It’s the last night of a UK tour and a sold-out audience at Camden’s Green Note expects. Low ceiling, bare brick walls, a well-stocked bar and friendly staff who greet regulars like old friends, Green Note is as close as Combs will get to the bar-room venues in his native Dallas and adopted home in Nashville. Green Note portrays itself as the home of folk and roots in London and it may be right; Maz O’Connor, Peter Bruntnell, Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts all play soon. Tonight, though, the Americans have landed.
It’s warm and space is at a premium, the one-room venue full even before the Matt McCloskey takes the stage as support. It’s the first time in London for the Austin-based songwriter, who reels off a confident All For You and Not Tonight on his own before inviting friend and fellow guitarist Jordan up for a classic road song about ‘..losing a girl and a city at the same time’, Nashville Sun. There are hints of solo Justin Currie in the verses and they harmonise well on the catchy chorus. Into The Light has a touch of Whiskeytown-era Ryan Adams about it and rides a lovely minor key melody with some great lines – ‘..if my days are numbered, I don’t want to waste them on myself’.
We are complimented on our tendency to remain quiet during a performance, which gets a laugh. He admits it’s a rare opportunity to listen to himself, then acknowledges the songs may appear a little south of unhappy, before introducing Reason To Bleed, all harmonica accents and Dylanesque sentiment. He finishes an accomplished set with It’s A Good Thing, inspired by an enforced night sitting by a campfire having been locked out of the house by his wife – half the women in the audience visibly sag. It’s a colourful whiskey-soaked rocker with Jordan on drums for added impetus. He leaves the stage to hearty applause.
Download “An Introduction to Matt McCloskey” – a free sampler on Noisetrade.
Such is the buzz surrounding Andrew Combs, carefully managed by his UK label Loose, means there’s even less room to stand when Combs begins his set. The next 90 minutes offers up a mature set of songs that roll out from the tiny stage like summer winds across a wheat field, gentle rhythms punctured by the occasional extended jam or beefed-up beat from the drums. We get songs about the internet, missing home, fishing and dreams, God and gospel. Before the night is through, we’ll have been to Galway and Nashville via Bakersfield and we’ll know what his mum doesn’t like and his girlfriend does, but we start with the understated Rainy Day Song and harmonious Please Please Please, the memorable chorus of the latter delivered note for note. For such a small venue, the sound mix is excellent from all vantage points – I know, because I struggled to find somewhere where I wasn’t getting in anyone’s way.
Sitting at the edge of the stage, hat raised halfway up his forehead, in a tan jacket and blue jeans, Combs could be lighting up a cold December evening on Bleecker Street in ’68, but his songs have more muscle and grit than the folk troubadours of the Greenwich scene. He’s also considerably more contemporary, introducing one new song called Fooling as ‘..probably about Facebook’. Its rolling beat and great middle-eight segue into the slower Tennessee Time, written when he lived for a while in Galway and was missing home.
A third of the way into his set, Andrew Combs politely requests a glass of red wine to quench his thirst. One is soon offered from the crowd, lipstick from a former owner visible on the rim. He takes a sip and sets it down alongside the pints of water and whiskey at his feet. Then he picks up the whiskey, takes a healthy swig and introduces the next song. The trinity of liquids neatly summarises the Combs live experience, which combines moments of musical sophistication with carefully orchestrated down-home Country-rock, blunt humour and liberating songwriting that cleanses the palette of the saccharine slush modern Nashville serves up.
New song and title track from upcoming 2015 album All These Dreams has a beautifully arranged fall and rise in and out of the chorus that really grabs attention and reinforces Combs’ feel for what pushes a live audience’s buttons. Each song has a catch, a trigger that raises it above the average and into something very special and their natural excellence is emphasised by clever use of dynamics, including an extended jam from Combs’ sidekick guitarist on ..Dreams. Suwannee County is a meandering river of a song that mixes fishing and philosophy with light-touch atmospherics, before the much requested Heavy barrels out into the evening and raises the first real roar from the crowd.
Fully warmed up, Combs takes us by the scruff of the neck all the way to the encore. Slow Road To Jesus is followed by a beautiful Pearl and fierce Devil’s Got My Woman, so much more dangerous than it is on his Worried Man album. Too Stoned To Cry, ‘A song my mum hates’ is a faultless Country waltz. We audition (badly) for the sing-along chorus of Emily. For a few minutes, the Green Note is transported to a motel bar in the middle of nowhere, fuelled by alcohol and the need to express happiness in song; it’s a wonderfully inclusive end to a great set. Combs returns to sing us ‘..the only positive love song I’ve ever written’ and the woozy delights of Worried Man, tips his hat and thanks us all, and leaves us as all good artists should do; wanting more. On this performance, Combs is more than justifying the hype. It will be interesting to see how the new album is received next year and whether Loose intend to build on this tour’s momentum by getting him back to the UK and into bigger venues. It’s the least he deserves.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
‘All These Dreams’ is set for release through Loose on the 9th February 2015.