Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review and Photos by Allan Wilkinson
Like so many of my generation, Bluegrass first came to us via the 1960s TV comedy series The Beverly Hillbillies, or maybe even Arthur Penn’s blockbuster 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, yet the genre has undergone a transformation over subsequent decades. “Do you all like Bluegrass?” inquired Tabitha Benedict from behind her banjo midway through Midnight Skyracer’s first appearance on a Sheffield stage, to which the band’s informed flat-pick guitar player and singer Charlotte Carrivick added “they’re either into Bluegrass or they’re just plain curious.” Those in the audience tonight were clearly into Bluegrass and their musical curiosity was rewarded with a first class performance by a band of young women, whose collective musicianship has the ability to take your breath away. With each member of Midnight Skyracer taking a crucial role in the overall sound, it’s difficult to identify a lead figure, therefore the band comes over as an entirely democratic collective of first rate musicians, with one thing on the agenda, the playing of good music. Those five musicians, Leanne Thorose on mandolin, Tabitha Agnew on banjo, Eleanor Wilkie on double bass and the Carrivick siblings Charlotte and Laura on guitar and Dobro/fiddle, each dominate their own space on stage, yet it’s with the dove-tailed interaction between each instrument and each voice that the magic begins to work.
With no support, Midnight Skyracer opened with Leanne’s signature song “Fuel to My Fire”, a showcase for her trademark gutsy country fire, channeling the spirit of Hazel Dickens, continuing almost immediately with Dickens’ own “Working Girl Blues”, with some fine yodeling thrown in. If Leanne provides all the grit, then the grace is served by Tabitha, whose velvet voice leaves us spellbound on such songs as “Virginia Rose”, “They Want to Go” and the traditional “Susan Anna Gal” with equal confidence. Eleanor Wilkie might be the lone figure at the back of the stage handling the biggest instrument, but her role is equally important to those on the front line, not just her understated bass lines, which perfectly underpin the overall sound of the band, but also her excellent songs, which make up the bulk of the band’s original material, songs such as “High and Dry”, “They Want to Go” and “A Little Luck.”
If the band’s original material maintains a contemporary acoustic feel throughout the set, effectively adding their own stamp to the genre, then the quintet have absolutely no problem showing their roots as well, with ample nods to their forebears Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, peppering their set with one or two from the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. With at least twenty songs performed over two sets and with not one single throwaway song, not one note out of place and not one problem with the sound (a hand please for the man at the back), Midnight Skyracer exceeded expectations tenfold. Bluegrass has come a long way since the Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie and Clyde, a long long way indeed.