As Huey Lewis once sang ‘The power of love is a curious thing / make a one man weep, make another man sing.’ The last time I saw Mark Olson perform, it was as part of a reformed Jayhawks, promoting their Mockingbird Time album on a bare Barbican stage. It’s a good album, but Olson appeared uncomfortable with the dynamic on stage, though that could have been down to the airport-hanger aesthetic of the venue. The band he formed with Gary Louris is now touring the three albums they wrote and recorded the first time Olson left, but if the ‘Mockingbird Time’ was a compromise for this unique song-writer, it certainly had a silver lining; his (now) wife sang backing vocals on the album. Together, they’ve been touring almost non-stop for the last couple of years, firstly gathering ideas and inspiration from Scandinavia to Africa and latterly behind the release of Goodbye Lizelle, as good an album as Olson has put his name to since the Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers. Out of adversity…
Onto the What’s Cookin’ stage first, however, and fresh from a slot on Dermot O’Leary’s radio show the day before, Lewis and Leigh. One from Wales, one from Mississippi, and wouldn’t you know it, the geographic gap is but a mote when they harmonise on a selection of original and cover songs that quickly win over the early crowd. They start with a gentle version of Wilco’s Say You Miss Me and follow it with Rubble, an end-of-industry family nostalgia lyric indicative of the cross-pollination a boy from the valleys and a girl from the Deep South will create. The melodies are strong and some of the arrangements, specifically a blues based journey through the darker alleys of Soho that has real grit. Lewis and Leigh call the confluence of their art ‘Celticana’ – unnecessarily contrived for an assured sound delivered with confidence. One to watch.
A seasoned traveller with more gigs under his belt than hot dinners, whatever Olson thinks of the Leytonstone and District Ex-Servicemen’s Working Club compared to some of the halls he’s played in becomes quickly irrelevant when he and Ringvold take to the stage; I’ve rarely seen two people look so comfortable in themselves or with their purpose. Over a buzzing guitar, Olson leans into the mic and sketches out a scene from the New Testament, but the bedraggled figure arriving through the heat haze is not Jesus, it’s the original beatnik Eden Abez and the desert’s not in Canaan, it’s in California. Pacific Coast Rambler bites immediately, the line ‘You’re sleeping on shaky ground’ leaving us in no doubt where the singer’s environmental allegiance lies. Ringvold accompanies this and the lovely ballad Heaven’s Shelter on djembe, the two trading rhythm and looks throughout.
The Jayhawks’ Blue is the first indication that you’re listening to Olson in his natural state. The song is deconstructed, largely just a ragged guitar riff and Ringvold’s backing vocal. There’s no studio finery, just the essence of the original song in its default setting, as you might imagine it at an early writing session or a jam. They add farfisa – ‘it’s battery-operated’ to a similarly back-woods Pray For Me before returning to the present with Lizelle Djan, the line ‘Love has a way of changing the day’ a reminder to anyone who’d forgotten that Olson has embraced this latest chapter of his life and is enjoying every moment.
The set is a gorgeous combination of organic Americana and the Scandinavian influence of Ringvold, which brings a world-music edge to some of the Creek Dipper material, especially Flowering Trees and Walking Through Nevada, the latter played with an evident joy. Olson’s voice is never more than a whisper away from breaking and the fragility is a perfect foil for the impressionist strokes of the music and Ringvold’s smoother harmonies. Over My Shoulder is a blast from the past, Emile Zapotek gets a name check in The Long Distance Runner and we can pretty much guarantee that Leytonstone won’t have heard anything quite like the raucous Poison Oleander before; each the different facet of a man whose smile appears to get wider the longer the gig goes on.
A lilting Cherry Thieves and an aggressive Two Angels are topped by All These Games. The healthy crowd are keen to welcome Olson and Ringvold back to the stage and they oblige with Clifton Bridge. It’s smiles all round. Olson seems genuinely touched by the atmosphere – a brief conversation afterwards confirms his dander is well and truly up. He talks passionately about wanting the tour and album to be the Launchpad for something new, something fresh. Tonight would suggest he’s laid some very firm foundations and with his wife in tow, it’s more than a feeling. That’s the power of love.
Review by: Paul Woodgate