In trying to review a concert from such a special talent, what was shared across the 90 minutes will always lead to thoughts of what was left untouched. The problem for Gretchen Peters is having a body of work that includes so many favourites and so little time! I guess it all comes down to the feeling that it’s not what you leave out, but more what you leave in…
What we do get is a beautifully balanced performance with superb musicianship from the talented band that comprises Barry Walsh (accordion, keyboards), Conor McCreanor (Electric & upright bass), Colm McClean (guitars) and Gretchen herself on acoustic guitar. The understated playing is so beautifully realised, always serving the song and adding just enough interplay to allow for the spaces between the notes. Also, the harmony vocals are very strong and augment a vocal performance from Gretchen that shows her voice to be in superb shape, singing from the heart in a honeyed tone that seduces and soars in all the right places...
The set tonight leans heavily towards the latest release, Dancing With The Beast and this is fully justified. It remains one of the best albums of 2018 and the current tour is in support of this release. Eight of the eleven album tracks are featured during the show with Truck Stop Angel, The Boy From Rye, Arguing With Ghosts and Disappearing Act all coming from very different places but connecting so poignantly; from surviving in a male dominated World to the loss of innocence and youth; ageing and Alzheimer’s - all the way through to taking the decision to disappear from it all.
Gretchen speaks of living with these new songs on tour over recent weeks and says that they have become a supporting band of sisters that accompany her on the road. The new album features songs about females in all different guises and situations, whether dealing with abuse or disillusionment or deciding to take action and control over their own circumstances.
Fragile, yet strong women, some from the margins of society – others the real backbone of middle America in grappling with the reality of trying to rear a family and try to scrape a decent living in a country that has turned mean and spiteful.
The references to Trump’s America are veiled behind the stories of the characters in these songs and the ability to endure and maintain dignity is captured with razor like precision in the poetic words of Gretchen as she holds a mirror up to daily constraints and compromise.
Say Grace is a key track tonight and the words, ‘the bible on the table says be of good cheer, but the tv in the corner is screaming you’re not welcome here’, resonate as an echo of the malaise within American society right now. Another key line is contained in the words to Lowlands with ‘but a man who lies just for the sake of lying, he will sell you kerosene and call it hope’.
Such a vital and honest writer and so much on the pulse of everything that is real.
She speaks of the division and suspicion that was instantly present after the General Election result and the caginess of people wondering which side others were now on… All reflected in the song, Lowlands.
The Blackbirds release from 2015 gets 2 songs included, with the title track itself and the excellent When All You Got Is A Hammer. There are a further 4 songs from the 2013 release Hello Cruel World and the audience greet Woman On The Wheel, Five Minutes, The Matador and Idlewild like lost children returned to the fold.
Earlier in the set there is a Tom Russell song, Guadalupe, which was recorded on their co-release from 2009 and which Gretchen reckons is his most beautiful song. She talks about her coming to Ireland since 1997 (or so) and the fact that her visits are forever wrapped up in memory with the song, On A Bus To Saint Cloud, which she duly performs with a flawless melancholy that would melt the heart of the hardest cynic in the room.
The encore is another cover version, this time the Rodney Crowell song Ain’t Living Long Like This. It includes an extended band workout and a duel between Barry Walsh and Colm McClean as they trade licks and runs on their weapons of choice. At one point, Barry even plays the keyboard with his right foot!
With the audience giving a standing ovation and fully deserved lengthy applause, Gretchen returns and leaves the stage to stand in front of the crowd to sing Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea. A perfect message of comfort and fellowship upon which to end what was a fine evening of all that is good in live music these days. A masterclass from one of the true greats.
Review by Paul McGee Photography by Ronnie Norton