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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Shepherds Bush Empire, London, August 1st 2006
It’s blisteringly hot in London. This is when, as the tabloids would have it, temperatures ‘soar’ and records ‘tumble’. Luckily half of the capital seems to have gone on holiday, so at least there’s a little less traffic, and the tubes and trains aren’t too congested. But there are still enough people left to fill the Shepherds Bush Empire to see Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra ‘though I observe that she normally plays much larger venues when she visits (the soulless Albert Hall) so either Nanci’s star is somewhat on the wane, or the promoters have downsized due to the time of year. Let’s hope it’s the latter.
We’re standing on the first floor of the Bush on the side balcony with a fantastic view over the stage – one of the best spots in the theatre. The guy next to me is far too animated for such a sedate evening – whoopin’ and a hollerin’ all night long - and it turns out, is a fan of the Del McCoury Band, who play a blinding set before Ms Griffith takes the stage. Red hot bluegrass with veteran Del leading with all that barely comprehensible Grand Ole Opry smoozing, but singing with remarkable clarity for a man of advanced years. Star of the show was son Ronnie on mandolin – he’s picked up five successive "Mandolin Player of the Year" awards from the International Bluegrass Association – who played like a dervish. His brother Rob on banjo also had his moments, as did fiddle player Jason Carter. True to Opry style they made the stage shrink to the size of a radio studio as they played in tight formation around their Audio-Technica 4033 microphone.
Del McCoury Band Songs included ‘Promised land’ (from their most recent album of gospel tunes), ‘My love will never change’, John Sebastian’s ‘Nashville cats’ (outstanding) ‘Body and soul’, Hank William’s ‘You win again’. Del was also keen to play requests – “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” shouted Mr Excited next to me. “Well”, said Del, “this is a little bitty tune by your very own Richard Thompson from Englandshire which we recorded back there in Nashville, why it must have been….” It wasn’t bad. If you get a chance go and see them and you can judge for yourself.
Nanci Griffith is always a delight to watch. She is charm personified, her between song anecdotes and meanderings both engaging and unpredictable. You could sometimes wish that some of weaker material didn’t get in the way of the chat. She’s slight and lithe, and shimmies around the stage whenever she can, a bundle of energy and delight. She’s a survivor too. Her voice is rich and resonant, and not with the same high pitched nasal twang that she speaks with (the Photographer told me that this could be irritating, were it not for the fact that Ms Griffith is so nice).
Nanci Griffith     She plays a pretty good guitar too. As does Clive Gregson, who delivers a Fender Telecaster master class – Gregson’s a long time collaborator and former member of the Richard Thompson Band. Blue Moon Orchestra leader James Hooker was characteristically impassive and note perfect, whilst drummer Pat McInerney and bass player Le Ann Etheridge also did their stuff without any fuss or performance. They were all just great, but somehow the gig didn’t quite add up to the sum of all their parts.
It’s not quite a greatest hits show as there’s a lot of material from 2004’s Hearts in Minds, ‘Simple life’, ‘Love conquers all’, Gregson’s ‘I love this town’, ‘You are beautiful’, ‘Last train home’ and ‘Heart of Indochine’ (a moving anti-war song that linked into Griffith’s work on behalf of the Mines Advisory Group). And of course there’s ‘John Prine’s ‘Speed of the sound of loneliness’, ‘The flyer’, ‘Gulf Coast highway’, ‘From a distance’, ‘Late night grand hotel’, ‘Working in corners’, ‘Love at the five and dime’, ‘Listen to the radio’ and ‘It’s a hard life’. All very well sung and perfectly played, but as I say it didn’t quite seem to add up. Maybe some of the old material is a little too old, a little over-sentimental (“gooey” was the Photographer’s word), and maybe some of the new material is a little over-sentimental too (‘You are beautiful,’ about her piano playing stepfather might fall into that category). But I suppose there’s nothing wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve, particularly when it can be done with such elegance.
Conclusion – Ms Griffith is still a great act and worth a look should you get the chance, but tread carefully with your choice of albums. And British TV viewers might like to know (as she confided in us) that Ms Griffith would swap her whole career for a cameo appearance in BBC’s soap opera EastEnders – so next time a lady picks up the guitar and sings in the Queen Vic just pay attention, it might be Nanci. - Nick Morgan (gig photograph by Kate)

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