Katoomba, NSW, Australia
Wednesday, 10th March, 2010
Sea of Tears was - by some margin - my favourite album of 2009, and having seen Eilen Jewell's concert clips on YouTube, I couldn't suppress my high expectations of her show in Katoomba.
The Clarendon Hotel is a small, somewhat out-of-the-way venue that has long punched above its weight in attracting top line acts. About two hours west of Sydney, it's the spiritual home of the Blue Mountains Music Festival.
High expectations can lead to disappointment, right?
Not this time.
Eilen and band played a brilliant ninety minute set, mostly from Sea of Tears and Letters from Sinners and Strangers , plus the title track from Boundary County, Fine and Mellow from the Heartbreak Boulevard EP, and Honky Tonk Girl from the Loretta Lynn side project, Butcher Holler.
It was a fun show. Eilen Jewell has a winning personality - feisty, smart, self-deprecating, and just a bit daffy - and she won the audience over from the get-go. (And she'd done her homework, introducing Shakin' All Over as a Normie Rowe song. Melbourne's Normie Rowe had the Australian hit version in the mid-60s.)
This band has been together for a long time, and it shows. Like Eilen's singing, their playing is seemingly effortless, but imaginative, always exciting and note-perfect.
Guitarist Jerry Miller, being the only soloist, shares the spotlight for much of the time, and he is a very, very fine player. His twangy Gretsch is the stylistic glue which makes Sea of Tears - ranging from old school C&W to British invasion - sound all of a piece.
(Jerry Miller is not, by the way, the former Moby Grape guitarist. While he cuts an avuncular figure against the 30-year-old Jewell, he's a much younger man than the Grape's Miller, now in his late sixties.)
Mostly, the show is about what attracts you to Eilen Jewell's records - one of the best roots music voices to emerge in the last decade, and great song writing. Not for nothing is she being compared to Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams.
Highlights? Hard to pin down, but I'd nominate Sea of Tears (perfect retro rock), Rain Roll In and the show stopping Shakin' All Over. And a whisper-quiet reading of Billie Holliday's Fine and Mellow demonstrated Jewell's range.
It was a great privilege to see this band in an intimate venue, with just 100 or other fans. It was an "I was was there" moment.
I doubt I'll get the chance again, and I hope not. Eilen Jewell deserves to be playing big theaters and big festivals.
This trip has been low key. She played Port Fairy (a major folk festival in western Victoria), the Clarendon, a club date in Sydney, and two smaller festivals in Victoria. (She also squeezed in a showcase set , available here, for the Australian Broadcasting Corporations' digmusic channel.)
I can't wait for her next visit.
Setlist is from memory. The song list is pretty damn close. The order might be a little scratchy.