LAURA Cantrell is one of a rare breed. Seeking a life, rather than a career in music has enabled her to resist the drip-drip to pander to today’s fads, which is perhaps why her body of work is so consistent.
Cantrell is also a DJ of note, so it was not a surprise that the setlist on Friday was crafted with the same care that goes into her songs. The 13-tune, 80-minute set showcased her new album, but began and ended with tunes from her debut and had enough forays into her back catalogue to keep everyone happy. It helped that over more than 20 years almost everything she has released is of the highest quality.
Despite being an Americana artist, what also startles is how many of her songs feel like bona fide hits – from the 1960s. Her cover of Amy Rigby’s Brand New Eyes recalls Ronnie Spector. Do You Ever Think Of Me (from her proper debut, Not The Tremblin’ Kind) would sit proudly in the country pop canon of Skeeter Davis, while Two Seconds, the closing song on Friday, can devastate just as effectively as her heroine Kitty Wells. Listening to too much Wells can be a bit of a straightening experience, but Cantrell’s set was far more varied.
This was her first show at the Brudenell since 2016, and it was clear from the first that she hasn’t spent the last seven years gargling stones and whisky. Her voice was as clear and wonderful as ever.
Kicking off her UK tour, Cantrell’s five-piece band were still, laughingly, brushing off a few rough edges, but these enhanced rather than detracted from the show. Adding too much polish would obscure the music’s soul.
Alongside Cantrell (rather than at a deferential sidestep), Mark Spencer and Jimmy Ryan on electric guitar and mandolin shone. They took in the different contours of the Americana map, with country at the centre, but more than a smidgen of rock, rockabilly and folk.
Cantrell’s new album, Just Like A Rose, her first since 2013, is among the strongest of her career. It is saying something that the new duet with Steve Earle of her signature song When The Roses Bloom Again (penned by Jeff Tweedy, but made entirely her own by Cantrell) is not the best tune on the record.
That honour goes to AWM – Bless. AWM (Angry White Man) is a protest number that takes aim at any number of entitled white-backed alpha males. Written in anger, it retains a dignity that makes such songs endure.
When it comes to Laura Cantrell, the Leeds crowd were powerless. They also enjoyed entertaining opener Doug Levitt. This songwriter is leading a colourful, itinerant life, a former foreign correspondent and travel writer too (listen to his Greyhound Stories on BBC Sounds).
His first album, Edge Of Everywhere, is an apt title for his journeyman songs. The pick of the bunch, (not coincidentally the shortest by some distance) was I Killed Buddy Gray.
The crowd gave Levitt a warm hand, but for Cantrell they really didn’t want her to leave. A great night at the Brudenell, thanks to Joe Coates and Please Please You Productions.
Review by Paul Rhodes