There’s a minor drama attached to Israel’s gig, with a sudden, last minute change of venues. It seems that original London venue of The Water Rats needs to perform some emergency maintenance, so the gig is hastily shifted across town to The Slaughtered Lamb. Anyone who knows the two venues will probably agree that the rearranged location is slightly bigger, but the necessary columns of the basement room probably make things about even in capacity. And although the Lamb is generally the venue for more acoustic based acts, the sudden change quite probably comes as something of a blessing.
Firstly, when we get there, having been tipped off by text and email in good time to allow for a change of journey plans, the pub itself seems oddly quiet, although it is after all a Sunday night. Israel is outside with Tom from Loose Records and introductions are made and a few pleasantries exchanged, but with stage time looming, we make a dash to the bar and then downstairs. It transpires the reason the pub is quiet is that everyone else is down here, the room is pretty much packed out, but with enough space for my gig buddy and I to squeeze in at the back.
Thankfully regular sound man Joe is in place and free of other commitments to work his usual wonders here. The kit they have at the lamb, always strikes me as fairly basic, but it’s obviously sufficient for the five piece band. The room is probably small enough to mean the drums don’t need any serious amping up, but with Israel also flanked by two guitarists, one who deps on pedal steel and a bassist, all of whom have vocal mikes, it’s a complex mix. The joy is that from the off, it sounds superb.
Israel is a tall man, his wild hair and beard giving him a similar mane to the lion from his latest the album’s inner, gatefold artwork, a backdrop of which has been pinned up behind them. He sports a white Gretsch Electromatic, the one with the double cutaways, with it’s clear ringing tone. Israel’s rhythm guitar playing it transpires, adds an important component in the wall of sound of Rain Plans.
We get the album in sequence and boy does it sound good. It’s the album band of Eric Swanson (pedal steel, guitar, vocals), Aaron McClellan (bass, vocals), Josh Fleischmann (drums), with the exception of Nik Lee (guitar, vocals), who seamlessly replaces Joey McClellan. The complex dense sounds of Rain Plans are brought thrillingly to life. Israel’s voice, pushed back into the mix of the recording, has a more soulful edge and with all of them singing, some of the vocal lines are a little more prominent. But all of the rich tapestry of sound is there. I start to wonder whether where I thought I was hearing something like a Mellotron in the mix on the CD (read my review here), its actually just the rich harmonics of guitars, fed through various devices and good old fashioned valve amps. There’s nothing that seems to be missing, although I suspect closer examination might prove me right the first time.
As the songs unfold, Woman At The Well, Through The Door, Just Like Water, Who In Time, Myer Canyon and Rain Plans, the effect is electrifying. My goose bumps have goose bumps as the music shimmers and not for the first time, emotions overspill. Some reviews of the album have unfairly suggested it’s one paced. Fair enough, the gear shifts are mostly subtle, but when you surrender to the music such notions evaporate and you could luxuriate in the rich complexity of this sound forever, besides the pick up at the end of the title track, running into the massed voices that start the minor key decent of Iron Of The Mountain, is a powerful moment. Mansion takes on an epic, almost apocalyptic tone, the guitars spiralling ever upward as Israel delivers the lines, “You built your mansion on the rocks just to find it sinking in the sand.” Rexanimarum finally asserts itself as the perfect ragged country tinged closer, sounding somehow proud and defiant, and boasting the finest guitars licks and spiralling lead runs ever.
With the album played through the band slip into a selection from Barn Doors And Concrete Floors. I must confess I got so excited during Fools Gold, that the rest became a little bit of a blur, but Goodbye Ghost, Antebellum, Louisiana, Drown and a barnstorming Baltimore take no prisoners. A fitting climax to a great show.
As we leave I’m bubbling and telling anyone who’ll listen that, “This is the gig I’ve waited more than 40 years for.” Ever since hearing Déjà Vu, closely followed by After The Goldrush, around the age of 12 or 13, I’ve been in the thrall of CSN and particularly Y. My enduring love of Americana stems from those two records, with a nod to Jefferson Airplane’s Bless It’s Pointed Little Head as an early brick in the foundations. There have been some moments down the years, Green On Red, The Long Ryders, The Jayhawks, R.E.M, Lucinda Williams, too many to name, but this is the one that eclipsed them all. I only hope that no one got to The Water Rats and finding nothing on, gave up. If they did, they missed one of the gigs of a lifetime.
Review by: Simon Holland