Sumptuous recording of Gretchen Peters at her finest, in concert, with her band and the Southern Fried Quartet.
Release Date: 19th July 2022
Format: CD / vinyl / digital
Canny timing from the ever savvy Ms. Peters; no sooner does she announce to the world that she is giving up touring, than this delightful nugget drops. And, to be fair, it is entirely apt that this celebrates her dedication to her fan base this side of the pond, being a near annual visitor to these islands these last 25 years. Arguably on account the fact we know her better as a singer than a writer, whereas at home she is touted as the author of songs for bigger stars, the likes of Bryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt. Here she performs those songs, and many more, from her extensive catalogue. Championed by the likes of Bob Harris and not without reason, she has moved up from solo shows, in smaller clubs, to full band outings in some of our grander concert halls.
This double CD is a record of one such visit, during 2019, the set split into two halves, the first with Peters and her band, but augmented by the Southern Fried String Quartet, the second just she and the band. (And not just any old string quartet, for, despite their name, it is Seonaid Aitken and three of her fellow Scots, Aitken being someone we here are quite keen on.) For those who think a live album a lazy way of releasing product, a stop-gap, cast away any such aspersions, as the arrangements here often transcend the originals, with nuances unthought at the time of the original. This is a trick that only first-class musicians can bring about and these are they. This is a document anyone who has witnessed Ms. Peters live will want, and a good introduction to the Gretchen curious.
Let’s see. The strings set, disc one, captures songs cast wide across her repertoire, old favourites often unaired and less frequently heard. Plus a few cast iron nuggets, even and often if better known when sung by others. Starting with a take on her opener from 2018’s Dancing With The Beast, Arguing With Ghosts, this sets the tone, giving an almost Bruce-like song an even Brucier feel, shed of the synth for the more organic orchestration, the vocal that much lighter too as if by accidental, well-arranged default. The tinkle of, her husband, Barry Walsh’s piano adds further lustre. The creepy strings of Hello Cruel Road are then sumptuously replicated, making the value of the quartet immediately apparent. The Secret Of Life must be one of her best lyrics, mainly as she lists the various secrets, never failing to make me smile in recognition. Again, such is the chameleonic quality of her songwriting, this much covered song, which, for all the world sounds like a Sheryl Crow, is all hers, and transcends the slight and near imperceptible plod of the studio version. And most of the covers, Faith Hill et al. On through the appropriately hymnal Revival and The Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea, something we could all be doing with, and it becomes apparent this is way more than a greatest hits package.
The bleak desolation of Blackbirds takes on a whole doomier hue, with the largely acoustic arrangement quite a change from the gothic electric original, the strings swooping like storm clouds, as guitars strum and pianos chord atmospherically. Damn, this is good! With, so far, little in the way of between song comment, the strings and band now get their introductions, as she makes the point how her own version of the Bryan Adams co-write When You Love Someone is usually played low key, as a folk song. Certainly, if compared to the lavish Hollywood film soundtrack finale version it first appeared as, when helmed by Adams. So “tonight we’re going to do the movie version,” she says. They surely do, the Everly Brothers on aspartame, with Walsh adding harmony vocals. A brief cigarette lighters in the sky guitar solo from Colm McClean adds further gloss. On A Bus To St. Cloud, an audience and personal favourite, embedded in Walsh’s piano, follows. A lovely song at the best of times, as the swathe of strings slots in alongside, the majesty is writ ever larger, leaving just an epic To Say Goodbye to do just that, at least to Aitken’s musicians. “Thank you for clapping so hard for the recording”, she says, before this heart-tugging song gets a hefty elongated version, Walsh letting his hair down towards the end, with still more decorum than many can muster and McClean stretching out on his guitar with a loose intensity. Being a live disc, of course there’s an encore, which isn’t bad, when you consider this is but the first set of a two-parter, the lullaby-like When You Are Old a suitable close to this section.
Disc two, aka the second set, kicks briskly off with When All You Got Is A Hammer, the band shaking off any reserve the strings may have left them, with Conor McCreanor’s bass now both more obvious and integral, the guitars blending, Peters’ own acoustic and McClean’s electric, along with Walsh’s piano, all filling in any spaces between the words. Which they do with finesse. A word for Peters’ voice, which now sounds a little more lived in than in her earlier years, that suiting better some of the subjects of her songs, often about those on the fringes; of society, luck, age and opportunity. Disappearing Act exemplifies this to a T, the slight lack of studio polish adding oodles, as also the case for the Wichita, the tale of Cora Lee, which gets a feel of hillbilly blues, a lighter touch which contrasts with the murkier mix from Dancing With The Beast. Say Grace then strips down to just voice and finger picked guitar. a quietly beautiful song that lingers as the thoughtful lyric sinks in: “Forgive yourself for all of your mistakes.” Piano joins in and McClean squeezes out some extra poignancy from his slide guitar, in a nod to the more arranged studio version. With the mood subtly changed by that song, it is followed by the pin dropping Everything Falls Away, with Walsh’s piano utterly magnificent.
The final trio of songs, all from 2012’s Hallo Cruel Road each take full opportunity to relax and elongate. The Matador, a song Leonard Cohen could have written, and one I would like to have heard him sing, gets some fetching solo fiddle work from a returning Aitken, giving it a deliciously different flavour. Hallo Cruel Road is perhaps one of the more Nashville of Peters’ records, at least apropos the production. The icier grandeur here suits well the song. Alice Allen, on cello, then gets her place in the spotlight for Five Minutes, her rich tone giving added gravitas. Idlewild finally wraps up the show, again all those present showing off their licks, stretching to a second under seven minutes. No encore is recorded this time, but you are free to play the whole again. I did.
Seldom do live records give such a semblance of a complete concert, culled, as they often are, and this no exception, from a number of different performances. This feels as close to being there as it can, to the extent that you almost feel obliged to go and buy a drink or go to the loo between the two discs. A leaving gift from Peters, as she hangs up her touring shoes, there couldn’t be a better legacy. But, should this be a first taste, worry not too much, as she isn’t stopping quite yet, with two further and final trips to this country planned, later this year and next. She may not bring the string quartet, but, regardless, whether the full band, or just herself and hubby, a grand night out, like this souvenir, can be guaranteed. Dates below and further details from her website.
24-Aug-22 LONDON – KINGS PLACE
25-Aug-22 BRISTOL – ST GEORGES
26-Aug-22 WIMBORNE – TIVOLI THEATRE
28-Aug-22 STANFORD HALL, LEICESTERSHIRE – LONG ROAD FESTIVAL
29-Aug-22 LEEDS – CITY VARIETIES
30-Aug-22 EDINBURGH – QUEENS HALL
31-Aug-22 GLASGOW – COMMUNITY CENTRAL HALL
01-Sep-22 MILTON KEYNES – THE STABLES
02-Sep-22 LONDON – KINGS PLACE
03-May-23 BELFAST – THE MAC
04-May-23 LYTHAM ST ANNES – LOWTHER PAVILION
05-May-23 GATESHEAD – THE SAGE 2
06-May-23 LIVERPOOL – THE PHILHARMONIC
17-May-23 BURY ST EDMUNDS – THE APEX
19-May-23 BUXTON – OPERA HOUSE
20-May-23 BIRMINGHAM – TOWN HALL
21-May-23 BEXHILL-ON-SEA – DE LA WARR PAVILION
23-May-23 CARDIFF – LEVEL 3 / ST DAVIDS HALL
24-May-23 SWINDON – WYVERN THEATRE
25-May-23 EXETER – CORN EXCHANGE
27-May-23 LONDON – CADOGAN HALL
Here’s The Matador, from the album: