RACHEL HARRINGTON AND ZAK BORDEN – SOUTHPORT ARTS CENTRE, 26TH JUNE 2009
Southport Arts centre is a beautiful venue, which puts on acoustic music thoughtfully and sympathetically. Both Rachel and her support act, Cara Luft, ex ‘Wailing Jenny’, commented on the excellent sound, and they were right.
Cara played the opening set, accompanied on a range of instruments by the extremely versatile Hugh McMillan, from ‘Spirit of the West’. Hugh played mandolin, lap steel, and 5 string electric cello, as well as adding some sweet harmonies. Drawing both on North American folk music, and its older, British roots, Cara delivered a wide range of material, both covers, and her own material. If you like your traditional folk with a modern twist, then catch Cara Luft.
Rachel has been touring since April across the UK and Ireland, describing ruefully her experiences of the British motorway network, and the travails of a tour plan set up without regard to geography and distance. However, it didn’t seem to have dampened her enthusiasm for playing and performing, and together they delivered a beautiful, varied and assured set. Rachel has been championed on Bob Harris’s Radio 2 Country music show, and with good cause, on the evidence of this performance. Opening with the sublime ‘Sunshine Girl’ which also opens her first album ‘the Bootlegger’s Daughter’, Rachel was joined by Zak on mandolin and high lonesome harmony. She followed up with ‘Carver’ inspired by Raymond Carver’s affecting approach to the knowledge that he was dying, and how he expressed his love to his wife. The song captures the essence of love and loss achingly.
Zak took the lead on a reworking of a Flatt and Scruggs song ‘Saro Jane’ where he demonstrated the impressive versatility of his singing. He was joined by Rachel on harmony, and it’s always good to see two artists in their own right exchanging lead and harmony vocal with such ease.
In true Americana tradition (can Americana have a tradition yet ?) they played a good murder ballad written by Laura Veirs ‘Up the River’ and followed it up with a cover of ‘Louis Collins’ by Mississippi John Hurt, but here the interpretation was shaped through the lens of a mother’s grief, with Rachel specifically referencing the experience of a mother who had lost their sons in the Iraq war. This wasn’t a polemic, just an updating of the folk tradition, drawing the personal from the political.
‘The Greener Side’ was as an accomplished old time harmony as you would hear anywhere, and the gentle adaption and updating continued with a beautiful love song waltz, ‘Under the Big Top’ adding a sub genre of ‘circus love song’ to the musical field. The world needs more circus love songs!
The set ended with an absolutely steaming version of ’Ode to Billy Jo’, ‘Some Old day’ and a cover of Steve’ Earle’s ‘Goodbye’. If you get a chance to see Rachel – or Zak – or even better, both of them together – then take it. It’s a rare treat to see two musicians so proficient at their craft, so knowledgeable in their musical roots, so brim full of enthusiasm, and so engaging with their audience. Rachel is playing at the Maverick Festival next weekend - get there if you can!