It would not be an exaggeration to say that everyone in The Old Queens Head tonight is a little but in love with Suzie Ungerleider. As artist Oh Susanna, she has enriched our lives over the course of six albums of roots-based romance. Once you’ve heard her beautiful, beguiling voice float from the speakers, you’re never quite the same. Tonight, for the first time in an age, she is in London to promote her latest collection, Namedropper (review here), with Jim Bryson. Bryson may not be a familiar name in the UK, but back home in Canada, he’s a noted producer, songwriter and band member for various outfits, including Kathleen Edwards. Jim produced Namedropper and it’s fitting that a man of such talents tours the songs, one of which is his, with her.
It’s Jim who takes to the stage first, fledgling moustache and beany just two of several distractions for him in a truncated solo set that has the room bellowing with laughter from the start. To say that Mr. Bryson is funny would be an understatement; self-deprecating, droll and with a nice folio of one-liners – ‘I was in Sheffield last night; almost didn’t make it out ‘cos of the massive snowstorm – all two centimetres of it’ – he regularly stops himself mid-song to pass comment on anything that takes his fancy. We only get four songs. They err on the lo-fi, DIY end of the roots spectrum. In-between we learn about his teenage-self’s Def Leppard posters and why a moustache isn’t good when playing harmonica. It’s a clever warm up, acting as it does to introduce his talent and abilities and loosen some shoulders, but the jocular effect of his twenty minutes is also enough to throw us off the scent; when Oh Susanna joins him, irreverence turns to open admiration.
It takes about two verses of Sleepy Little Sailor before everyone breathes out, slowly and quietly to ensure the joyous noise on stage isn’t disturbed. A gorgeous blend of poignant, wistful, winsome and ballsy, her vocals sweep you up and carry you gently from one wonderful melody to another, such that regardless of the subject-matter, you want to hear it again and again. If ever the cliché about singing the telephone book was meant for someone, it was this woman.
The evening is a procession of exquisite little jewels over two sets. Greyhound Bus, Long Black Train and Drunk As A Sailor, the latter buoyed by Bryson’s gentle slide guitar, are superb. Announcing Wait Until The Sun Comes Up, one of two Ron Sexsmith songs on Namedropper – ‘…we asked Ron on a Thursday and the song was with us on Saturday; I hate him…’ – triggers the story of how the album came about, the list of notable songwriters who agreed to write for the album. Suzie makes sure each of those songwriters is given due credit. Into My Arms is a high note to end their first set, its middle-eight a story in itself; ‘Nothing’s as simple as 1 2 3 / Pick up the pace babe, get back in the race, baby’.
Cottonseed is a delightful start to the second set, and the performance, looser and with more between-song banter, is enhanced by Bryson’s increased input on backing vocals, understated guitar and keyboard parts. Highlights include the poignant Loved You More and Bryson’s own Oregon, perfectly pitched somewhere between an indie rocker and roots travelogue. Suzie takes a backseat for another Bryson song, Somewhere Else, the story of a hometown he thought he’d left behind, only to find himself back there and happier than he could have imagined. Dying Light is an extended blues, Suzie strapping on an electric until she realises it’s not tuned; cue jokes about needing a man. The Jim Cuddy song spirals out from the stage and straight into your gut.
The encore involves props found in the green room, a top hat and a pair of plastic glasses apparently left behind from a secret warm up gig for Krafwerk. We get a storming Mozart For The Cat, Suzie swaying with the rhythm, the room moving in unison. The fun is somewhat at odds with the glorious ballad Forever At Your Feet, a track from 2001s Sleepy Little Sailor featuring Spanish arpeggio flourishes and cut-to-the-core lyrics – ‘A locket on a chain / A bow that’s made from rain / A briar grows entwined with rose / I’ve come to be, forever at your feet’. There were many in The Old Queens Head who thought much the same. Wonderful.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
Namedropper is out now on Continental Song City
Order via Amazon