Minus the band, Kassi Valazza’s songs shine all the more brightly.
A dreich Sunday night in Brum might not seem the most appealing time to capture music that so rapturously evokes the wide outdoors of the American prairies, but you gets what you gets, that being the opinion shared with the other doughty souls in this bijou basement bar.
It seems harsh to have to go from a glowing feature piece in Uncut, earlier this year, to draughty rooms like this, uncertain if anyone is going to show, which is Valazza’s journey. Be that as it may, she appears un-phased, relatively, passing comment that this may well not have been the sparsest showing yet, citing that this would have therefore to be more than an extra and unplanned rehearsal.
The Sunflower Lounge is yet another Birmingham venue new to me, tucked around the corner from New Street Station, part of the 60s abomination of Smallbrook Queensway. And it is great! It sets itself up as bringing “the glamour and grunge of New York dive bars to the centre of Birmingham,” which may well be the case on the nights when it entertains rowdier crowds.
Certainly it’s tiny, but the ambience is more akin, I imagine, to somewhere dusty in downtown Austin, stumbled upon by accident. The black walls and near non-existent lighting might scream East Village, but the stage, illuminated JD sign and all, reeks pure SXSW. Capacity 125, it says, thinking that would be mighty crammed; with a quarter that, it felt just fine.
First on was Henry Grace, even his name sounding like a frock-coated cowboy, it surprising then to hear a quietly spoken Londoner between the songs he sings, where he comes over a mash of any full throated acoustic Americana troubadour you might wish to be singing for his supper on a Sunday night. So, shades of, inevitably, Nebraska Springsteen, but hints also of Townes Van Zandt in his dry delivery. I could also hear a chime of a lower pitched Paul Brady in his hoarse proclamations. Promising stuff, and, with him currently crowdfunding his second album, something to look forward to. An interesting back story also, in which he found escape from mental health issues, by relocating to the US for a decade, describing how he became considered to be American “almost by accident.” (So nothing to do with the trucker’s cap, then?)
A brief gap for a wet and a water, and three individuals wandered casually onto the stage, via the audience. (I don’t think there actually is a stage door, adding to the intimacy of the performance.) One, clearly, was tonight’s star, the other two archetypal country-rocker types, with a battered Homburg, feather attached, a Nudie style western shirt, Cuban heeled cowboy boots, facial hair and long, long hair present for authentication purposes. Valazza a slighter and smaller figure than one might expect, she took centre stage, not without difficulty, on a stool higher than, as she commented upon, her legs. A massive acoustic guitar near hid all but her face and head. Stage right was Tobias Berblinger, on subtly understated keyboards, with, rather than Erik Clampett, with her earlier in the year, Lewi Longmire, on harmonica, electric guitars and lap steel. Given he appeared on her album, reviewed here, he had the gravitas, the grounding and sensibility to keep the instrumental essentials maintained, even in this stripped-down format.
It was with harmonica and electric guitar that he accompanied the opener, Birds Fly, squeezing out bird song noises with careful bottleneck dexterity and consummate volume control, which open and close the song. Between, of course, it is Valazza’s honeyed tones that smoothly drift out and into the room, having you near stop breathing, ahead a soundless wow forming in your mouth. The album opener, Room In The City, follows, already sounding an old friend, such is the warmth of her voice. As song after song follows, the admiration for the trio increases, the audience rapt in their attention. Berblinger’s part in the sound is almost imperceptible: until you really concentrate, allowing a realisation his part is covering all the bases between the voice and the guitar, a glue that is integral but not obvious or in your face. Longmire coaxes all sorts of notes from his guitar, often allowing separate moods to co-exist as he picks and plucks. Meanwhile, Valazza shows she is no novice at her own playing, confident and competent both. Watching Planes Go By is a highlight, as it is on the record, including an extended instrumental section.
A couple of new songs, one possibly never played before, get aired, and seem decent, with Longmire switching to lap steel, swaying over the strings as he peels off curved runs of notes. She introduces Wildagooses by asking who of the audience is familiar with the author: Michael Hurley, the reticence of the audience perceived as ignorance, to her disappointment. Indeed, lke many a visiting American, she seemed slightly bemused by the “politeness” of the room. (Or “old”, as one wag responded, and not wholly inaccurately.) Longmire has been Hurley’s guitar sidesman, in live settings, for several years, so I wonder whether this had been her point of introduction to the singer/songwriter maverick. As on the album, it is a lovely version.
With two songs to go, one of these was Welcome Song, a gaunt and gothic showstopper, which marries an English folk sensibility with some West Coast twang, Sandy with Joni, if you will. A final song and that was that, no messing around with encores, which the geography of the room would make, anyway, impossible. Instead, there was opportunity to stop and chat at the merch table, something all three were more than happy to do, ahead of driving themselves back to their Coleshill Airbnb. (Rock and roll!)
Great show, great venue. And, even if bigger venues beckon for her, I can certainly see myself coming back here again.
Categories: Live Reviews