(Photo by Michael Schmelling)
It makes one endeared to the Bristol music scene that – on an evening whereby live music alternatives are available in the form of the Glastonbury Festival and James’ concurrent appearance at the harbourside – there’s such a solid turnout for a relatively under-the-radar country artist. Admittedly, The Exchange is a small, 250 capacity venue and some may have been led here by the Texan singer-songwriter’s spousal connection to the more famous Jason Isbell. However, with a packed crowd ranging from the surprisingly young to the grey haired senior sporting a Shires tee near the front, there’s a sense of discernment in the air. Certainly, the young lady who interjects into my conversation with the exact tally of Willie Nelson’s ludicrous number of studio albums knows her musical onions.
‘You Want It Darker’ – the sombre title track from Leonard Cohen’s funereal 2016 signoff – is a curious choice of intro music, before musicians on drums, bass, guitar and keys set off a cool momentum building jam before Shires arrives on stage. Opener ‘Parking Lot Pirouette’ immediately introduces us to Shires’ formidable vocals, and the joyous interplay of her outstanding fiddle and guitarist Zach Setchfield’s leads. Shires executes a pre final chorus pirouette herself and the song’s coda is met with large applause.
“Those who wandered in against your will, I’m Amanda Shires and everything is going to be okay” she declares before making early bandmate intros that humorously touch on intra-UK rivalries (her band has representation from Wales and Glasgow) and the authenticity of her bass player’s ‘tasche. It’s a loquacious opening after which she mostly cracks on with the music. The glam-stomp of ‘My Own Galaxy’ is a enthrallingly upbeat instance of the band’s dynamic; atop the expertly solid backing of drums, bass and keys, Shires’ fiddle is a soaring synergy aside Setchfield’s slide guitar soloing.
With trademark low-cut top, dark regalia and numerous tattoos on display, an evening on the watch of Shires and her band is one of adroit and electric musicianship. ‘Take It Like A Man’ sees Shires with arms emotively spread at the song’s midpoint before another fine fiddle/lead guitar crescendo. While Shires’ style makes a bombastic and convincing case for the relatively rare use of fiddle as a lead instrument in country-rock circles, the evening has some gentle gear changes that imbue it with a satisfyingly diverse character.
‘Empty Cups’ is a gently aching, keyboard led, love-gone-wrong ballad and ‘Lonely at Night’ is a country-infused lament of aloneness that features some of Shires’ most emotively strident vocals and Setchfield’s nifty slide guitar nicely captures the recorded version’s flourishes of brass. Later, we switch to the acoustic guitar picking of ‘Don’t Be Alarmed’ – almost a two person performance with Shires’ excellent rhythm section offering tastefully subtle background work – which has a striking lyrical offering as to the limits of her pain: “I’m losing my balance, not losing my mind.”
“Let’s do a John Prine song,” Shires’ instructs before ‘Saddle in the Rain’. Prine’s song is expanded into a long, riveting instrumental; there’s a blistering, psychedelic keyboard solo and Shires’ offers up a showcase of her most rapid fiddle work. She oscillates between gliding her bow elegantly atop her instrument and then savagely using it to almost saw her fiddle in half. Someone in the crowd is heard describing her fiddle as “fuckin’ obnoxious.” I can only assume in a good way. ‘The Highwomen’ – performed by the eponymous supergroup of which Shires has been apart – is a rewrite of Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Highwayman’ and there’s a hushed crowd sing along at the repeated line “And again, and again.”
“We’ve had the best time playing for you,” Shires informs us before the band return for a two song encore. Today marked the day of the release of Loving You, a collaboration of cover songs between Shires and Bobbie Nelson, the sister of Willie who died in March of last year. Now clad in a dark, military style jacket, Shires gives us two cuts from the newly birthed album. A suitably emotive performance of the always lovely ‘You Are Always on my Mind’, and ‘Summertime’ is expertly taken back to its jazzy roots. It’s been a wonderful show – James and the myriad Friday night artists at Glasto would’ve been hard pressed to match this.