‘’I just need to wait a minute until my heart stops racing before I start’’. The opening comment from a nervous Amber Cross before launching into Pack of Lies, the first track from her current album Savage On The Downhill and also her first song of the evening. Those nerves swiftly dissipate within a few minutes, calmed by the rousing response by the audience to the opening number of her stunning one- and three-quarter hour set. Cross had just spent over two days on planes, boats and trains on her journey from California before arriving in Mullingar for the first date of her tour. Seated on a low stool with her husband and musical partner James at her side, she continues to explain how a tour of Ireland has been a dream of hersfor many years. It’s not an idle throw away comment either, the sense of exuberance is evident in both her commentary and body language throughout the gig.
Savage On The Downhill, her third album, was recorded and released in 2017. Cross was planning a tour to promote the album on its release, however, discovering unexpectedly that she was pregnant drew a halt to all that. The prospect of touring with a baby was considered, but upon her sons birth the practicalities outweighed the somewhat naive intention. Fast forward two and a half years and she finally gets to tour the album with husband, son and mother in tow, the upshot being that we get to enjoy the opening night of the tour. Gifted with the ability not only to create wonderful songs, all from personal experience, Cross also possesses a quite unique and indeed striking vocal technique. It’s natural, beautifully accented and instantly recognisable, much in a similar vein to artists such as Iris DeMent and possibly Nanci Grittith.
Personal thoughts put to words and developed into songs, pretty well summarises her style in simple terms. The twelve tracks that play out on the current album were constructed by Cross in reaction to what most would consider every day occurrences. A simple phone call, a conversation with a companion, a remembered school friend, throwaway events for most. Much of the material from the album is performed this evening. What’s particularly enlightening is her introductions to each song, with the background and origin all explained prior to delivering the songs. We hear of her childhood friend and their innocent capering in the yard after church in Black - Eyed Susan. Mementos collected and stored containing lifelong memories are presented in Things I Saved. The bizarre episode of a ten-year-old boy driving a train unfolds in Tracey Joe. The first song she wrote Leaving Againalso features as does the moving Trinity Gold Mine. The latter, Cross explains, was written about a casual acquaintance, who told her his backstory as a young boy obliged by his parents to work with them in the mines gold digging, at the expense of a normal childhood.
The equally emotionally delivered Echoes,was written following an encounter with friends who, unexpectedly to Cross, informed her that they were counting down the days until their son reaching eighteen, to divorce as soon as he came of age. Savage On The Downhill, we’re told, was the song she was building the album around. Producer Ray Bonneville encouraged her to re-write the title song and subsequently a darker edge emerged. ‘’One of my musical heroes Tim O’Brien played fiddle on the recording of the song Storms Of Scarcity’’ we’re told, by way of introduction to that song.
Notwithstanding the quality of the material and her vocal delivery, the depth of their playing is another standout. Both play acoustic guitar with James adding support vocals and switching to mandolin on Storms Of Scarcity andSelma.
I’ve no doubt a shorter set was planned but with the encouragement of the crowd and a positively beaming Cross, additional songs were demanded and delivered, before she encored with Bare Patches On The Lawn, a song prompted by a telephone conversation with her mother, who starts every telephone conversation with a weather related comment. ‘She must be Irish’ is heckled from the audience to which Cross replies that she actually has Irish blood!
A worthy mention is also due for local support duo The Good Strangers. A male / female duo, both possessing exceptional vocal ability, they performed impressive material recently recorded by them. With two voices and one guitar, songs All I Want and Give Me A Reason - about to be released as a single - were hugely impressive. Certainly, a band to keep an eye on.
All in all, an exceptional evening’s entertainment in an equally atmospheric and splendid venue. Promoter Peter Doran has been putting gigs on at The Stables since November last. It’s heartening to see a young promoter bringing quality music to a live audience and all the more, getting people out on a Thursday night in great numbers to support the artists.
Final word about Amber Cross. In a somewhat over saturated market, it takes something exceptional to stand out among the crowd. She’s gifted with the capacity to bring personal stories to life, put them to music and deliver them with passionate self-assured vocals. Don’t miss the chance to see her on her current tour if you get the chance. Hopefully she’ll be back in Ireland in the near future to enchant us once again.
Review and photography by Declan Culliton