Laura Cantrell makes the Arnhem Gallery bloom again

ANDREW LENG reviews a night of alternative country at the Fairfield Halls

It was St Valentine’s Day and my wife was expecting a cosy night in with a nice bottle of wine, some decent food and romantic company from yours truly. The weather outside was foul, so it would be odds on then that a night curled up in front of the television while a gale raged outside would win out.

Laura Cantrell: brought a touch of something different to the Arnhem Gallery

Laura Cantrell: brought a touch of something different to the Arnhem Gallery

Not a bit of it. I’m sorry to disappoint my wife but I was off to the Arnhem Gallery to see American alt country singer; Laura Cantrell that evening. To be fair I did buy my wife some chocolates and a bottle of Bailey’s to compensate, being the hopeless romantic that I am (laughs).

The musical tastes of my wife and I differ quite a lot. She’s partial to a bit of easy listening, and likes artists such as Burt Bacharach, which is no bad thing. Last year we went to see him at the Royal Festival Hall and I enjoyed the evening as much as she did. The Bacharach-David song “A House is Not a Home”, sung by Dionne Warwick, is one of my favourites.

However my tastes are a little bit more eccentric than my wife’s. I’ve lost count of the times that she’s told me to “turn that racket off” as I’ve been listening to a bit of death metal, or some obscure rap or indie music on the CD player. Consequently, she wasn’t interested coming to see Nashville’s Ms Cantrell strutting her stuff in Croydon.

Laura Cantrell was on a short tour to promote her latest album “No Way There From Here”. I’ve been a fan of hers for some time and was pretty excited to see her perform so near to home. The late, great John Peel was also a big fan of Laura’s. She featured in a number of Peel Sessions. Musically, she’s very well established, releasing six critically acclaimed albums to date. Most of the dates on this tour were sold out, so it’s a credit to the organisers of Stand! to get her to Croydon for the evening.

Although I’ve been to a number of shows in the main concert hall and the Ashcroft Theatre, I’d never been to the Arnhem Gallery for a performance. The gallery is described as “one of South London’s largest flat floor spaces”.

Despite being promoted by Stand!, imagine the irony when I pitched up to discover that 90 per cent of the audience were seated around candle-lit tables. This sort of arrangement works in intimate venues but I’m not so sure for a relatively large space such as this. Consequently it made for a rather strange and muted atmosphere for the rest of the evening. It was even remarked upon by the support band and Cantrell during their  sets.

On presenting my ticket and being given a green wrist band at the entrance, I headed straight for the bar and parted with £3.60 – ouch! – for a bottle of Cronx Bitter. Still, it’s good to see Fairfield Halls promoting a local business such as Cronx, so I will forgive them for the rather steep pricing for their captive audience.

The venue was subtly lit. There was a small stage, with minimal lighting, flanked by a PA. The sparse set up indicates that Cantrell is playing an acoustic set.

First up, though, were Croydon’s Cellar Door, a male-female acoustic guitar duo who shuffled on to the stage to near silence. They nervously strummed at their instruments to make sure they were in tune before settling into a short set of gentle acoustic numbers. Each song is met with reserved but polite applause. I felt a bit sorry for them as they were dogged by sound problems. The male guitarist imploring the mixing desk to turn his guitar up a bit at one point, while the woman vocalist asked for a bit more “reverb” on one song.

After a break of half an hour and the consumption of a couple more bottles of expensive beer later, Cantrell, accompanied by guitarist Mark Spencer, took the stage. One of the organisers of Stand! joined them to thank us all for coming despite the bad weather before introducing Cantrell to warm applause. Now, if only he’d done that for Cellar Door and engaged the audience, their set might have got off to a more confident start.

Cantrell began by performing a Bacharach cover, “Trains and Boats and Planes”, which sounded lovely stripped down to two acoustic guitars and her voice. The rest of the set covered her back catalogue, including a healthy number of songs from her latest album.

She was relaxed and on fine form, engaging in a bit of banter with the audience between numbers, remarking how she got lost negotiating the corridors in the Fairfield Halls – “some lead to doors that don’t open”. She tells us about her hero, Kitty Wells; performing her tribute song “Kitty Wells Dresses”, and of her admiration for Joan Baez’s ability to tune her guitar whilst simultaneously telling her audience jokes about former US President George W Bush.

Set highlights were “All the Girls are Complicated”, “Starry Skies”, “No Way Here From There” and an achingly beautiful rendition of “When the Roses Bloom Again”,a song that was written at the turn of the 20th century and has been covered by such artists as Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Wilco.

One song “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” allowed Mark Spencer to show what a fine guitar player he is. This virtuoso guitar playing drew enthusiastic applause from the crowd. Before you know it – approximately an hour and 15 minutes later – the trip home in a near gale and the wife’s displeasure at us not spending St Valentine’s night together has all been well worth it.

Croydon has a burgeoning local music scene and it’s good to see the promoters of Stand! bringing well know acts to the Arnhem Gallery.  Dreadzone and Toploader are two acts that were scheduled to appear. As a music venue the Arnhem Gallery is a pretty decent performance space but, on this particular evening, the atmosphere was a bit muted by the extensive use of seating. I hope Cellar Door enjoyed the experience, and the subsequent publicity that the evening gave them, despite the sound hiccups.

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