Annie Keating is back on these shores – and she’s ready to rock.
Patience and anticipation are not comfortable bedfellows. It’s almost 12 months since Annie Keating left the stage at Saltaire’s Live Room after blowing our socks into orbit during her last visit to Blighty. It’s been a long, long wait but, happily, she’s here again, complete with her UK touring band, and, this time, she’s also got a fab new album to promote. That new album, Hard Frost, hit the racks in early June and, as we discovered when we gave it a deep listen, it’s every bit as enthralling as its stunning lockdown-inspired predecessor, Bristol County Tides, one of our 2021 Albums of the Year.
This time around, we’ve caught Annie’s show right at the start of her tour, a 14-show jaunt around England and Scotland that takes in such favoured venues as The Little Rabbit Barn in Ardleigh, Essex, The Atkinson in Southport, Bath’s wonderful Chapel Arts Centre and, of course, a return visit to the Live Room. As usual, Annie has re-enlisted the services of her regular UK band, so we’re able, once again, to enjoy the supreme talents of guitarist Joe Coombs and drummer Jamie Dawson. There’s a bit of a change in the bass department; regular bassist Scott Warman isn’t available for all shows, but able cover has been secured in the shape of Mark Lewis who is standing in on double bass and bass guitar – and is providing some pretty lush backing vocals, too – for the shows at which Scott will be absent, including this show at Fareham’s Ashcroft Arts Centre.
And what a snug, friendly venue The Ashcroft is! Tucked away, just off the town’s Georgian High Street, it’s a small, seated theatre, just right for a tour-opening show. Friday night concerts are a regular feature at the venue, and, on the evidence of the posters placed around the place, those concerts attract some impressive acts – amongst the forthcoming attractions, I noted that Daphne’s Flight will be making an appearance later this month. Hmm…
Sadly, for Annie’s appearance, the place was only around half-full; it seems that there are, amongst the good citizens of Fareham and its environs, a good number of people who don’t recognise a good thing, even when it arrives on their doorstep. But, for those who did attend, a great time was had, and I suspect that Annie Keating acquired quite a few new friends and followers in Hampshire.
You’d expect a professional old hand like Annie Keating to plan the setlist with absolute precision, and you’d be right. Tonight’s show comprised a relatively short, relatively laid-back, first set, followed by a longer, rockier second half – with an opportunity in-between for audience members to (in Annie’s words) “refresh their libations and build the night into a party-like atmosphere.” and it worked a treat.
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to kick off an Annie Keating show than with old favourite Belmont, the title track of the 2008 album that brought this lady’s brand of gritty Americana to the attention of her most famous mentor, “Whispering” Bob Harris. And tonight, Annie, armed with her trusty 1937 Gibson acoustic guitar (“The only guitar I play, and it don’t like goin’ on planes…”) delivered the song with a passion that probably only comes with the emotional release associated with the opening song at the tour’s opening show – Annie Keating’s 2023 UK tour was up and running!
And we stayed with the Belmont album as Annie moved on to the swampy, Creedence-flavoured rocker, On The Road by 10, a song that allowed Joe the space and the spotlight for the first of many spine-tingling slide guitar solos. He gets better every time! Annie covered every inch of the stage as she urged her boys on to to greater and greater heights – and this was only the second song of the evening. I was sure that I could hear strains of Eric Clapton in Joe’s exquisite guitar fills in the sunny, countrified, For The Taking, yet another song from the Belmont album, before he switched from Strat to Gibson ES-335 for yet more heroics as he added spice to Kindred Spirit, a sultry favourite of anyone who, like me, has discovered the Annie Keating magic during the past 3 years.
But, you know, Annie Keating was making incredible music before the revelation that was the Bristol County Tides album struck home, as she ably demonstrated with her interpretation of Storm Warning, that down-and-dirty rocker from her 2013 album, For Keeps. Annie Keating can rock, and it was clear to every one of us that she was bursting to do so. The Hard Frost album received its first airing of the evening with the magnificent Looking For Trouble – undeniably one of the album’s hottest cuts. The vulnerability in Annie’s vocal was palpable and Jamie’s brushed drums added to the tender ambience of the song, whilst Joe, once again, hit the heights with yet another delicious solo.
Lest we should forget, Bristol County Tides was conceived and recorded during lockdown, when the very thought of popping into the local bar to get gloriously sozzled was a dream for strictly forbidden fruit. That’s the sentiment that has helped to make Hank’s Saloon such an indispensable live favourite and, tonight, it was as raucous as ever, as the whole band – and quite a number of the audience members – joined in with the announcement that, for those wishing to get happy, “the drinks start at noon.” Hank’s Saloon is a song that can’t fail to entice even the most reluctant soul to the bar but, just to drive the message fully home, Annie and the boys took us up to the interval with another of her fine lockdown songs, Third Street, the simmering rocker dedicated to the characters that inhabited Annie’s mother’s street, the location to which Annie retreated when COVID struck.
And, in the bar area, during the interval, the talk amongst the punters was all about that fantastic guitarist in Annie Keating’s band. Joe Coombs has, without doubt, caused quite a stir amongst the discerning music lovers of Fareham!
When, recently, At The Barrier was invited to curate the between-sets music for the 2023 Fairport’s Cropredy Convention festival, I insisted that Marigold be included in the playlist. If I was forced up against a wall with a gun pointed in my direction and forced to name my favourite Annie Keating song, then Marigold would be the song I’d choose. And tonight’s version was superlative, with the band knitting tightly together from the very first note. Water Tower View was next, Annie’s paean to the beauty of that most American of landmarks and, once again, Joe rose to the challenge, delivering a solo that reminded me, this time, of Peter Green at his most melodic.
Keepsakes and Heartaches, one of the gentler songs from the Hard Frost album had its live debut tonight. It’s arguably Annie’s most overtly country offering and Annie and the band nailed it. Then, sticking with Hard Frost, we headed to the opposite extreme for a dose of swampy grime with Lovesick Blues and, if they’d been resisting it so far, any reluctant members of the audience had to finally yield to the temptation to sway and stomp.
One feature that I love at any Annie Keating show is the way in which Annie engages with her audience. She’d made us all feel special and involved from the moment that she stepped onto the stage, but the engagement became so much closer as she recounted an anecdote of a morning run that went horribly wrong, during a visit to The Netherlands. I won’t go into the details here – you’ll have to attend one of the shows if you want to hear the hilarious outcome of her misadventure – but the story characterised the bond that Annie holds with her audience.
On with the show, and I Want to Start Something With You was as beautiful as ever, as was the delightful Coney Island – always a welcome inclusion in any of Annie’s setlists. By the time she’d got through Lies and Dynamite, Hard Frost‘s powerhouse of an opening track, Annie was dripping – she certainly won’t be needing to take any misguided morning runs at this rate – before she wisely slowed the pace for a stunning rendition of Valentine, another song from the oft-visited Belmont album and, perhaps, the gentlest song ion the entire Annie Keating canon. “I’m at home when I’m with you” is, just maybe, the most soothing line she ever wrote and, judging from their approving reaction, every member of the audience agreed.
And still, Joe Coombs continued to channel the spirits of guitarists past and present. Eric Clapton and Peter Green had already inhabited his fretboard and, in On The Loose, a solid rocker from the Water Tower View album, John Fogerty and Scotty Moore each made a spiritual guest appearance, as both Annie and Joe abandoned their positions on the stage to move right into the audience. And that was almost, but not quite, it. Annie’s praises went out to the Fareham audience and to her wonderful band – “Thank you so much – you make a girl feel welcome” she called to the on-its-feet auditorium, before she acknowledged the band by admitting that “If I trained for 1,000 years, I wouldn’t be able to do what these guys do.” and that’s maybe true, Annie, but tonight they needed your songs, your voice and your presence to make the package complete.
There was time for a couple more. It wouldn’t be an Annie Keating show without It Already Hurst When You Leave, the appropriately sad song of parting from, once again, the Belmont album – tonight, as heartrending as ever – and an obligatory number from the John Prine songbook. The late, great John Prine is Annie’s ultimate hero and her version of Angel From Montgomery never fails to strum the heart strings. Mark’s vocal harmonies emphasised the beauty of the song and Joe added a final lustre to the song, and to the evening, with one more glorious solo.
We always get ourselves excited about the prospect of an Annie Keating tour, and this one promises to be a stormer. If you haven’t got your tickets yet for a show near you, I recommend that you correct that omission immediately. There are several new Annie Keating fans walking the streets of Fareham today and, as I left the Ashcroft Arts Centre, I was gratified to hear one satisfied showgoer declare: “That was the best thing ever at The Ashcroft.” Annie Keating can do that to a guy.
Categories: Live Reviews