The Barbican complex in London seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance in recent times as people are able to see past the Brutalist 70’s Architecture and enjoy the large open communal areas, the conservatory (a lush tropical garden in the concrete bowels… who knew), cinemas and a wonderfully varied musical palate. Don’t get me wrong, the covered walk from Barbican Station past the car parks is beyond ugly and the convoluted journey down multiple levels to find the correct area of the actual venue could be a little intimidating, but the concert hall is superb with comfy seats, plenty of legroom (I’m 6’ 2”), great sightlines and impressively clear sound. It was also refreshing to find a ban on photography and mobile phones, people actually had to pay attention to the acts which made a welcome change.
Opening tonight’s proceedings is Australian singer-songwriter Emily Barker who impressed from the off with her vocal ability and dexterity with acoustic guitar/piano while displaying a nicely relaxed stage demeanour. Barker’s work, which incorporates elements of jazz, blues and folk is always interesting and tonight she performed in a duo with multi-instrumentalist Lucas Drinkwater who switched effortlessly between double bass (plucked and bowed which is always good to see/hear) and electric guitar making him the ideal foil for Barker. During her short set, Barker performed a range of material including ‘Nostalgia’ the theme to BBC TV’s ‘Wallander ‘which is probably her best-known song and she quipped that there was no snow to be seen when she first recorded it. She also delved into her latest album ‘Sweet Kind Of Blue’ for a superb ‘Sister Goodbye’ one of two songs performed at the piano and a definite highlight. Emily Barker has a full band tour in the works for later this year and on this evidence that’s a show well worth noting in the diary.
I’m slightly embarrassed to say that my last visit to The Barbican for a gig was to see The Jayhawks headline the Beyond Nashville Festival in late 2001 (who remembers that one?). I was way up in the gods that night but from my seat in the stalls in 2018 (boy time sure does fly) I was in prime position as Mary and her three-piece band strolled on stage. A combination of piano, guitar and drums seemed a little odd at first glance and Mary would reference the lack of a bass player and half a drummer later in the show. Why half a drummer? Well, Nate Barnes played a very small five-piece kit sitting on a box which doubled as the kick drum (Nate is probably best known for his day job in rock act Rose Hill Drive). Knoxville, Tennessee guitarist Johnny Duke (Little Big Town) and long-serving pianist Jon Carroll completed the band.
With just a few gentle colour washes and a set of fairy lights for company, it was obvious that tonight was all about the songs and the performances as ‘Heroes and Heroines’ was delivered with stately grace. Having picked up his ‘Intersections’ box set recently Bruce Hornsby hasn’t been very far from the RGM stereo lately and the interaction between Carroll’s piano and Duke’s mandolin during ‘Why Walk When You Can Fly’ bought to mind Hornsby’s early work with The Range which is no bad thing. Mary had the crowd eating out of her hand from the get-go as applause often greeted song intros as they began to take shape, nor did she have any issues dealing with a, probably good-natured, heckler requesting something or other but, like Mary, I had no clue what he said. Mary is touring in support of her recent ‘Sometimes Just The Sky’ release on which she has revisited songs from throughout her thirty-year career and one of the standouts of tonight’s set was ‘Superman’ a song from the album that was originally only considered B-side material but has been granted a new life. It’s now earned a place as a set highlight and was one of many songs that showcased the prowess of guitarist Johnny Duke who added gentle colour when required and slipped in the odd nicely placed solo, but then he is filling some pretty big shoes. The show was by now on a steadily upward trajectory as Mary and the band gave an object lesson in how to pace a set list, starting with her more thoughtful and heartfelt material before kicking things up a gear or three with guaranteed crowd pleasers ‘Passionate Kisses’ and ‘I Feel Lucky’ before a closing, and quite superb, solo performance of ‘I Have A Need For Solitude’ bought the evening to a gentle close.
The Barbican Theatre is a really nice venue which I will hopefully frequent a bit more often in the future. If performers of the quality of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emily Barker are in the area then I very much doubt it’ll be another seventeen years before my next visit.