McDonald. Adding the Gillian Welch song ‘I Want to Sing That Rock ‘n’ Roll’ to the set was a good choice as well. Perhaps the future of Hannah does centre on maintaining a steady flow of original material that has formed at least a healthy part of her sets for a number of years. More waltz songs like ‘Morning Cocktail’ will serve up nicely.

Standing aside for Rachel to claim the limelight was Hannah’s parting shot for the evening (she will be back next week somewhere on the local circuit). As it is not every day that a sparkling singer-songwriter from San Antonio takes to the stage with a fistful of songs reflective of what has made her State’s music so compelling over the years.

Twelve months ago, Rachel played a lower key show in the city’s Blue Piano venue. This time the performance appeared a little more rounded, not just longer, but fuller with further revealing chat, a varied set list and some improvised collaborations. It helped that her latest record LOVE & LUCCHESES has been on heavy streaming rotation for the last few months. Hopes of walking away with a physical copy were dashed following a first touring batch sell out, but orders taken on the evening should yield their reward in a few days.

Not surprisingly, a large chunk of the album content was shared with a fair sprinkling of hardcore Americana music devotees in the audience. Good word gets around. However, this was not before Rachel paid her own tribute to Texas legend Guy Clark early in the set. Album favourites such as ‘Do You Dare’ and ‘The Moon’ sounded super live. The opening line from the latter – ‘even the lone star’s got a friend tonight’ is a corker. Two songs that escalated up the scale this evening were ‘Love & Luccheses’ and ‘Don’t Put Me in a Town’. Each had their origins explained to shed a vivid light on the compositions, which are both high class. The former is accompanied by the sentimental tale of a pair of boots being passed down the family line – quintessentially Texan –, while deriding a town for having more churches than bars provides fuel for a great country song.

Getting recommendations of other artists to check out is a norm from touring singer-songwriters and Rachel planted the name Walt Wilkins this evening. He is a fellow Texan who kindly allowed her to cut ‘Something Like Heaven’ on the album. For a more familiar song, Rachel was joined by Rebecca from the Rosellys and her mother (this year’s travelling companion) on backing vocals to knock out ‘Angel From Montgomery’. Ironic to the extent that the great John Prine plays a rare Birmingham show this coming Friday.

We got a further taste of The Lavens family band when mum Jana stayed on stage to sing lead on another song. It also does not take too many online clicks to find more about this band that is very much the forerunner to Rachel branching out as a solo artist. Rebecca, who has provided the link for Rachel to play UK shows for a couple of years, joined on several occasions to sing backing vocals as well. Alas, there was no extra musical accompaniment to Rachel's fine guitar playing. Fiddle and steel would sound great as evidenced on the record.

So, this evening’s choice of gig (and even though it was late July there were still alternatives on offer) ended up being an extremely enjoyable show. Two artists from two different backgrounds sharing a common bond of music we all love. Hannah Johnson gigs come round quite quickly, but we have to cherish each moment that artists like Rachel Laven leave their Texas home and stroll into a back room pub with an armful of top songs, all played, sung and presented wonderfully.

Rachel playing the opening track of the album with Sweet 'Shine & Honey