Making his first visit to these shores Montgomery, Alabama native JP Harris brings his brand of hardcore country to Ireland for the first time. Another worthy presentation from Ubangi Stomp finds the band playing the venue on a Monday night. Never the easiest of sell but there's a reasonable turnout.
What we get is a memorable and crackin' set of songs that touches a number of bases of classic country songwriting. The 21 song set include a selection of songs from his two albums as well as some judicious covers including Mickey Newbury's Why You Been Gone So Long, the encore of Six Days On The Road, his friend Red Simpson's Happy Go Lucky Truck Driver and a blistering take on Jimmy Martin's Freeborn Man.
The Tough Choices, who are an ever changing set of players - a fact of life for jobbing musicians who often play their own music as well as acting as sidemen are on this occasion lead guitarist and vocalist Adam Meisterhans, steel player Asa Brosius and bassist Tim Findlen; all of whom have played on Harris' album along with drummer Jon Whitlock. Having already played a series of dates in Europe are tight and engaged. They give these songs the muscle and twang that brings them to life in front of an appreciative audience.
Harris is an engaging frontman who tells the stories behind the songs. He lets us know that many of these tales of relationship woes are in fact true stories. He wished that he was better at writing fictional episodes but these songs ring true because they, largely, are. He tells us that they are "good old fashioned drinkin' and cryin' songs". He also relates that sometimes the only way to deal with a devastating loss is to consign items of the offending party to the fire. He reflects though that many of these episodes are down to "piss poor" decisions on his part.
After traveling across Europe where he reckoned that the audiences has trouble understanding his humour. He then told us a, literally, shaggy dog story which raised a laugh here in Whelans. He said that his Grandmother had laughed so hard when he told her the joke she cracked a rib and he had to take her to the emergency room!
Country music, or rather the powers that be, have been "unfair from the get go" he reasoned when telling us that the Mickey Newbury song Why You Been Gone So Long, a great country song, was taken from him and given to Johnny Darrell to get the hit version. Harris' own songs should be prime picking for country covers but times have changed and these well-written songs and their themes have fallen out of favour with radio.
There are many excellent songs of his own in the set including Home Is Where The Hurt Is, Maria, The Day You Put Me Out, Just Your Memory, I'll Keep Calling and truckin' song Gear Jammin' Daddy. These songs echo down the years and constantly remind you of why you like country music in the first place. For instance Take It Back has some striking western swing styled interplay between the steel and lead guitar that is effective and eloquent.The playing tonight is always top notch.
All in all a night that those there will remember as a great evening of honky tonk in one of the nearest venues we have to one. If JP Harris & The Tough Choices get back here in the near future they should not be missed. A word also for NC Lawlor who open the show with his always interesting slide guitar playing, rough edged voice and original songs.
Review by Stephen Rapid. Photography by Ronnie Norton.