Rod Picott and Amanda Shires

Live Review | Basement Bar, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson

With the release of Rod Picott and Amanda Shires’ first collaborative effort Sew Your Heart With Wires, the duo arrived here to perform at a handful of smaller venues across the country, bringing their own distinct flavour of Americana and country roots music to the UK.  The Basement Bar, which is situated beneath the City Screen Cinema in York’s City Centre, is an ideal setting for NxNY to hold their acoustic music nights and in turn, an ideal setting for a night of not only Rod and Amanda’s authentic roots music, but also some home grown Americana as well.  With four acts on the bill, starting with local singer-songwriter Holly Taymar, whose infectious personality put everyone at ease from the moment she took to the stage, the night was bound to be full and interesting.  Opening with “The Bush Song”, Holly proved that you can make good songs out of the most mundane subjects, in this case gardening, but with a classic metaphor thrown in for good measure.  You instantly warm to Holly’s good-natured wistfulness and bubbly personality and well before her short set was over, we already knew quite a lot about her; that she is twenty-two, a York resident, partial to a drop of real ale who drives around in a used car she named Winston, which in turn is presumably covered by Churchill insurance.  Ah, but now I’m speculating wildly.  Holly’s guitar style and song writing ability show a distinct maturity and her stage presence is both confident and relaxed. Sometimes, it’s the overall sound of a song that becomes more important than the subject matter and “Anywhere But Here” is just one of those songs you seem to drift off to, and the theme you tend to ignore, if only temporarily.  There’s something endearing about a song writer whose songs include titles like “Toes” and “Home”.  All the big themes and life experiences are compacted microcosm-like in these little vignettes.  There’s nothing forced or laboured about her singing and playing, which probably comes from being perfectly at home in this environment.  Having said that, I imagine Holly is at ease wherever she plays.  Referring to Carole King as a ‘right legend’, Holly finished her set with a beautiful rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and in doing so, proved that she is equally at home with memorable classic pop songs as she is with her own introspective material.  If you are going to have two female singer-songwriters on stage in quick succession, then why not have two performers with completely different approaches to their music.  Jess Morgan hails from Norwich and returns to York with a bunch of astonishingly good songs delivered in an unmistakable and one would imagine, inimitable style.  From the start, songs such as the country blues influenced “Due Grace Coming”, which made this reviewer sit up and listen immediately, have a certain uniqueness.  What Jess really excels in though, is a mixture of frailty and strength that is provided here in equal measure, with a confident approach to singing and performing, whilst at the same time looking somewhat vulnerable and alone.  Having had the good fortune to be based in York whilst at University a couple of years ago, Jess was given the opportunity to open for various visiting artists, always good practice for a budding performer.  In all fairness though, Jess should be headlining her own shows.  She has her own distinct voice and the ability to write memorable songs and even now, after a few days of hearing her for the first time, the songs are still going around up there somewhere.  “Onyx” and “Crosses” are two outstanding songs from the pen of a potential rival to the likes of Laura Marling, Kate Nash and a whole bunch of other exceptionally talented young female song-writers we have today.  I await the release of what could potentially be a brilliant debut album.  Like Holly before her, Jess included just the one cover song during her set.  “Unwed Fathers”, a Gail Davies song famously recorded by John Prine, shows that Jess has the ability to shift the emphasis from inde/pop to classic country roots, with relative ease.  The boys turn next.  The stripped down three-piece Leeds-based Roseville Grand played what looked and felt like an archetypal ‘unplugged’ session, in the spirit of which the series initially intended; an intimate performance of accessible and memorable songs.  With influences ranging from Gram Parsons through to Ryan Adams, Neil McLarty and Phil Greenwood, together with the fine pedal steel player Ed Hicken showcased what the local alternative country scene has to offer.  Scottish singer/guitarist McLarty sites Van Morrison as an early influence and I can hear shades of Tupelo Honey period Morrison coming through loud and clear.  The regular band consists of drums and bass, but for tonight, we have a stripped down version of Roseville Grand, but the power of the songs is not lost at all.  On “First Day”, the beautifully played pedal steel guitar provided that all important ingredient that transfers a good song to a great song; a crucial embellishment that would have BJ Cole nodding his head in approval.  Phil Greenwood’s “No Trouble at All”, which can also be heard by his own band The Swifts, allowed us to hear another good singer-songwriter from the same band; two good singers, song-writers, guitarists and harmonica players in the same band is just plain greedy.  Concluding with “Whose Gonna Meet You Tonight”, Roseville Grand presented Rod and Amanda with the third of a trio of difficult acts to follow.  It’s actually a rewarding thing to admit that you have already had your money’s worth before the main headlining act comes on, but that just allows the likes of Rod Picott and Amanda Shires to become the proverbial cherry on top.  It was an inspired idea for these two remarkable musicians to get together to record a duo album and embark on a European tour, as they both complement each other considerably well.  Rod is a soulful singer whose songs belong very much in the Americana pigeon hole, but with five solo albums under his belt, and one under hers, the song well is a deep one to draw upon, and simple categorisation would be foolish.  Coming from South Berwick, Maine, the former sheetrock hanger has spent the past few years in Nashville carving out a niche for himself in a vastly populated musical genre.  With so many good songs under his belt, that niche was easy to fill.  Kicking off with “Getting to Me”, Rod and Amanda soon found their cohesive musical telepathy and with their blend of guitar and fiddle, together with rich harmonious voices, they soon had all ears to the front.  Up tempo rockers such as “Stray Dogs” and “Bird Won’t Fly” sit comfortably alongside the slower ballads such as “Something in Spanish” and “Baby Blue” and bluesier numbers like “Mean Little Girl (Ruby)”.  Amanda reluctantly agreed to perform her new song “You Can’t Call Me Baby” after at least two members of the audience requested the song.  Her reluctance was probably due to it being brand new and that it hadn’t been performed in public before tonight.  Some of the songs on the new album have an immediacy about them simply because they were recorded on the day they were written and have not yet been aired in public.  No worries though, for the song was one of the highlights of their set.  Amanda’s vocal delivery is very much steeped in a tradition of highly stylised country singing, but with its own distinct character and whether that voice is used in harmony or up front as on “Salida” or “I Kept Watch Like Doves”, a scary song according to Amanda, the voice retains its own unique identity. No better example of Amanda’s singing style could be found than in Picott’s song “Mercury”, the penultimate song of the night.  Closing the set and the night with an encore of “Girl from Arkansas”, the title song from Rod’s 2004 album, and incidentally a request from the audience, Rod and Amanda rounded off a highly entertaining night packed with great music and I feel that I’ve become a convert to the music of four relatively new acts and also one heck of a delightful new venue, which I intend to return to soon.