mon 23/11/2020

Shelby Lynne, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Shelby Lynne, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

Shelby Lynne, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

A night of transformative power from country-soul siren

It may not be a particularly popular statement, but the financial black hole rapidly consuming the music industry undoubtedly has its fringe benefits. Five years ago Shelby Lynne would have toured the UK with a session band and played for perhaps 70 minutes. Last night, in the draughty deconsecrated church she immediately transformed into an intimate supper club, Lynne played for two hours with just a guitarist for company – and was spellbinding. Long may the pennies pinch.

It’s over a decade since Lynne released I am Shelby Lynne, less a conventional album and more a delta where all the great tributaries of Southern American music meet: a spicy stew of soul, swamp rock, R&B and country, it provided the soundtrack to Lynne shaking free from her initial incarnation as a big-hair, micro-managed Nashville country cut-out to strike forth on her own.

Ever since, the Virginia-born, Alabama-raised, California-based singer has done her own sweet thing without ever quite doing the big numbers. She released last year’s typically excellent Tears, Lies and Alibis on her own EverSo label, but if her circumstances are somewhat elegantly reduced of late it has done the range and emotional power of her music no harm at all.

Singing and playing acoustic guitar seated, Lynne was accompanied by her electric guitarist John Jackson, an empathetic and endlessly versatile foil who only occasionally took a wrong turn down noodle boulevard. Together they stripped back her songs to reveal a largely self-written catalogue which could stand toe-to-toe against the output of pretty much any writer over the past decade and go the full 15 rounds.

Shelby-Lynne-2011Standing at close quarters in front of a voice like Lynne’s is such a thrilling experience it's baffling that more people didn't turn up to try it. The upper tier of the Queen's Hall was not called into service, but those who were present witnessed some exceptional moments.

Perhaps the most memorable occurred in the middle of “I’m Leavin’”, a prime slice of Muscle Shoals country-soul. Lynne sang so perfectly a series of notes of such audacious ambition that I was still holding my breath 20 seconds after she’d come back down to earth. She could clearly have done the fancy, frilly stuff all night had she so desired, but her primary aim was to serve the material. There’s a clear, hard centre to some of her best songs, and she cut right to the heart of the likes of “Life is Bad” and “Why Can’t You Be?”, which even without bass and drums thundered along.

When she opted for a softer approach, she went in deep. During a heartbreakingly still “If I Were Smart” even the candles seemed to stop flickering, while the two songs taken from Lynne’s 2008 album of Dusty Springfield covers, Just a Little Lovin’, were simply astonishing. With just Jackson’s sparse guitar lines to guide her, she lived every line of Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear it Anymore”; then, teasing all the latent sadness from the over-familiar “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, she succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of making us experience the song anew.

She can turn her hand to most styles with seeming ease; her whisky songs were fine malts rather than cheap blends

It’s her voice, and her obvious emotional empathy with what she sings, that makes Lynne truly special, but her songwriting chops are similarly well honed. She can turn her hand to most styles with seeming ease, and last night her whisky songs were fine malts rather than cheap blends: “Ten Rocks”, a song about finding Jesus in a bottle of Seagram’s, was a riot of revved-up country-gospel, while “Ol' #7” was served neat, a 90 per cent proof Patsy Cline-style weepy.

She seemed to be enjoying herself, although she deployed that rather useful musician’s trick of switching the mood from cheery to chilly in a heartbeat. In order to appease a particularly vocal fan she sang a couple of lines, a capella, from the very old “Tell Me I’m Crazy”. Rather than slink away quietly satisfied, her admirer continued to harangue her about playing, of all things, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right”, until she smilingly cut him down to size: “You,” she wagged a finger sternly, “You." He shut up after that.

The couple of instances of rather ripe sentiment (“Johnny Met June”, "Jesus on a Greyhound”) were the set's weakest moments, and the two-song encore was perhaps rather lacking in punch following the highs of “Your Lies” and “Killin’ Kind”, but this is nit-picking. When Lynne dedicated the graceful, easy amble of “Where I’m From” to her home state of Alabama the room filled with the scent of pines and the chirrup of crickets. It was an act of real transformative power, and far from the only one. It was clear throughout that this tiny, criminally under-appreciated woman is possessed with a wealth of talent that no amount of austerity-era industry downsizing could ever devalue.

Watch Shelby Lynne perform "Alibi"

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