The previous evening the highly talented Canadian singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk had been in town; an artist whose only fault is that he talks too much. It’s a pity he didn’t hang around another day to watch Emily Barker demonstrate how to put on a show.
The Australian is ice cool, totally in command of her audience and doesn’t need to impress them with fancy wordplay. In a set comprising mainly songs from her 2017 album ‘Sweet Kind of Blue’, a deluxe edition of which was released in October, she performed in a vocal style that was sometimes sultry, sometimes Dolly, sometimes Kylie; and occasionally all of them.
Her travelling band of guitarist/keyboardist, a prominent bass and double bass-playing main backing vocalist and percussionist, which has been with her for much of the year, lined up with equipment that looks like it has seen better days, including a foot-operated harmonium that is straight out of Antiques Roadshow. But their own roadshow proved that you don’t need the latest synthesiser to serve up the very best in live music. The instrumentation was a perfect foil for Barker’s style and the presentation was so effortless it looked like they’d been a band forever.
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Sweet Kind of Blue was heavily influenced by a trip to Memphis to record it and the “groove” that is much coveted there (or “baby-making music” as she called it), which was evident particularly in ‘If We Forget to Dance’, a smoochy pop number.
‘Number 5 Hurricane’ (a measure of their strength) was one of a number of slower, soothing ballads performed on the night that show another side of Barker’s musical persona, while at the other end of the spectrum again the show moved consistently up-tempo during the latter songs of what was a long set as she picked up the electric guitar and, in ‘More!’, the album title track ‘Sweet Kind of Blue’ and ‘Sunrise’, a song about road trips written during one in Sweden, showed she can rock with the best of them.
One of the night’s many memorable moments was her introduction to ‘Sister Goodbye’ a paean to the memory of pioneering rock ‘n’ roll and blues guitarist Rosetta Tharpe, (known as “the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll”) and her friend Marie Knight who campaigned to prolong her memory after Rosetta ended up in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia.
“Sister Rosetta Tharpe” had turned up by way of a horse-drawn carriage at an abandoned railway station in south Manchester in 1964 to play a live show on the station, along with Muddy Waters. The previous year she had played a similar show and had attracted Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Brian Jones amongst others, who had made the journey from London to see it. Filmed by Granada TV and watched by an estimated 10 million people the influence of that 1964 performance is considered to be as great as the Sex Pistols 1976 gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.
(Google ‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe Didn’t It Rain’ for a video of the performance – a must for anyone with an interest in the origins of rock music).
Barker really lives these songs and tonight she simply slayed it, as she did with ‘More!’, in which she sounds more like Elkie Brooks every time she sings it.
There were several solo numbers, including ‘Nostalgia’, the theme to the first UK series of Wallander, and, as on the album, an a capella rendition of ‘Precious Memories’, which she then followed with a duet involving her bass player. On balance, it is difficult to judge just what Barker does best. There seems to be little that she can’t.
On the evening the very enthusiastic crowd was treated to a tour-de-force performance from an artist for whom live shows are quite effortless, backed by extremely capable musicians who are able to harmonise perfectly when required. As for the songs themselves you get the impression that, while she has three albums under her belt already, she can only get better still.