This live album arrives at an appropriate time, whether by design or chance as Gretchen announces her retirement from touring. An artist of rare quality, her songwriting has always been regarded as of a quality others can only aspire to.
As a performer, she has been blessed with the power to communicate the powerful sentiments she writes about, and this release is a compelling and authoritative testament of a beloved artist at the pinnacle of her powers.
Neatly divided into two discs, one with a string section, courtesy of the Southern Fried Quartet, and the second with her band, it’s a wonderful document, of her ability to enthrall an audience, whilst also acting as a veritable live greatest hits. Barry Walsh, her husband and musical partner over the years remains an essential part of the mix, with his piano playing a trademark of the Peters sound.
With Colm McClean on guitar, and Conor McCreanor on drums, the band is faultless. The Fried Southern string Quartet, are surreptitious in their playing, rather than overpowering the songs, but when they open up, as in Seonaid Aitken’s solo on ‘The Matador’.
Sadly no room for two of my personal favourites, ‘Independence Day’, and ‘Woman On the Wheel’, but any album with ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’ is on to a winner from the start. It’s a beautiful version too, with the strings interjecting to wrench every last ounce of emotion out of the sweet melody.
Nice to hear County Antrim native Ben Glover’s co-writes with Gretchen, the eerie ‘Blackbirds’ and the haunting ‘Wichita’, both thought-provoking and filled with vivid dark images.
There are two trains of thought, when it comes to artist’s chat with the audience, on a live record. One states that such interaction is what really sets it apart from a studio recording, the other, suggests the chat becomes boring after a number of plays. Gretchen, just about gets it right here. Band introductions and a few nice lines with the audience, such as thanking them for being there, and, especially for clapping so loud for the recording.
Many of her songs are slow mediations on quite weighty and important subjects that mark her as a writer who has always been brave with her subject matter. Domestic violence, child abuse and the horrors of war are among issues that are raised in the audience conscience. But there is a lightness of touch, in the manner in which she presents such hard-hitting songs, never preachy.
Played live, they really hit home, and stay with the listener, melody and message. That is a real skill. Her voice remains as strong as ever, indeed, if anything, it as good as I have ever heard her. Soft, yet fragile on certain songs, strong and assertive when it needs to be.
These are not songs, they are poems sung, carrying such emotional heft, that the listener cannot be failed to be moved.