Norwich’s Tombland, with its rich Scandinavian history, seems an appropriate place to take in the last night of Sarah MacDougall’s album launch tour. The Swedish/Canadian songwriter is in the UK to promote her second full length release, The Greatest Ones Alive. With a pared-back band occupying a tiny stage, MacDougall guided the audience through a selection of tracks from both this and her first album, 2009’s Across The Atlantic.
The opener ‘It’s a Storm! (What’s Going On?)’ showcased the deftness and subtlety of MacDougall’s fingerpicking, allowing her breathy, warm voice to take centre stage. The ebb and flow of the accompanying instruments eventually subsided to leave three voices singing a capella – a change that seems cinematic on the record but intimate on the stage. The contrast between the two albums was evident in the first half of the set, with songs coming alternately from each. ‘The Crow’s Lament’ – a song which earned MacDougall a semi-final place in the International Songwriting competition – stands out as rootsier and eminently catchy (as does ‘Cry Wolf!’, also taken from Across the Atlantic) inviting comparisons in places to her compatriot Devon Sproule.
Despite the meagre turnout at Olive’s on a cold Sunday night in Norfolk, the trio appeared to be enjoying themselves, with footstomps and yelps injecting a bit of levity and fun – welcome contrast from the introspective mood engendered by some of the slower-paced songs of the new album. Her bandmates, Bob Hamilton (bass and mandolin) and Tim Tweedale (Weissenborn slide guitar) provided slick and accomplished support without eclipsing MacDougall’s distinctive vocals, with Tweedale’s adept soloing recalling Greg Leisz’s work on Ryan Adams’ earlier output.
The Greatest Ones Alive covers a great deal thematically – the vicissitudes of growing up are delved into in the title track, and the dreamy ‘Permafrost’ evokes the loneliness of the Canadian landscape (‘I’m so far away from home’). MacDougall sings ‘I’ve walked so many miles/Now I feel old, though I’m young’ in ‘Sometimes You Lose Sometimes You Win’ – the album’s opening track – summing up the nostalgia-inflected tone of what is to follow. More explicitly though, it rings true: her voice consistently belies her years, and is occasionally redolent of, among others, Emmylou Harris’.
It’s a pity that the ambition and scope of The Greatest Ones Alive was met here with such sparse attendance – given a better atmosphere, the songs really could have flourished.
Photo by Michael Farrant (All rights reserved)