Live Review | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | Review by Allan Wilkinson
Ashleigh Flynn’s first words from the specially extended stage at the Wheelhouse tonight were “I love this place”. The stage, modified to cater for the supporting trio, provided ample space for Ashleigh to maneuver during two thoroughly engaging sets with still enough room in the place for the once again eager audience. Originally from Kentucky, but now resident in Portland, Oregon, the singer-songwriter grew up beside the Ohio River with all its romanticised Mark Twain landscape, of steamboats and barges making their way along the muddy Mississippi. Described variously as ‘the darling of the NW Americana scene’ and ‘Americana’s answer to Norah Jones’, as well as one who is in possession of a ‘pitch perfect voice of an angel’, the charismatic singer-songwriter arrived at the Wheelhouse towards the end of the third week of the European stint of her current tour. Ashleigh captivated her audience tonight with her charming personality together with a bunch of well-crafted songs, mainly hand picked from her third and most critically acclaimed album to date American Dream and proved to this doubting journalist that she could indeed perform the songs from the album with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica rack, despite the album’s seemingly vital instrumentation. American Dream is one of those records that is packed with stories and characters from the writer’s own American landscape, songs that transfer effortlessly into live performance when stripped down to the essentials. Much of tonight’s two sets centred around these songs. Starting with The 7th Sea, Ashleigh performed all but a couple of the songs from this album with the occasional nod to her previous records thrown in, such as “Barrow”, “Isa” and “Devil’s Pass” from her Chokecherry record and “Deep River Hollow” from her earlier eponymously titled debut. Before the show Ashleigh explained her idea of the American Dream “In the record it’s just a notion that it’s a farce. It’s something that we conceived of and that we fantasized that really hasn’t come to pass for many people, although we have a really strong middle-class. It’s shrinking and we have a lot of poverty and the whole capitalist structure of our economy just runs people over and leaves them out. Five percent of the people have 90 percent of the wealth”. Ashleigh goes on to describe what her own personal American Dream is “being able to chase my dream of playing music, writing songs and living as an artist”. Living that dream has taken Ashleigh around the world and it’s to the heart of South Yorkshire that she found herself tonight, amongst people who know and understand her songs. Mixing bluegrass essentials with a pop sensibility, both “Mystery” and “Phoenix” are fine examples how well Ashleigh adapts her songs for solo performance; both work equally well as stripped down acoustic songs as they do as produced pop songs on the album. “Well they were written for the guitar” the song-writer explains. Playing Dylan has become a trend here at the Wheelhouse, perhaps due to the unavoidable presence of his Bobness; his is the largest portrait in the Wheelhouse wall gallery, despite the fact that he has never been here. “Boots of Spanish Leather”, was Ashleigh’s choice, albeit an abridged version and thus joins a handful of other classic songs heard recently at the venue. “Knock on Wood”, not to be confused with the old Eddie Floyd soul classic, but the feel-good shuffle from Ashleigh’s latest record, is one of the most accessible songs on the new album with a rhythm that I for one just couldn’t resist, so much so that I was only too pleased to join Ashleigh on stage, brandishing my instrument for some pretty basic reception stage mandolin accompaniment, which had some feet tapping along at what Ashleigh referred to as the ‘cottage’. “We’re gonna rock the cottage tonight” she was heard to say at some point before the song. Finishing off with two folk standards “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and “Rocky Top”, slightly modified to serve her home State of Kentucky rather than Tennessee, which she teasingly joked “Tennessee sucks”. Currently suffering from the usual tour hazards such as lack of sleep and a bit of a chesty cold, the be-scarfed singer soldiered on and served up a top class performance throughout the night. Earlier in the evening, Nottingham-based Owen Harvey and the Adeys provided a superb support set with a selection of songs from Owen’s own pen. The sound in the Wheelhouse has never been as well distributed and the balance between the bass, guitar and mandolin, together with a fine vocal performance from the young singer-songwriter, was superbly realised. With songs like “City Lights” and “New York” from his debut Disappearing Strangers album as well as a handful of new songs destined for his forthcoming follow up record, Owen Harvey and the Adeys were a surprise hit.