When it seems there’s hardly a week goes by without hearing of another live music venue closing its doors, the launch event for a new one is something worth celebrating. So, Saturday, Feb 17, we headed up the A3 to Petersfield for, to quote their tagline, “An evening of prime Americana”. There was no chance of being disappointed, promoter Ken Brown’s Square Roots outfit has built an enviable reputation for delivering world-class music using several venues in Portsmouth and Southsea. Ken had been encouraged to spread his wings by the enthusiasm of those who regularly travel the 20 miles south to his gigs. They thought Petersfield would turn out in force for quality music and they were right, the 140-capacity venue sold out. To ensure a thoroughly memorable opening event, Ken had put together a trio of bands, two established favourites and one relative newcomer.
First up, The Savannahs, three singer-songwriters who joined forces in early 2017 performing a mix of their own songs and established country classics. It was a sound move. When some of your audience may be unsure what to expect from an evening of Americana, an opening set with the familiarity of a couple of Dolly Partons, a Johnny Cash and a Springsteen can provide just the reassurance they need. Don’t be misled, though, into thinking of The Savannahs as a covers band. Right from the outset, with Dolly Parton’s Creep on In, they showed imaginative approaches to arrangements, two acoustic guitars and a ukulele in this case, backing the three-part harmony vocals that are their stock-in-trade. Three songs in, it was time for one of their originals, Rebecca Rosewell taking the lead on her Stone that Never Rolls. Rebecca brings a lengthy track record with her from The Rosellys, producing fine songs since the mid-2000s and that quality shone through both with her solo vocal and in the harmony arrangement. When Hannah Rose Platt took her turn to present an original song, Chanel and Cigarettes, it was as a solo, voice and guitar telling an atmospheric, chilling, ghost story of death and infidelity. The third Savannah, New York native Emily Moment, completed the trio of original material with her song called, not at all confusingly, Savannah. Having varied the arrangements throughout the set to use one, two or three guitars, both regular and bass ukuleles and a banjo, the trio closed with the acapella gospel song Down in the River to Pray. Possibly most widely known nowadays from the Alison Krauss version used in the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Savannahs took each of the first three verses as solos, the remaining verses and all the choruses a final showcase for their delicious harmonies. An excellent opening to the night and a performance that marked out The Savannahs as a band to keep an eye on. They were heading into the recording studio later that week with material for an EP, watch out for its release.
When I first met The Goat Roper Rodeo Band in 2014 (main image), three long-haired young lads fresh from North Wales, there was an intense, if slightly unlikely, passion for rocking country blues. Four years on, the hair is, mostly, longer, the guitars newer, the upright bass seems unchanged and the passion is, undoubtedly, undimmed. Given the sheer bombastic energy with which they still present their songs, perhaps it’s understandable that “subtle” isn’t the first description that comes to mind. Bands have been known to use high-energy, full-on performance to divert attention from mediocre material. Not with the Goat Ropers, on Saturday it was soon apparent that four years of touring and recording have honed technique and added depths to the music that reward careful listening, there are indeed subtleties to be appreciated. Jim Davies on lead guitar has a great talent for literally bouncing around the stage. That he simultaneously completes his riffs has always been remarkable, but on Saturday, the length and complexity of sequences high up the neck was breathtaking. He has strong competition from brother Tom on upright bass. With the size of the bass limiting his potential for bouncing, the choreography falls into one of two styles, snake hips dance moves or crouches reminiscent of a vulture annoyed at being unable to perch on the instrument. Neither of which prevent him from plucking bass lines that are simply mesmerising. None of this would be possible without the beat perfect rhythm guitar of Sam Roberts, providing the Goat Roper’s backbone and plenty of bouncing to keep Jim company. Then there are the voices, all three deliver strong lead vocals and combine for spot-on harmonies. What’s more, they write all their own material. Judging by the roars that went with the applause for their set, there were plenty of people who appreciated all of this and, for me, they’re right up there among my favourite live bands. They’ve been working on a third album, Tall Grass, scheduled for an autumn release and, before then, they have a busy summer schedule of festivals ahead in the UK, Netherlands and Germany, catch them if you can.
The Jigantics have had a couple of personnel changes since I last saw them, three original members, Mark Cole on lead vocal, accordion, harmonica and mandolin, Martin Fitzgibbon on drums and Rick Edwards on a variety of guitars have been joined by Sarah Kelly, vocals, ukulele and banjolele, and Keith Thompson on guitar, vocals and occasional bass guitar. One of many strengths for The Jigantics has been the eclectic range of material their sets encompass and the arrival of the two new members has both consolidated existing expertise and introduced new areas to explore. Mark and Rick have well-established pedigrees in the blues world, operating as Sons of the Delta, with Martin joining them when the duo swells to a full four-piece band. With the arrival of an equally well-respected bluesman, Keith, we can expect that side of The Jigantics repertoire to blossom. Sarah, on the other hand, opens up a new dimension with her devotion to the ukulele in all its forms.
With The Jigantics, some things don’t change and they opened with Loudon Wainwright’s Swimming Song. Other things must change though. So, in the absence of a full-time bass guitar, when Keith’s on lead, Rick plays baritone guitar, on songs when Rick takes lead with slide guitar, Keith plays bass. Standout new additions to the repertoire on Saturday came from both old and new members of the band. Sarah gave a stunning solo version of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Emily. Martin made his customary trip from behind the drums to take a lead vocal with a song that appeared on the EP they released last summer, Dougie Maclean’s Ready for the Storm. Finally, Keith introduced one of his own compositions, All Rise Up. So, all in all, a definite thumbs up for the new Jigantics. They’re heading into the studio soon, recording new songs, but no word yet on when we can expect a release. Don’t make us wait too long guys.
The Jigantics closed with another of their long-established favourites, Hole in the Head, and that left time for them to bring The Savannahs and The Goat Ropers back on stage for a final couple of songs. Two old favourites, Robbie Robertson’s The Weight and Carter Family’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken gave everyone, artists and audience alike, the chance to raise the roof and left a fair number still singing as they made their way home. It’s hard to imagine that, even in his dreams, Ken Brown could have visualised a more successful launch night. Three excellent bands delivering superb music to an enthusiastic crowd, word of mouth alone should ensure a rosy future for Americana at The Studio.
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