REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Those Pretty Wrongs and Ned Roberts, The Crescent, York, September 19

Jody Stephens and Luther Russell performing as a duo at The Crescent, York. Picture: Paul Rhodes

THE Crescent proved itself once again to be the venue to beat for live music in York. On a Tuesday too.

Those Pretty Wrongs are led by Jody Stephens, drummer, songwriter and singer in cult band Big Star, and Luther Russell. Russell is better known as a producer but is a serial collaborator and solo performer too. 

To look the elephant in the room in the eye, this was not a Big Star tribute show. The two Big Star songs played, the timeless 13 and Way Out West, were by some distance the best of the evening. Those two encores were performed without mics, almost in the audience, surrounded by the love that people have for these songs.

The newer material can’t begin to match those that blew out of that combustible, short-lived collision of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, then given a lustrous shimmer by Ardent Studios’ John Fry.

Those Pretty Wrongs: “Not really in the nostalgia market, they make no qualms about playing new album Holiday Camp in full” at The Crescent. Picture: Paul Rhodes

With the benefit of time, the story of Big Star reads like an ironic screenplay. They made three unmistakable records that are synonymous with their Memphis hometown. Each is up there with anything from the 1960s and ’70s, before misfortune and mismanagement stopped them in their tracks and cult status slowly grew out from the ashes of all those might haves.

Chilton then beat a perverse, wilful path while Bell died broken in a car crash. The survivors at least received the late acclaim they deserved in the 1990s – one concertgoer was proudly wearing a T-shirt bought at their Leeds Duchess show in 1993.

Stephens, a youthful 71, has emerged from that tale intact and shows no signs of letting up. He is now the last surviving member of the original, classic line-up. More stories from that time would have been welcome, but Those Pretty Things aren’t really in the nostalgia market and make no qualms about playing their new album, Holiday Camp, in order and in full.

Performing as a duo rather than a four-piece, Stephens and Russell were in good spirits and voice. They were full of warm words for opening act Ned Roberts (incidentally once the lead conspirator at open-mic nights at the Waggon and Horses when he studied at the University of York).

Support act Ned Roberts: “Light, versatile voice recalled James Taylor”. Picture: Paul Rhodes

Not coincidentally, Russell has produced each of Roberts’s four albums. Roberts’s set made a strong case for seeking out those records out – and his new album, due next year, in particular. His light, versatile voice recalled James Taylor, or Jeff Cowell’s buried treasure Lucky Strikes and Liquid Gold. Roberts’s set contained a well-rounded clutch of good songs, with Halfway To Reason and Song Of Spring making most impact.

Without a drum kit, out front and seated, Stephens’ hands couldn’t resist keeping time. As a front man, he has no problems keeping an audience’s attention. His evocative voice feels familiar from Big Star of course and has aged well.

Russell, the more outgoing of the two, knew when to step in with a quip or anecdote. Much more than a foil, his guitar playing and particularly his harmonies were wonderful. Not all of the original Those Pretty Wrongs songs were keepers but the strike rate was pretty high. Paper Cup and Scream were easily the equal of their recorded versions and it was good to hear their (seemingly) impromptu take on Lucky Guy in memory of John Fry.

After 75 minutes, Leicester then Memphis were calling, but it was good while it lasted.

REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Sarabeth Tucek (SBT), Selby Town Hall, May 20

Sarabeth Tucek (SBT) and her band: Performing on the road after only one rehearsal 

SELBY Town Hall is marking itself out as a great place to watch live music. Pushing the envelope last Saturday was Sarabeth Tucek; a critics’ favourite from New Jersey who unveiled her new double album, gestating for nearly a decade.

Tucek wasn’t big on small talk, letting her music do the revealing. As the lyrics pulled out from the CD inlay put it: “I put my life in the centre of the room. I dim the lights on parts of the truth.”

This more adventurous note was struck from the off with Kiran Leonard and dbh (actual name Nick Jonah Davis) sharing opening duties. The pair were very different beasts, the rich air of English pastoral swirling around dbh’s acoustic guitar instrumentals. Of the possible reference points, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were perhaps the most obvious.

It’s always a good sign when the main act comes out and watches, and you could see Tucek’’s band really appreciating both supports. In other hands, Kiran Leonard’s set could also have oozed bucolic ease, but his contributions were much more challenging.

This was the sound of a man trying to appeal to all our senses simultaneously, seemingly striving for something always just out of reach. Leonard displayed a formidable musical intelligence and ambition – as well as an admirable lack of self-consciousness in giving himself up to the songs.

“Tucek was the still centre, weaving her stories in her distinctive conversational, emotionally direct way, while her band provided energetic support,” says reviewer Paul Rhodes

Ten songs into her 15-song set, Tucek sang “Am I happy?” (from Happiness). Her stage armour made it difficult to tell. Like Kristin Hersh whose music she shares some similarities with, Tucek’s has a serious, almost intimidating stage presence.

It’s been an intense experience for her band too. The three musicians had just one rehearsal together before their opening show in Manchester two days before. Selby was third in line. They did an amazing job recreating the twists of Joan And All, newly released under Tucek’s new SBT moniker, especially when casting minor key magic on Unmade/The Dog.

Tucek was the still centre, weaving her stories in her distinctive conversational, emotionally direct way, while her band provided energetic support, the guitarist Luther Russell, who also produced the album, leading from the front.

Joan Of All is a double album that listeners need to live with for a while (particularly more challenging sides 3 and 4, some of which could have been cut for this concert), but it is already being heralded as a masterpiece by those qualified to know.

Discovering its depths live was arguably the best introduction. You could hear some of Lou Reed in songs like the memorable 13th Street #1 and in titles like Cathy Says (the emotional highlight of both the record and the show). The spirit of the Velvet Underground also infused the instrumentation.

Tucek and band more than fulfilled their promise to go all out, and it felt like we’d been on an emotional journey together. We parted friends.

Review by Paul Rhodes