An American Secret Revealed: Shannon McNally at The Islington, London
It’s clear from the size of the audience (about 40 of us) in The Islington that Shannon McNally is not a name well known across the UK nor here in London. It’s a shame that she is such a well-kept secret, because she has a gorgeous voice and uses it to beautiful effect on her own and other people’s songs.
I first came across her about 15 years ago when I got a mini-album (8 songs, 30 minutes music) she made with Neal Casal, titled Ran On Pure Lightning. After that I heard no more of McNally until earlier this year, when I saw a glowing album review of her new album Black Irish here at No Depression.
I was surprised to find she has been producing albums regularly in the intervening years. She’s not lacked for album reviews here at ND, but that is my sin of omission. For all I knew, not that I’d given much thought, she could have retired. On the strength of the review I checked some tracks, bought the album and loved it, so I was really excited to find out she was touring in Europe. This it turns out is her first ever London gig and I feel privileged to have been there.
So to the show. It’s McNally on acoustic guitar accompanied by a guitarist named Brett Hughes. But it’s the voice we’re here for, and McNally delivers. Again and again. While her tone is nothing like Suzy Bogguss, I was minded of Bogguss with her control, her ability to deftly rise and fall so smoothly up and down scales and keep completely in tune. Beautiful and awe-inspiring.
In his sleeve notes, produced Rodney Crowell quotes John Leventhal as saying McNally has “the right amount of girlish smoke,” which is on the money but tells only part of the story, because there is honey and whiskey in there, and the overall it’s just a gorgeous mix.
The set combines her own songs and covers. Given that the album was produced by Crowell, you would be forgiven for thinking her music is mainly country influenced, but McNally is a child of the South and covers all sorts.
Her own song “I Went To The Well” is a basic North Mississippi blues but she says its very simplicity makes it difficult to play well. She plays and sings with total conviction and pulls the whole thing off with aplomb. But we’re treated to soul, country, R&B and folk. She’s nothing if not rounded.
She covers Levon Helm’s “Rock My Soul” (and has a amusing anecdote about how much she loved Levon’s speaking voice, being acquainted with him on a personal level, as well as his singing voice), Bobby Charles’ “I Don’t Want To Know,” and the Staples Singers’ “Let’s Go Home,” Susanna Clark’s song about Townes van Zandt, “Black Haired Boy,” finishing with The Band’s “It Makes No Difference,” then for the encore playing the second best country song ever written, Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.” (At the end I overheard her being asked what the best song is – she says it is “Crazy”).
She also covered a song by guitarist Brett Hughes (from a forthcoming solo album) called “Sweet Little Bird.” Hughes is one of that seemingly inexhaustible stream of fabulously talented guitarists that emerge from the States, and especially from the South. Understated when required, soloing as if his life depended on it at others, always being the perfect foil for McNally’s voice.
The set highlight (and album highlight) for me was her own song “Banshee Moan.” It has added topicality in touching on women being exploited in the entertainment industry and was dedicated to all those women speaking up about Harvey Weinstein. But it’s not a polemic, it’s a gorgeous song that stands in its own right.
As noted, this was McNally’s first London gig. I hope she’s back soon. I hope many more turn out out and that next time she plays London it’s to 400 or more, not just 40 people.