I like Laura Cantrell, it’s hard not to. She’s my favourite former Wall Street banker. Not a crowded field, but she’s also one of my favourite country singers and that’s as crowded a field as you’ll get. As a performer she combines the classicist approach of someone like Iris DeMent with a neurotic, introspective sensibility not normally associated with the plain-spokenness of country music. She’s almost always interesting, rarely drifting into the safety, ease and professionalism of staid genre-work, as someone of her technical prowess could straightforwardly do.
Touring in support of both the 16th anniversary vinyl edition of her debut album “Not The Tremblin’ Kind” and a new compilation of radio sessions for BBC programs (including the John Peel and Bob Harris shows) from the period 2000-2005 (details below), Cantrell’s show in the dramatic St. John The Evangelist Church on Iffley Road (Empty Room Promotions) was at once shot through with her modern, urbane sensibilities and steeped in the rich traditions of country singer-songwriterdom (with her own instantly memorable, songs and her numerous tributes to recently-deceased hero Merle Haggard.)
It was a perfect reflection of the vein of uncertainty, ambivalence and unease that runs through her work that she opened with the gorgeous “Can’t Wait” then immediately followed it up with “Wait.” It’s a vein of feeling that’s in her voice more than her lyrics, a simultaneously guarded yet open vulnerability. It was there in its totality in the frayed nerves, chewed fingernails and deep yearning of the chorus to “I Can’t Wait”, the singer hovering restlessly in her kitchen, wondering when, or if, her man will come home: “It’s an old familiar recipe/I know it all by heart, yet it’s a mystery/ It’s a funny kind of push and pull/You leave me wanting more although my heart is full.”
Her voice, in its timing and phrasing as well as its tone, is so idiosyncratic and natural, to the point you feel like you’re overhearing someone pouring their heart out in conversation, that there’s no telling what will happen with any given song. How all the pain, joy, humour of a song can be boiled down till one line can say more than the rest of the song. This is true on record, it was even more so at St John The Evangelist’s.
In “Kitty Wells Dresses”, so sedate on the album of the same name, she invested the line “And Helen as well” with a resentment, bordering on disgust, the studio version never hinted at. While “Two Seconds” reached new pitches of longing on the line “It’s all I ever want” at the end of the final chorus. Sung with so much finality, such a deep sense of realization and satisfaction that you imagined she’d never sang it better in sixteen years.
At times she sounds so wounded that you feel she could drift into the ether with overly tentative accompaniment, or be crushed entirely by an overly forceful band. But Cantrell’s touring combo are tactile, rich, anticipate each other with ease and, in lead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer, have an individual of such virtuosity that his playing provides a confident counterpoint to Cantrell’s fragility.
The effortless breeze of the drums, Cantrell’s rhythm guitar and Jordan Caress’ bass provide the ideal canvas for both Cantrell’s voice and Spencer’s lead guitar, pedal steel and piano. The touches of musical flair were infrequent, but delivered with perfect delicacy. Best of all Spencer’s aching pedal steel intro to the mournful “Someday Sparrow”, the pull of the notes so sparing and tantalizing that the moments between them left you almost breathless. The song, composed with such a light, almost hesitant, touch, could just float by, but Spencer raised it to a pitch of stunning emotion.
The drama and ostentation of the surroundings could barely have been more at odds with a performer of such humble, rustic music. But on a night when all the contradictions, unlikelihoods, and aching moments of doubt, of an artist who has forged a career out of them, were laid bare, it could hardly have fallen into place better.
At Paste Studios
John Peel playing a session from Laura Cantrell
Broadcast on BBC Radio One on 5th November 2002. The session consists of:
01:04 – 04:23 Broken Again
05:02 – 07:24 Hong Kong Blues
07:49 – 09:49 Cellar Door
10:10 – 15:34 Christmas Letter Home
Laura Cantrell – At the BBC On Air Performances & Recordings 2000-2005 is Out Now
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