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Gretchen Peters - Union Chapel, London (07/11/17)

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The multi-award winning Gretchen Peters is one of the most respected singer-songwriters in Nashville. She has the wonderful ability to create songs which are truly engaging and cinematic, painting rich imaginary & soundscapes. Mostly songwriting in the first person Gretchen completely inhabits the characters she creates and sings about, transporting you into their lives and the world which surrounds them.

As well as her own music she has composed hits for a host of other artist including Martina McBride, Etta James, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Anne Murray, Shania Twain, Neil Diamond and she is a co-writer with Bryan Adams. It has been a while since this Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer headlined in London and on the basis of the latest showcase concert in the super London Folk & Roots Festival, it was long overdue return. “I’ve missed you” she told the audience as she took to the stage with her acoustic guitar. Gretchen and her world class band including her husband Barry Walsh and Conor McCreanor (bass) & Colm McClean (electric guitar), were all clearly delighted to be back in London and playing at one of London's favourite music venues.

The evening was opened by a Folk and Americana duo Hannah Saunders and Ben Savage, who are rapidly becoming a new force on the UK acoustic scene. Both wonderful musicians in their own right, it was their second time performing at the Union Chapel after a wonderful performance last year supporting the multi-Grammy award winning Sarah Jarosz. Performing around around a retro single condenser microphone they have the wonderful ability to draw the audience in with their darker themed Folk and Americana songs but with very catchy hooks and melodies.

With acoustic guitar and dulcimer they started their set with 'Ribbons and Bows' a cover of a Richie Steans song, about choosing the means of your own death, here “falling through the hot summer sky with ribbons and bows tied to my hands and feet“. A gentle folk song followed 'I'll Weave My Love A Garland' from Hannah's debut album 'Charms Against Sorrow', with its soft picked acoustic guitar. It segued perfectly into a lovely version of an old English lullaby made famous by Joan Baez 'I Gave My Love A Cherry' with Ben on Dobro and Hannah on acoustic guitar. Twin acoustic guitars next on 'Oh Lord What Have You Done'. I also loved their version of the Bob Dylan classic 'Spanish Boots Of Spanish Leather'. Hannah and Ben's very impressive set ended with the song 'Awake'.

After a short break Gretchen and her band took to the stage with the very powerful and empathetic 'When All You Got Is A Hammer' taken from her 2000 album 'Blackbirds'. It deals with the difficult subject of ex serviceman struggling with post traumatic stress disorder. Gretchen said 'There’s a saying among people who work with vets who suffer from PTSD – ‘don’t leave them behind – they’re not home yet.’ We ask so much of these men and women, and then too often forget about them when they come home. If you don’t give someone the tools for coping emotionally with something as horrific as war, you’re basically consigning them to prison'. (Blackbirds)

With it's great guitar solo and it's personal and reflective outlook the title track of the 'Hello Cruel World' album was another masterclass in songwriting. "I’m a ticking clock, a losing bet, a girl without a safety net. I’m a cause for some concern. You don’t live this long without regrets. Telephone calls you don’t wanna get. Stones you’d rather leave unturned, but ooooooh – the grain of sand becomes the pearl. Yeah ooooooh – hello cruel world."

With Gretchen accompanied with accordion and upright double bass next was the very atmospheric 'The Matador' another track from 'Hello Cruel World'. To fall in love is to lose oneself temporarily. To be pulled into another’s world. To love an artist like this is to be pulled into the furnace of his creative fire, to be swallowed whole by his world. And to resign oneself to being a spectator. "I threw a rose to the matador, Not sure who I was cheering for. My aim was true, my heart was full. I loved the fighter and the bull"

With the subject of the tragedy of the oil spill in Gulf Of Mexico in 2010 at its heart, 'Black Ribbons' from 'Blackbirds' is a powerful social commentary. "The Devils Blood it flows on and on......black ribbons on the water". Scheduled for Gretchen new album was a new song 'Lowlands' which channeled disillusionment and cynicism of world events. Misgivings about modern America, including the Trump era and fake news. The dark and brooding title track of her award winning 'Blackbirds' album a co-write with Irish singer-songwriter Ben Glover, is one of the most deeply affecting murder ballads since Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska". A victim of incest who ends up murdering the perpetrator. (Blackbirds) 

Next was a stunning song which was a co-wrote and big hit with Bryan Adams in 1997 'When You Love Someone', It may be over twenty years old but it still sounded fresh and current. Some of the dark themes were explored in another murder ballad 'Where Did You Go'. 

Gretchen has almost cornered the market in murder and abuse ballad's and the next song 'Wichita' had another strong narrative. This time it has been written from the standpoint of an older sister who is convinced that no one will believe her and is scared that the abuse she suffered will continue on her younger sister. She takes things into her own hands using her mother’s gun as the murder weapon, “I hope I was the last thing you saw that night in Wichita” Gretchen sings. Gretchen is afraid to tackle difficult subjects in her songs and 'Truck Stop Angel' about prostitution is a case in point. But her subject matter is always treated with empathy and understanding.

Gretchen is a mistress of fantastic lyric writing and I loved 'Woman On The Wheel' another track from 'Hello Cruel World'. "There's a man out here, puts his head in the mouth of a crocodile. Puts the whole thing in, takes it out and gives the crowd a great big smile. And they walk away with their illusions of safety safely intact and they tell their little wide eyed kids, it's only an act. There's a man out here, throws knives at a target with a blindfold on and the wheel spins 'round and the knives bear down 'til they find their home. And I can feel the rush and the whoosh of every blade of steel.....'Cause I am the woman on the wheel'. One of my favoutites in the set was the beautiful and classy piano led 'On A Bus To St Cloud' taken from Gretchen's 1996 'The Secret Of Life' album. A ode of lost love and a bus ride in Minnesota. It has a stunning narrative and is almost cinematic in its description. The Union Chapel provided a perfect setting. 

The very reflective 'Five Minutes' followed reminiscing about a old broken relationship on a short cigarette break. A single parent reflecting on her life, past and present with the sage line 'In five minutes your whole life can change'. She’s caught at the crossroads where the struggle to come to terms with one’s mortality meets the urge to slip into unconsciousness. The hell with it; have another cigarette, another glass of wine, another piece of pie. Feeling the weight of her past and watching it as it bears down on her own child. Another superbly cinematic and stunning song 'Idlewild' is themed around the assassination of JFK in Dallas in November 1963 and its resulting aftermath. The song takes its name from the New York City airport, that would come to be known as JFK soon after the president’s death. The narrator is a child, observing her parents hearing the tragic news as they are driving to visit her grandmother.

Encore

Gretchen and the band returned with a rousing cover version of Rodney Crowell’s 'I Ain't Living Long Like This' with a great and energetic piano solo from Barry. To finish the night in style Gretchen played solo with her acoustic guitar in hand. Another new song with a positive and uplifting theme, There is Love'.  It had some really beautiful, personal and heartfelt lyrics and with a large number of her close family in the audience, it was an very emotional performance for sure. 

With a double standing ovation from an enthusiastic and appreciative audience, this was truly a masterclass in songwriting, performance and musicianship from Gretchen and her band.

With a new album and UK tour promised for next year.....I can't wait.

 

1. When All You Got Is A Hammer 2. Hello Cruel World 3. The Matador 4. Black Ribbons 5. The Lowlands (N) 6. Blackbirds 7. When You Love Someone 8. Where Did You Go 9. Wichita (N) 10. Truck Stop Angel (N) 11. Woman On The Wheel 12. On A Bus To St Cloud 13. Five Minutes 14. Idlewild 15. I Ain’t Living Long Like This (Rodney Crowell cover) 16. There Is Love

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