Sturgill Simpson/Laura Cantrell @ Whelans 18th February 2014

On a quiet Tuesday night Whelans has a good turnout to witness Laura Cantrell's return to Dublin to support her current album No Way There From Here (Spit & Polish). It is support artist Sturgill Simpson's first visit to our fair city. Having fronted Sunday Vally and his current road band it is interesting to experience Simpson in solo mode accompanied only by his nylon-stringed guitar (shades of Trigger abound) and his mighty voice. He told us the guitar was meant as a safe tour substitute for his precious Martin but he had grown to love this guitar too so his levels of anxiousness when handing it over at airline check-ins had not been eased.

The bulk of his set was taken from his excellent debut solo album High Top Mountain (Loose Records) and hearing the songs in such a stripped back form, much the way they were written, was revealing. They took on a different dimension in this setting and highlighted his skills as a writer, singer and effective guitar player. All in all a compelling package. Mid-set he said he was going to do some songs that he loved and delivered a credible version of Carter Stanley's Could You Love Me One More Time. A song that showed his long-time affiliation with bluegrass music. HIs also played, "against my better judgement" he said, Neil Diamond's Red, Red Wine. His take on Roy Orbison's Crying was sung from the depths rather than the heights.

After that he returned to his own material with a song he called "uplifting" I'd Have To Be Crazy. After declaring that "we stole your music fair and square" and delivering a traditional song he gave us a "quintessential country and western song" in Lefty Frizzell's I Never Go Round Mirrors. An aching heartbreak song well suited to his voice. Simpson showed throughout with his own writing, the depth of his understanding of country, bluegrass and beyond. He left the stage having made an impression on the audience many whom had not seen him before but would doubtless be back on his return. It is the mark of a striking performer that he can entertain whether fronting a band or playing solo or on his recordings. Look out for his forthcoming album Metamodern Sound In Country Music.

Laura Cantrell is also playing in a stripped back setting as she is accompanied only by guitarist and harmony vocalist Mark Spenser - only may be slightly misleading given Spenser skills and guitar and acoustic lap steel. Spenser has played and toured with Son Volt and had his own alt. country band Blood Oranges in the early 90s. The duo played songs from throughout Cantrell's career from 2000's Not The Tremblin' Kind through to the aforementioned No Way There From Here in a set of nineteen or so songs. 

After a brief "Hello everyone" the duo played a number of songs straight including California Rose and Queen Of The Coast. While Cantrell often includes songs on her albums by writers she admires, her own skills should not be underestimated as was apparent tonight. Her song Kitty Wells' Dresses was played after she told us a little of Wells' story. Other anecdotes including feeling jet lagged on her last European tour only to realise that she was "knocked-up" on her return. The title track of her new album was prefaced by some explanation of its history and source. The novel Death In The Family by James Agee published in the late 50s and inspiration from Franklin Bruno's use of Samuel Barber lyrics were mentioned.

Amy Allison's The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter was another well received song from early on in her career as was Ray Pennington's Yonder Comes A Freight Train. Also touching was her take on Cowboy Jack Clement's Someone I Used To Know and her reminisces on the man's eclectic interests and influence and her obvious affection for him. Something that the audience had for Cantrell in abundance judging by the applause that greeted her at the end of the show. Cantrell live is a rose that needs to bloom again soon.

Review by Stephen Rapid  Photography by Ronnie Norton