Juanita @ the Cuban Embassy sounds quite exotic, well at least Hispanic or Latino. When you translate it to an exiled Aussie indie-rocker in the upstairs room of a suburban Birmingham pub, you get more than a hint of reality. From either perspective, Juanita Stein is well on the way to establishing herself as a respected solo artist and seizes a vast array of opportunities to shore up her fan base. The Bulls Head (the Cuban Embassy in a former life) in Moseley is a long way from some of the platforms she has paraded on during a twenty-year career, but connecting with fifty-plus fans in an intimate setting can still present rewards in a different way.
There are three likely entry points into the work of Juanita Stein. Many are likely to have lived and breathed her exploits as the front person of indie rock band Howling Bells, which brushed with the big time before settling at a level just below the household names with whom they were associated. In recent times, Stein has returned to the spotlight via a support slot with The Killers, and maybe acquired admirers from those at arena shows who pay any attention to the opening acts. Thirdly, there are some of us total newbies who have been pitched, or stumbled upon the pair of recently released solo albums that have tended to look beyond a scripted audience for some appreciation.
The label Americana was banded around for the solo records, well the first had the title AMERICA and her lead guitarist plays some twangy stuff in western shirted attire. I think it is best to settle on the watered down phrase ‘Americana-tinged indie rock’ to describe the music. It does fall in line with the cotton thread fragility to defining Americana. Labels aside, both the aforementioned debut album, released in 2017, and the very sharp follow up this year present themselves as positive listening experiences, packed with decent songs that travel well from studio to stage.
For the curfew-restricted fifty-five minutes that the four-piece band spent on stage, there was a prime focus on the solo material especially the new release UNTIL THE LIGHTS FADE, which is the purpose for the current run of UK dates. The sole detour was an encore version of the sixties hit ‘Bang Bang’, made famous by Nancy Sinatra, and originally from the pen of Sonny Bono. The version tonight saw Stein ditch the guitar to accompany her lead guitarist for three minutes that felt different from the rest of the set, at least in the vocal delivery.
Elsewhere the highlights were ‘Cool, ‘Get Back to the City’ and ‘America’, with between-song chat and intros kept to a minimum in a tight schedule. From a close up view in a cramped room, Stein cut a cool figure, with the band providing first-rate support to a fistful of melodic atmospheric songs alongside adding some effective harmonies. It was a brief but sweet set, maybe a little blurry in places, but a succinct showcase of what Juanita Stein has to offer as a solo artist.
The evening began with a thirty-minute opening slot from John J Presley, who operated as a duo with his drummer and delivered a raft of hardened guitar tunes in an insular manner. A classic case of each to their own taste and this artist will have his own audience.
Juanita Stein is cultivating a new audience away from her core and the thoughts upon leaving the gig focussed on where this may lead. There were similarities to Sharon Van Etten and Phoebe Bridgers, who possess shades of Americana, or at least signs of progressive folk, among the indie rock. Artists like these broaden the base and certainly add value upon discovery. The deal discovering Juanita Stein was sealed after this Cuban Embassy gig.