Two of the finest songwriters of the last 20 years collaborating on a new project was something our sonic Preacher Howlin’ Whippet had to check out. And as a man who’s seen his fair share of angels while running from the Devil, he was uniquely placed to tell us whether it was a match made in Heaven or should go straight from Hell.
Finding themselves as neighbours in Canada, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Joe Pernice of Pernice Brothers/Scud Mountain Boys fame have embarked on an acoustic tour of these shores, with stories, anecdotes and songs from weighty back catalogues.
Pernice is one of those artists who should, in a fairer world, be huge; as a songwriter he’s without parallel and his bittersweet tales are wrapped in utterly delicious nuggets of countryfied pop. Blake needs little introduction to the ELM massive, and this being a home-town show, Mono is packed out on a hot, sweltering Monday night.
Pernice tells us of how they were invited by writer Nick Hornby (a big fan, apparently) to submit some songs for a new movie about people on building ledges contemplating suicide. Blake and Pernice obliged but as it turned out, none of their songs were used in the movie. This, however, gave them the impetus to record some songs for an album, some of which they preview tonight.
Mono is a nice venue for this intimate kind of show; the problem is that as the two performers are seated, only the front couple of rows and the very tall can see anything. The sound isn’t compromised, thankfully although a good few people seek solace from the heat at the doors of the venue after a few numbers.
Opener ‘I’ll Follow You Down’ is typical Pernice; all cascading harmonies, inverted chord sequences and obtuse twists and turns. His voice is just perfect; soaring skyward with a real poisoned hint to the honeyed tones. Blake assists with the harmonies and despite the fact it’s almost a busking performance, the room is filled with the potential of the song. It’s easy to imagine cellos and strings filling the gaps although it’s something quite beautiful as it is.
Pernice is a confident raconteur. Blake much less so and despite the home crowd, he’s nervous and twitchy-looking throughout. It would have been nice to hear the between-song banter but as they seemed to do most of it off-mic, it was difficult to make much out.
A cover of The Zombies’ ‘A Butchers Tale’ is greeted by a reverential hush. The song, about a boys horror in the WW1 trenches seems entirely appropriate in this day and age and is unwittingly apt given the daily TV coverage of war. There is a pastoral air about much of the material that is at odds particularly with the Blake back catalogue although The Fannies have been mellowing year-on-year and I guess Blakes days of fuzz-pedal-overload may be well in the distance. At times I was reminded by their folksy meanderings of Jackson Browne and Steeleye Span and found myself mentally wandering off until Pernice’s acerbic tones bring me back.
His Big Tobacco song ‘Bum Leg’ is sang at something of a slower lick than on vinyl. It takes nothing away from its vicious feel. His voice and guitar at times sounds like a symphony and it’s clear that these songs need little embellishment to fly.
I must admit I found Blake’s contributions a little tedious throughout and some of his vocals were alarmingly off. Oddly, given the setting, I felt that his songs missed the lightness of touch that The Fanclub add to them. He’s a great songwriter, that’s not in doubt, but I really felt he struggled tonight.
Ending with ‘Everything Flows’ from the first Fannies album gets a near-hysterical response from the crowd, and this, for one, definitely benefits from the stripped-down approach.
Not a bad nights entertainment by any means but unlikely to be one I’ll bask in for long.