Laura Cantrell had not played in England for more than two years, but she still claimed to recognize members of the audience.
“Turn around so I can see your backsides and be sure,” she said to the crowd. “The last time I was here, I played the Fleadh Fest on the stage opposite Bob Dylan. I think some of you must have been there. It was quite a challenge playing to people’s backs who were listening to someone else, but it was great fun,” Cantrell joked.
This was Cantrell’s first show of her European tour. She and her band appeared comfortable, if a bit jet-lagged. For example, there was a moment about midway through the show when things started to break down. Her guitarist Mark Spencer broke a string and took a long time replacing it. Cantrell asked for a request then began to perform alone to pass the time. (She played acoustic guitar, and throughout the show was accompanied by Jeremy Chatzky on stand-up bass, Jimmy Ryan on mandolin, and Spencer on acoustic lead guitar.) The Tennessee songbird sang the first verse of her tribute to the late Skeeter Davis, “Mountain Fern”, but forgot the words after the first chorus. She asked the audience for help. One punter prodded her with the next line, (“The road got rocky”) which he delivered in a loud, somewhat drunken, voice. Cantrell sang the line, in her plaintive, Southern style. Then she began to stumble over the lyrics again.
“I think maybe it’s best to end it here,” she apologized.
By then Spencer had restrung his instrument and was quietly tuning it. “This is like my worst nightmare,” Cantrell whined in a funny voice. “Every song I start I’m gonna forget the words to from now on.” Sure enough, halfway through her next tune, “All the Same to You”, she could not recall the lyrics.
A lesser artist or one with a hostile crowd may have been thrown by such events, but Cantrell took it all in stride. The audience, for its part, offered words of encouragement. These travails actually brought the artist and the audience closer together. Cantrell was able to joke about it (“I’m going to play a song from my last album, When the Roses Bloom Again, and I won’t forget the words. I promise.”) and crowd members gently supported her (“You can just sing ‘la las’ if you like, dear.”).
Cantrell performed material from her first two albums (including a staid version of “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” and sweetly sung rendition of her nostalgic “Early Years,” and also provided a preview of songs from her forthcoming release, Humming by the Flowered Vine. Her new offerings do not differ much in style or substance from her previous unadorned old time country efforts. Of particular note was a song (“Letters”) Cantrell said she discovered on an old scratchy cassette of recordings made by Lucinda Williams in the eighties. Cantrell admitted she greatly admired Williams but felt too intimidated to cover a song by the artist that people already knew. “Letters” resembles other early Williams’ songs that offer narration without a chorus, the kind that build to a climax then end in an epiphany (think “Changed the Locks”). While Cantrell lacks Williams’ grit, her simple manner adds a different weight to the tune. One can imagine Williams desperate for communication while performing “Letters”. In Cantrell’s version, the loneliness of the narrator comes through.
Cantrell ended the night by dedicating a song to the late, great British BBC DJ John Peel. Peel was instrumental in Cantrell’s early international success. He championed her debut album Not the Tremblin’ Kind as “my favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life.” She recorded five Peel Sessions and had three songs on his annual ‘Festive Fifty’ for 2000. Cantrell said she visited Peel when he was ill back in August and the first thing Peel said when she walked in the door was “I hope you are working on some new songs.” Cantrell called Peel “her great encourager” and that while she didn’t write the new tune “See You in the Morning Light” explicitly for him, the vibe seemed appropriate. The song concerns the traditional sentiment that we will all meet again some day, presumably in heaven. The audience responded to the song and Cantrell with great applause that lasted even after the house lights were turned on and the show was clearly over.