1999 certainly produced some albums that have stood the test of time, especially a couple that have helped mould country, folk and rock sentiments into the burgeoning 21st century genre of Americana. Within weeks of Lucinda Williams hitting our shores to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her seminal album CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD, Oh Susanna has done the same with her classic release of that year JOHNSTOWN. To keep the similarities going, both artists made Birmingham a port of call for the revival tour and followed a similar theme of playing the entire album in its original order plus a few old favourites to wrap the show. Much has been made of Lucinda’s Town Hall gig in August, but the time has arrived to shower rightful praise on Oh Susanna’s somewhat lower key celebration at the Kitchen Garden, albeit no less absorbing and wholly commendable.
From a literal perspective, those attending both events may choose to contrast the scale differentiation, but a little twist of the mind reveals so much synergy. It became apparent during this show that Oh Susanna holds JOHNSTOWN dear in her heart as the album which unlocked so many doors, none so personal than the route to finally express herself in her beloved art form of song. The twelve songs that formed the body of this album battle with the duality of lightness and darkness, while demonstrating that such inner and slightly introspective thoughts can leap out straight into a listener’s heart.
As previously indicated, Oh Susanna served up each track in album order starting with the murderous overtones of the title number and finishing just over an hour later with the tender offerings of ‘Tangled and Wild’. ‘Johnstown’, the song, is as strong an album opener that you are likely to come across, sung with a touch of aggression to blend into the theme of the writing. In line with other album presentations, a fair number of the songs had a background introduction. Oh Susanna optimally fine-tuned this portion of the show, leaving the beauty of the lyrics and the vocals as the sole conveyor of the thoughts of certain numbers. The album’s pivotal track, ‘The Bridge’, was one given an introduction and it proved to be the unexpected highlight of the evening’s core segment.
JOHNSTOWN itself has had a makeover to commemorate its anniversary. A digitally remastered version has been released across as multitude of formats, and this Birmingham date is one of several UK shows scheduled to promote the album in a country that has been very kind over the years to this Canadian.
Although Oh Susanna had appeared solo at The Long Road festival the previous weekend, she had re-engaged with Dutch guitarist BJ Baartmans for this Birmingham show, and his incredibly deft guitar skills added enormously to the textural sound of the songs. He has had a long association with Oh Susanna and their chemistry was evident for all to see.
To complete a trio of artists on the bill, Austin-based singer-songwriter Matt the Electrician opened the evening with 30 minutes of deep thinking self-reflective songs that you have come to expect from artistic residents of that town. He set the scene warmly, lyrically and sensitively for a night where, not only was the song supreme, but the way it projects the inner dynamics of the songwriter. Strong stuff maybe, but explicitly palatable in delivery and reception.
One side benefit to this focus on the work of Oh Susanna is a perfect opportunity to go back and re-live her fabulous 2017 album A GIRL IN TEEN CITY, a most touching and nostalgic record that rose steep when assessing that year’s releases. Only a solitary track made the post-Johnstown section of the 90-minute set, but you might as well make it one of best in ‘My Boyfriend’. Those of us fortunate to catch her set at Long Road were also treated to ‘Tickets on the Weekend’ from that album.
The evening’s finale also saw three more old favourites with folks choosing between ‘Sleepy Little Sailor’, ‘River Blue’ and ‘Right By Your Side’ for their highlight pick, or maybe just enjoying them all equally for their widespread merit. Perhaps the most important song on the evening was a brand new one titled ‘Mount Royal’, inspired by her time at University in Montreal and a virtual meeting with fellow esteemed Canadian songwriter Jim Bryson. As much as the importance of celebrating past work is a rejuvenating venture for artists, there is nothing quite like a peep into the future and some sort of renewal. This side of Oh Susanna’s work sounded superb, showing the tank beginning to fill nicely.
The success of this evening was as much down to the smart choice of many fans hooking into the work of Oh Susanna, as chances of her not delivering on this impassioned project were always slim. You tend to know when you are backing a winner and we were certainly in the sparkling company of one in Birmingham tonight.