This is the way to watch music that you want to sit back and soak up, a downstairs room, where you are shown to your table by attractive waiting staff who bring you drinks in surroundings lit by nicely subdued ambient lighting. No moshing, no rubbing up against clumsy folk for whom the concept of personal space is too difficult for them to comprehend. Kudos to this well-known chain for hosting some excellent music events. The only small black mark against them would be that, like many venues, they equate atmospheric stage lighting with an awful red glow that depresses photographers in the audience (hands up) and gives performers a satanic veneer. However, this was more than compensated by the venue’s excellent sound system.
Even better on this occasion to discover that the table next to me was occupied by the bearded main act of the evening, together with his charming promoter. In the short time before the support act came on and Austin Jenckes left to prepare for his performance it was clear that he is a very likeable and amiable fellow (an impression which was reinforced when meeting him again the next day). The support act was the emerging English country singer Lisa Wright, who sang some very melodic songs in a lovely clear voice, assisted by two acoustic guitarists (some nice picking boys) and demonstrated an engaging stage presence with stories about her disappointing love life – perfect songwriting material of course. All very pleasant.
It requires a retuning of your expectations when you see a performer for the first time and you have only heard some taster tracks from their limited output to date that features the tasteful and full production you’d expect from someone domiciled in Nashville and with access to all the fine studio musicians that are available there. Going solo there’s no beefy arrangements, backing singers or rocking guitar lines, just a burly guy with a shaven head and his acoustic guitar, oh, and not forgetting a superb voice that instantly captivated the enthusiastic crowd of country fans (they knew all the references to obscure – well, probably not if you know the scene – songwriting collaborators). Austin delivered a set of finely crafted songs, many from his debut album release, “If You Grew Up Like I Did” (which officially occurred two days later and is highly recommended), that were sung with an engaging degree of sincerity and emotion that, to someone not massively familiar with the highways and byways of the country scene, came across as a refreshing change. Heart worn firmly on sleeve for some memorable numbers, none more so than a song inspired by the artist’s father “If You’d been Around” which beautifully expressed the regrets of someone losing their parent as a young teenager and wondering how different life might have been had he been there to provide guidance. A bit of a choker. The singer joked that most of his songs had a downbeat feel, which was not quite true; substitute downbeat with thoughtful and full of dry, poignant observations and you’d be closer to the mark. Songs like “Fat Kid” that describe a world that seems a million miles away from Holborn High Street (“Growing up in a small town, in a big world”) whilst describing universal feelings of loneliness and schooldays angst, and “Bet you’d Look Good” an anthemic love song with widescreen evocative language “bought a Willie Nelson shirt from a southern thrift store, for a couple of hundred pennies, right there on the front, says 1994, Austin City Limits” and a powerful chorus, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Bruce Springsteen record. Song after song, including a powerful cover of the Mac’s “Landslide” sung by one of those voices that, personally speaking, one couldn’t imagine tiring of and accompanied by some really nice, delicate acoustic guitar picking, all made for a memorable evening. Austin Jenckes is definitely a name to watch out for, not so much a rising country talent as an arriving star, who on current evidence we can expect to hear a lot more good music from.