Andrew Combs @ Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots

Andrew Combs is yet another talented young artist to emerge from East Nashville in recent years, joining the growing list of names flying the flag for Americana, Alt-Country or whatever the latest hip title for the genre might be. The East Nashville scene appears to be akin to an artistic co-op as so many of the same musicians, predominately female by the way, seem to pop up either in each other’s bands or featuring on their albums. Think Margo Price, Nikki Lane, Caitlin Rose, Molly Pardon, Lera Lynn, Erin Rae, J.P. Harris, Kelsey Waldon, Steelism, and you’ll get the picture. Enough talent in that lot and their bands to host a festival in its own right.

Combs and his band Jerry Bernhardt (Guitar), Dominic Billett (Drums) and Charlie Whitten (Bass) arrived in Kilkenny jet lagged and got straight down to business with gigs scheduled for lunchtime in Cleeres on Sunday 30th of April and the closing show of the festival at Kytelers on Monday 1st May at 9pm.

Hitting the festival armed with his latest and most ambitious and mature album to date, Canyons of My Mind. He also came accompanied with the tightest three-piece band you could imagine and their chemistry on stage at both shows was a joy to behold. Material on his latest album features dreamlike layers of strings on a number of tracks and he and his band managed to recreate the material live quite wonderfully, not an easy task. My first experience of Combs live was as the opening act for Caitlin Rose in Whelan’s four years ago, his talent apparent as he played an acoustic set of strong self-penned material before appearing with Rose’s backing band. It’s now barely nine months since the last occasion that I saw Combs perform with his band at The Fond Object in East Nashville and the progress over that short period of time has been staggering. His latest album may have caught a number of his followers slightly off guard, the Roy Orbison and Nilsson influences remain but a hardcore, edgier and fuller sound has also crept into his work allowing his band to let loose at times, a dimension which works spectacularly well in both his live performances at the Festival.  

His first show at lunchtime in Cleere’s to a sold-out house is a definite winner, a highlight of the weekend, a pin drop performance in fact. Togged out in a smart black suit, white shirt and cowboy boots he plays the perfect set focusing, as can be expected, on quite an amount of material from Canyons of My Mind mixed with some of the highlights from his earlier work.  In true traditional country writing style, unrequited love is well represented in particular by Lauralee and the beautiful Hazel, which Combs performs solo as an encore at both shows.

The more sonic additions on the current album also work spectacularly well live, Heart of Wonder and the anti-Trump Bourgeois King, which ended the sets at both venues, delivered with total passion on both occasions.

The closing slot at any festival can be the poisoned chalice with expectations high and in Comb’s case made all the more challenging having already performed the previous day and in quite a few cases to the same punters. The festival organisers made a brave choice given that previous years had featured rockabilly and blues bands bookending the festival and performing high octane sets to an expectant audience. In this case, they got the artist selection spot on with Combs and his band having the ability to rock out at times but also managing to silence a potentially boisterous audience, on the more mellow choices such as Too Stoned To Cry from his debut album and the equally moving Rainy Day Song and Strange Bird from his 2015 release All These Dreams.

Combs most definitely has the potential to follow in the footsteps of his Nashville neighbours Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price by making a major industry breakthrough and on the evidence of these two performance it’s more than well deserved.

Review and photograph by Declan Culliton