Live at Cadogan Hall, London
Publicity photo by Randee St. Nicholas.
Economy with words can be a wonderful thing. Many of Shelby Lynne’s songs give a succinct picture or situation and tell what is happening to or has befallen the characters involved – by dint of telling phrases, seemingly offhand statements, clipped bitter diatribes or other lyrical bullets that strike home. Never formulaic, Lynne has traits of the very best songsmith / raconteurs and has much more in common with Randy Newman, Tom Waits or (especially) John Prine that other more feted country / roots princesses. Whether her reputation of having a short fuse when stressed has any substance at all I cannot say. I can say that in concert she provides a musical journey through emotions with few equals.
The American writer Hemingway was once challenged to create The Ultimate Short Story and came up with : ‘ For sale – baby boots, never worn ‘…..perhaps six words better imbued with intrigue than any others one could ever suggest. Surely Lynne would approve.
Is Lynne a Country artist ? You could say so. I prefer the term ‘roots songwriter’ as her subject matter can run far and wide. The ultimate country song would after all touch on the basic themes of family, pets, religion and tragedy – which means that it should be ‘ My Granny’s dog drowned in a pool at Lourdes ‘. But Shelby Lynne doesn’t always take a defined stance, her protagonists might be as much victim as aggressor, as right as they are wrong, as doomed as they are favoured.
Skilful songwriting deserves refined and sensitive delivery, so as Lynne takes the stage at this historic ( and mainly classical music) venue it is pleasing to note that her right-hand man for this set of dates is guitar maestro John Jackson. Switching between a butterscotch Tele and a tobacco brown resonator type guitar through a Fender amp and what looks like a Line 6 FX box or similar, Jackson picks and occasionally slides through a choice set of tones and reverbs around the steady acoustic played by Lynne. Sometimes he plays soft harmonica lines with the help of a rack.
If Ann Peebles can claim the ultimate pithy line-plus-payoff in her song “I Didn’t Take Your Man’ ( next line, with a scarcely-disguised sneer ‘ You GAVE him to me…’) then Shelby Lynne runs her a close second with some of her lyrics. But the grittier songs are evened out with lighter-hearted numbers like ‘ Why Didn’t You Call Me ?’ a brisk, Beatlesque item, here giving Jackson a solo that was pure George Harrison. Lynne is missing her dog Junior she mutters and heading home to the States next day but she made this performance memorable. As she remarks, she writes songs about he good and bad things in life. Just the sort of stuff we citizens relate to and relate we do.
Happily for your scribe, she includes a song she has recorded with a man I was delighted to meet and interview some years ago -Tony Joe White – ‘ Can’t Go Back Home’, as sultry and atmospheric as you could want. When she includes a nod to the late Johnny Cash with ‘Johnny & June’ it’s a heartfelt as a hard-bitten gal can attain. Randy Newman’s ‘Walls Too Thin’ is dispatched with guile and underplay – yeah, just right.
Jackson’s slide figures on ‘Life Is Bad’ have the cracked whine of a John Hiatt vocal but the precision of heyday Cooder.
Songs featured are from all over her recording career. ‘If I Were Smart’ is the ruefulness song to end them all but still somehow working on another level, as if she is addressing the actual or inferred accusations of acquaintances with disdain . Whilst ‘I’m Alive’ knocks Gloria Gaynor’s big show number flat on its back. Possible highlight of this intense but warm night might have been ‘Jesus On a Greyhound’ from the ‘Love, Shelby’ album – as affecting as was ‘Killin’ Kind’ and its desolate, bittersweet feel. It was worth attending to hear the winsome ‘Where Am I Now ?’.
Two musicians creating a spellbinding set and the star bothering to talk to the audience – would that all major performers played for us, not at us
Pete Sargeant www.fairhearing.co.uk