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I woke up on the Friday with absolutely no idea where to begin this review of Thursday 5Th April at The Polish Club in Kirkcaldy. It was one of those great nights where you doubt that it ever happened? A rub of the eyes and a look at the signed CD from the night before confirms it was true…
I could talk about country music dynasties: how Americana seems to be a genetic/familial condition starting with the Carter Family and daughter June’s marriage to Johnny Cash (a shameless Fife connection!). Or how Hank Williams’ legacy has been carried on with son Hank Williams 2nd and grandson Hank Williams 3rd. On Thursday night we heard Stacey, the sister of alt-country legend Steve Earle, who has clearly been weaned from the same bottle as her superstar brother and has found in her musical and life partner, husband Mark Stuart the perfect foil for her talents. Proof that two heads are indeed better than one and even that’s catching.
The evening was opened (each half in fact) by Invernesshire duo Red Hook Rapids, formed in 2010, with established songwriters Ally MacLeod and Donald Forbes. Their identity as a duo is marked by the shared performance of each other’s songs. Ally lends her more melodic vocals to Donald’s gutsy delivery; he in turn provides tasteful and melodic lead guitar to Ally’s songs with her simple and steady guitar playing. The stand out songs for me were Ally’s lullaby-esque ‘Saving Grace’ and Donald’s ‘On The Edge’, a bleakly hopeless vision of loss and longing.
In contrast to these perhaps moodier tones was the sheer joy of Americans Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart: truly music with a smile on its face. These two exceptionally gifted songwriters and performers compliment each other like all the usual clichés. Stacey’s songwriting has more depth – the exceptional and poetic ‘The Flag’ being played solo by Stacey out from behind the mic for example; delivering its poignancy direct to a spellbound near full house you could hear a pin drop. Her stage and song craft are truly the fruits of a lifetime’s work.
Mark’s songs stand out for their assured simplicity. Road songs with the melancholic, Tom Petty-esque ‘Little Rock’ and the meat and potatoes basics of ‘Workin’ On It’ show his Yin to Stacey’s Yang. If he were Scottish his guitar playing would surely be called ‘gallus’ given its swagger and the wee smirk on its face. Mark is no ‘smart-Alec’ though: his guitar playing is skilled using his acoustic with it’s traditional finger-picked or strummed voice but adding tones and styles like a bass for passages here and there then switching to a hot electric style solo! Stacey’s singing is sweet and true with a rock solid rhythm guitar and finger-picking in accompaniment.
Together Mark and Stacey are perfect with each other on stage. Given their personal relationship – 18 years married and we heard all about it in ‘Wedding Song’ – you’d expect that sixth sense type communication. Never contrived and always natural, they were a joy to watch as well as listen to. Their song introductions were often funny, very funny in fact, and the personal rapport they develop with a crowd suited the Polish Club atmosphere down to a tee (although they are used to playing to much larger venues). From jazz pop to country blues, and country pop to folk, the songs varied in tone, feel and volume. Always tinged with the sounds of cool country their vision of America and life is hopeful, cosmopolitan, down home and out there on the road all at once.
The couplet of tracks opening their second set ‘Here Comes The Pain’/’Here Comes The Rain’ scoped singer-songwriter balladry to E.L.O. in one fell swoop – the switch of feel is more tonic than sweetener and reminds you that every time it rains there can always be an umbrella to protect you! Optimism always seemed like the message in their songs. The aforementioned ‘Workin’ On It’ reminded us that it doesn’t always come cheaply when things work out in life and there may always be that stroke of luck! Talking of luck, Leadbelly’s famous song ‘Midnight Special’ was given a rousing rendition as Mark engaged the crowd in a sing-a-long of the country blues classic. Driven by his uncommonly good guitar playing we all believed that the Midnight Special just might shine its ever-loving light on us.
Closing the night with the encore of Bob Dylan’s ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, after a rocking finish to the main set, we got to sing our hearts out once again at the end of a truly satisfying evening. Go and get their latest CD ‘Dedication’ and experience its joy for yourself. You won’t be disappointed. A fantastic evening from two duos: one at the peak of their craft and the other nearer the start of their musical journey and from which we hope to hear more. Are two heads better than one? The jury will always be out on that one but tonight’s case was as compelling as any.
There is live music most Thursday nights throughout the year at the Polish Ex-Serviceman’s Club, Forth Park Drive, Kirkcaldy, KY2 5TA. Doors open 7.30pm for an 8pm start. All are welcome and there is a bar as well as our legendary ‘pieces’ at the end to round off the evening. If you are interested in learning more about the club just turn up on the night or check out the website: www.kirkcaldyacousticmusicclub.co.uk
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