Emily Barker – The Toerag Sessions Album Launch – Exmouth Market Centre, London EC1
A warm Wednesday April evening in a church hall in Exmouth Market, central London, was the time and place for the launch show for Emily Barker’s new – and first solo – record, The Toerag Sessions. The album was released officially a couple of days previously, following a pledge campaign. That campaign and a proportion of the proceeds from the gig were earmarked for Shelter From The Storm, a London homeless charity.
After several albums with her band, Red Clay Halo, and a variety of side trips, Emily Barker had decided it was time to take it back to basics. This album was recorded live, at the renowned Toe Rag studios in East London, to two-track tape, then cut to vinyl and whatever it is they do to CD, as it was recorded.
For the launch show, Emily took the stage with just three guitars and harmonica(s). Starting with “Little Deaths,” from Almanac, she took the audience through the vinyl (10 songs) version of the record, track by track. Probably her best-known song is “Nostalgia,” from Despite the Snow, which was adapted and used for the BBC’s version of the Wallander TV series. This night, she performs the original version of the song, which describes being the other side of the world from your loved ones in the cold of a Melbourne winter.
Between songs, she took some time to describe the background to some of the lyrics. I hadn’t seen her perform the Dear River album so hadn’t heard the story behind “Letters.” It’s a moving tale of how her maternal grandparents had emigrated from the post World War II wreckage of the Netherlands, taking the boat from Rotterdam to Western Australia. On the way, they decided there would be no looking back. Barker told how their past was a source of mystery when she was growing up there, but that when her grandmother had died they found the eponymous letters from which they were able to piece together at least some of their story.
The second half of the show included “Anywhere Anyway,” the only new song on the LP, written as the theme to an upcoming film. There was also “Lord I Want An Exit,” which Barker had written for her first band, The Low Country, on first arriving in the UK in the early noughties. The latter also came accompanied by tales of her early days in the Northern hemisphere. The set closed with two songs – “Blackbird” and “This Is How It’s Meant To Be” from the first, and recently reissued Photos, Fires and Fables album.
With The Toerag Sessions launched and heading for orbit, Barker invited Red Clay Halo collaborator Gill Sandell to join her on accordion and vocals for a further five songs. These included “Dear River,” a cover of Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” (complete with audience prompt), and a new song, “Stockholm Down Below,” which came across very well even as it applied a little poetic license to Swedish geography. They finished the main set with “The Blackwood,” before Barker came back solo and encored with another new song whose title I didn’t catch.
One excellent performer, one sterling supporting player and one very happy crowd made for a good night.