Denmark Street’s still got it. It may not swing, and it’s nearest neighbour Soho is perhaps less infamous than it was way back when, but walking down its short length admiring the displays of guitars hanging in shop windows, you still feel the frisson of excitement that music and its instruments gives you. Better still, the reason I’m here is to review two artists at Denmark Street’s very own 12 Bar Club.
The venue must lay claim to being one of the cooler in central London. The stage, set against a wall in a back room with a high ceiling and dark-painted walls, looks like a set from Rocky Horror, though some of the décor may be a hangover from Halloween. A steel supporting the walls cuts across the stage making entry and exit to the performance area an adventure and the mixing desk is in a broom cupboard at the back. Intimate doesn’t begin to describe the space; on a sold-out night everyone’s going to know the person next to them much better by the end. Isn’t that what folk is all about, making friends and sharing a communal experience?
The evening is billed as a showcase for the Bucketfull of Brains (BoB) label. First up are Sugar Magnolia, Bryony Afferson and Jack Day. Bryony is one third of Troubadour Rose and Jack released his own album earlier this year. Two very different voices wedded by some arresting and contemporary takes on folk, they are quickly into their stride. Jack plays the guitar as if his life depends upon it. In some of the more upbeat sections, he rests his chin on the top of it and looks down across the strings, his body moving in unison with the rhythm. The songs are largely finger-picked and despite being glued to the body of his six-string, he has a light touch and an ear for the dynamics of a song. Bryony is equally accomplished, whether she’s picking lightly at the strings of her mandolin or extracting a beautiful, mournful wail from the harmonica.
It’s the voices that you notice first though. Jack’s is an underground rumble you could plane an oak with, a rasp that rarely lifts above bass; it’s very distinctive. Contrast this with Bryony’s crystal-cut tone and larger range and it can feel like you’re listening to two ends of a different spectrum, but remarkably, the combination meets somewhere in the middle to create something very individual, very beautiful. On stage they are relaxed with each other and the audience, Bryony often needing no more than a nod to Jack during a number to tweak whatever she’s not happy with or grimacing occasionally about something we can only imagine. Their wit is dry, the banter short, leaving as much time for the songs as possible, which are delivered in an unaffected and relaxed way. Claypipe has a great guitar melody and some nice key changes. To The Road showcases Bryony’s voice and 3000 Miles and North London Country are also highlights, the latter featuring on a recent Folk Radio UK Presents Whispering Bob Apple Tree session (see below).
Trent Miller and Barbara Bartz, the latter last seen accompanying Jason Mcniff at the Borderline, are a different proposition. Miller is Italian by birth but since 2006 has lived in London, pursuing a recording career across three albums of dark, wounded country-folk that owes more than a little to the Townes Van Zandt / Guy Clark model. There’s also a suggestion of Jimmy Webb’s lonely country balladry in the opening numbers. As reference points go, it’s heady stuff.
Trent’s Lanegan-low voice and minor key melodies are given additional spice with his clipped native accent and his guitar lines are highlighted by Bartz’s fluid fiddle, sometimes plucked pizzicato style. They’re a good combination with an easy affinity in-between numbers, Bartz gently poking fun at Trent’s organisation skills and minimal banter. They open with All These Violent Years and Hearts On A Wire from Trent’s latest album, the appropriately titled Burnt Offerings. These are vignettes of searching and loss, wandering and pain, but despite the often troubled subject matter they descend neither into gloom or pastiche but are wrenched into melodic shapes that still have you tapping your foot, albeit slowly. The combination of dark soul-searching and memorable songs is captured in new single Lupita Dream On which recently premiered on FRUK and later numbers such as Fear of Flying and Last Chance Motel, both taken from Trent’s second album, Welcome To Inferno Valley. They finish with Cold Ashes, but the set has been anything but. If you like your music a little on the dangerous side, Trent Miller may just be your new jam.
Finally, the BoB crowd are treated to a short acoustic set from Case Hardin’s Pete Gow, who brings his usual concentrated energy and self-deprecating wit to proceedings with guitar-only versions of tracks from their latest album PM and before, including the lovely Three Beautiful Daughters and a rousing Champeen. As the first in a series of showcase events, this has certainly set the bar high in terms of artistry and diversity and has achieved what all good live shows must; made me want to come back for more.
Review by: Paul Woodgate