Gretchen Peters, Union Chapel, London
When Gretchen Peters last played London’s Union Chapel (February 2016), she said that it was one of her most memorable UK concerts in over 20 years of touring, so tonight’s show had a lot to live up to! Accompanied by her longtime musical and life partner, Barry Walsh (piano and accordion), two musicians from Belfast, Conor McCreanor (bass) and Colm McClean (electric guitar), Peters delivered a stunning night of entertainment performing new songs alongside favorites from her extensive back catalog.
She’s long held a reputation for writing emotionally literate material and has been covered by many successful musicians; she’s not afraid to tackle difficult subjects (child abuse in “Wichita,” prostitution in “Truck Stop Angel”) and is a gifted storyteller. Tonight’s staging and sound enabled the lyrics to speak for themselves; the vocals were pin sharp and the new material is as strong as anything we’ve heard before. I can’t wait for her new album, which is currently in the works.
Peters celebrates her 60th birthday on Nov. 14, and partway through the concert, at the prompting of a fan, the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She was visibly moved by the experience. To make it a birthday tribute that will long stay in her memory was the fact that her son, stepdaughter, and sister were in the audience, having flown in from America for the show.
I can’t pick out a highlight as the whole evening was sublime – personal favorites included “Five Minutes,” a telling portrait of a waitress who, despite knowing better, still carries a torch for her ex, and “Idlewild,” in which the narrator, a child, is observing her parents, as they are driving to visit her grandmother on the day of JFK’s assassination. The child has a deeply insightful nature and detects keenly the difference between perception and reality.
The song that garnered the loudest response from the audience was “On A Bus to St Cloud.” An early classic, appearing on 1996’s The Secret of Life, it features someone who is thinking about a person who committed suicide. It’s not explicitly stated, but that is where Peters’ writing is so strong – she creates imagery that, at times, leaves you to interpret the song in your own way. Trisha Yearwood covered it, but my favourite interpretation is by the late Jimmy LaFave – check it out and prepare to be deeply moved. I’ve heard Peters refer to it as “a Jimmy LaFave song, written by Gretchen Peters,” which shows you the reverence she has for his reading of her song.
As the night drew to a close, a standing ovation brought Peters and her band back for an encore. The first was a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” – he’s a close friend of hers and officiated at her marriage to Walsh in 2010. And then as the band left she finished the night with a new song, asking for the lights not to be turned down too low so that she could read the lyrics. Comfortable enough in front of a sold out crowd, to close out with new material, spoke volumes. She really is on top of her game.
This was a one-off show, however she will be back next year and will be touring a new album – what a treat that will be.