Two spotlit figures black-clad and gathered by a single microphone in the dark of The Lantern’s stage – The Black Feathers might have looked a forlorn prospect but soon established that they had enough sass to carry the occasion. The couple from Cirencester, Sian Chandler and Ray Hughes, are steeped in the classic styles of country and western music, indeed they convincingly claimed in one song to have ‘Three stars and a country song’ where their heart used to be – a reference to the flag of Tennessee.
Their original songs had plenty of the usual whiskey, heartbreak, lostness and regret but what lifted them from easy clichés was the conviction of their singing (both had strong and clear voices) and the arrangements. Ray’s versatility on guitar enabled a real range of sound, while counterposed vocal lines enriched songs like Holy Water and Maybe. A cover of Spirit In The Sky was delivered as a slatternly strut, like a Janis Joplin dressing room out-take, and new numbers The Ghosts Have Eaten Well and She’s an Open Book had a more contemporary alt-country perspective that bodes well for future recordings.
After the minimalism of the support act Yola Carter’s band was an expansive contrast, with no less than ten musicians – including two drummers – plus the lady herself. They kicked off into a mighty roar, a country-rock orchestra with Jeff Smith’s soaring pedal steel guitar and Aaron Catlow’s fiddle to the fore and Ms Carter’s ebullient vocals ripping into Home, the opening track of her Orphan Offering EP. OK – she was actually playing to a home audience in a packed Bristol room but Yola’s sheer assurance as a performer is an awesome experience anywhere, and it felt as though anything less than ten musicians wouldn’t have had a chance against that vocal power.
Having said that, she does do sweet, too, as on All The While’s subtly allusive lyrics that recalled Joan Armatrading, but importantly she knows when to use each of her many voices. Thus on the bouncing two-step of What You Do she let the rasp of gospel-soul burst through what had been a conventional Nashville delivery. It was seamlessly done, and there are few singers who could effortlessly claim those divided Southern roots in a single song. You’d have thought so big a voice would barely need backing vocals but the trio she’d assembled were hardly shrinking violets themselves, being Lady Nade, Ruth Ayikah Ankrah and Celestine. One of the most joyful showstoppers was the four-part gospel arrangement of Corey’s Song, the glorious a cappella payout of which brought a mid-show standing ovation.
The whole band had no weak links, in fact, as the lady herself frequently pointed out. This may have been a local collective but they were a seriously classy act, with symphonic country moments that could have come from one of The Band’s more epic line-ups. Crucially, it’s clear that over the last year Yola Carter has truly found herself in her music and, by her writing and band leading, has made the ideal context for her remarkable abilities as a singer and performer. As the sadder-but-wiser lyrics of It Ain’t Easier hint it’s been a hard road getting there but, with Nashville already smitten and Jools Holland already on side the dice are loaded for her. All she needs to do now is get that album out …