Steve Beauchampe tells Laura he likes her.
There can’t be many in tonight’s audience who were not introduced to Laura Cantrell either by John Peel or Bob Harris. Peel famously described Cantrell’s debut album, 2000’s Not The Tremblin’ Kind, as: “The best album of the last ten years, possibly the best album of my life”, while Bob Harris has championed her on his various music shows from the start.
The Nashville-born country singer/guitarist returns to Birmingham for the first time since 2005, promoting No Way From There To Here, only her second album in eight years (she had a child, and in 2011 released Kitty Wells Dresses, an album of country music covers). In front of an audience numbering between 250-300, Cantrell takes to the stage accompanied by long-standing guitar partner Mark Spencer, launching into California Rose and Queen Of The Coast, songs from her second and first LPs respectively. Whilst Spencer provides backing vocals, naturally, it is Laura Cantrell’s voice that is the most prominent.
And what a voice she possesses. If honey could sing then Laura Cantrell is what it would sound like; clear and pure, and instantly recognisable. The songs are delivered straight; there are no visual gimmicks, just the odd anecdote. It’s clear that to Laura Cantrell, the songs and (when it’s a cover version) the legends that originally composed or sang them, are the stars, she merely the conduit for their delivery.
A good example is on Amy Rigsby’s up-tempo Don’t Break The Heart, featuring fine guitar interplay between Cantrell and Spencer. Can’t Wait and No Way From There To Here showcase the new album, indicating that those who purchased it tonight from the merchandise table will enjoy good value for money.
Each number receives generous applause from the appreciative audience; no one sings along, no one calls out – Laura Cantrell fans, at least in Britain, aren’t given to overtly demonstrative gestures.
As a host of the Radio Thrift Shop show on New Jersey station WFMU for over a decade, New York-based Cantrell has had ample opportunity to introduce her listeners to vast swathes of country and roots music. Undoubtedly Kitty Wells is her greatest inspiration, a love displayed tonight by the inclusion of both the title track and Making Believe from her tribute long player. Both Glass Armour, co-written by Traceyanne Campbell of the band Camera Obscura, and also included on the new album, and the heart-wrenching Bees, a standout from 2005s Humming By The Flowered Vine, see Spencer playing sitting down.
He’s vertical again for Starry Skies and, to round out the main set, a trio of Laura Cantrell crowd pleasers, Do You Ever Think Of Me, When The Roses Bloom Again and Not The Trembin’ Kind. None written by her, but she’s made each of them her own.
The encore is just as strong, featuring Dolly Parton’s Just Someone I Used To Know, Two Seconds (very Lucinda Williams-like but actually written by Robert McCreedy) and Amy (daughter of Mose) Allison’s country classic The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter. I’m not sure if the Great American Songbook is still taking entries, but there are a couple of contenders amongst these.
The breezy Yonder Comes A Freight Train closes proceedings and it’s time for home. Splendid as always, Laura Cantrell is a national treasure, it’s just a shame that the land where Taylor Swift, Shania Twain and lots of stubbly men in big hats are considered bona-fide country stars, hasn’t yet noticed.