The trio of acts played Bush Hall, September 2019
A bit of time has elapsed since this gig but it remains fresh in the memory due to the superb quality of the line-up, which had two Nashville based songwriters, Sam Lewis and Austin Jenckes, as warm-up acts for the Steel Woods, when these are both headline acts in their own right. Having seen them both individually in the previous year I knew it was going to be a good evening and of course, so it was. Bush Hall is a charming Edwardian building and quite an intimate venue in a fairly incongruous position on the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush, where you can’t move 5 paces without hitting a fast food outlet or somewhere to repair a broken phone, which, for different reasons can come in handy, especially if you are both clumsy and hungry. Within Bush Hall, however, the atmosphere was pure country; actually, it wasn’t really. While both these artists are residents of Music City and their music has country styling they both have a broader focus in terms of their subject matter.
Sam Lewis opened proceedings, standing in the middle of the stage in red check shirt, cradling his Guild acoustic and sporting a cream trilby. He has a very laid back and laconic air about him but his songs are crisply delivered and you could catch every word of his often witty or ironic lyrics. His vocal style is warm and engaging and he has a lovely clean picking technique. His most recent album “Loversity” is for me one of the best albums in any style released in the last two years and he opened with a track from this, “Everything’s Going To Be Different”, later playing “Natural Disaster”, also from that album with its pay offline “They should have named a hurricane after you.” In between numbers, the singer chatted conversationally with the audience, delivering dry observations on the subject matter of his songs, which had the large crowd chuckling. His was only a short set but as well as playing a selection from his three albums to date, including “In my Dreams” from 2012’s “Sam Lewis” with its typically clever line “if you don’t want me in your dreams, then you stay out of mine”, he managed to slot in a new song “Neighbours” to close the set. Short but very sweet.
Austin Jenckes has also released an absolute killer album, in his case, his debut album “If You Grew Up Like I Did” released over the summer. I had the pleasure of interviewing this amiable gent on the day the album was launched (see the interview section to read his insight into songwriting in Nashville) so it was great to see him again performing tracks from the album. Opting to sit down, the shaven-headed, bearded and burly singer delivered a powerful and captivating set. He exuded an easy charisma and was equally as comfortable as Sam Lewis in talking casually to the crowd, getting laughs in the right places. He holds all the aces: he has a really strong voice, plays the guitar with real control and sensitivity and has a superb set of original songs. Opening with “Bet You’d Look Good” with its bittersweet lyrics that combine yearning love with a depiction of small-town America, that I personally find inexplicably moving. Austin certainly knows how to tug at the heartstrings, his tribute to his father, who tragically took his own life when the singer was a teenager, “If You’d Been Around” is a beautifully constructed number with heart-wrenching lyrics. His performance of this held the audience spellbound and when it finished people were looking at each other as if to say “well, that was really something”. “Fat Kids” and “American Nights” from the album also featured. He ending the all too short set with his trademark powerful cover version of the ‘Mac’s “Landslide”. Wonderful.
To be honest, it was always going to be a tough act to follow two such sublime performers and for me, Steel Woods, a southern rock outfit, did not manage to remotely reach their level of rapport with the audience, although the crowd clearly enjoyed their relentless boogie. I’d listened to their music in advance of the show and nothing much had stood out as distinctive, which was pretty much the case on the night. It says it all when the only memorable numbers were covers, Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” and the Allman Brother’s “Whipping Post”. It didn’t help that there was no real communication from the band. The hat-wearing, bearded singer just looked rather miserable and disinterested behind his shades. It was left to the drummer and bass player to try and inject some energy into the proceeding but it became a bit of an unimaginative plod. Without decent songs a band does not stand a chance; the performances of Sam Lewis and Austin Jenckes were masterclasses in songwriting and the contrast between the final act and them was immense. However, the overall evening was hugely enjoyable; even with the slightly underwhelming impact of the last act, this was an unbelievably good line-up.