How old did that microphone look? It was very vintage. Hanging from it was a kazoo taped to a ring of wire. The last time I saw Petunia & the Vipers earlier in 2014, I described them as Americana painted dark; country music clouded with a punk outlook, kick-started with sheer rockabilly. But that was when Petunia was with his 5-piece band. He is presently touring with renowned old time string player Nathan M Godfrey and the result is roots music treasure — like finding that pocket watch your granddad lost years ago and it is still ticking.
The pair played Belfast in a deconsecrated church with the stain glass window as a backdrop. Support came in the form of Ciaran Lavery. The opening bars of his self-writ “Shame” from the Not Nearly Dark album were soft repetitive strings, quietly similar to that sense of going through the motions, just to get to the end of the day. His voice poured in like a sand fall. “Here it comes that awful sting when you let someone in/ You sit so bare in the lame legged chair”. He closed his eyes as he added another layer on the harmonica. With sparse guitar that left space for his slight tap of foot to be heard by the quiet room, he moved from low to loud. His chat and banter was easy but he somehow managed to fill his set with an onslaught of melodic insight on hope and hurt and longing way beyond his years.
When Petunia and Godfrey appeared on stage, Petunia had started the first of many astonishingly long notes for “Bicycle Song”. It seemed he was holding the note until we all settled. The guitars were chiming like the rotation of bicycle wheels while Petunia’s voice moved from riding over cobbles to freewheeling downhill. Then, seamlessly, the music transformed into a Hawaiian sounding instrumental that, as it became more recognisable, brought cheers and claps from the room. “The Cricket Song” took Petunia’s yodel to the fore. It travelled around the room and down the stairs. As the yodel changed to lyrics, the Elvis hip movements kicked in.
There was an ongoing roots history lesson between songs. Who sang what, when, who made it famous. Before “California Blues”, we were educated on Jimmie Rodgers, “the father of yodelling,” his recordings, and the TB that ultimately took him in 1933. It all suited that microphone, which turned out to be an Ear Trumpet Labs microphone. After performing at Pickathon, Petunia was asked to use the mike by Ear Trumpet because his voice, like no other, would show off its full capacity. They did seem perfectly suited.
“Forgotten Melody” is from Petunia’s latest album Inside of You. With his voice sounding staccato initially and his foot tapping, he graduated away from the microphone as the song became louder. Godfrey was blazing through some Django Reinhardt speeding train chords in the background, then the kazoo kicked in like the horn on a 1928 Ford Coupe chasing alongside it.
Godfrey left the stage for Petunia to perform “Inside Of You”, the title track of the new album. It was a masterpiece, offering an unfathomable melody, beautiful guitar and undulating vocals that only Petunia could employ in this way. The singing stopped near the end for spoken word. “The damaged ones among us rule our sick and diseased society” he told us in a testimony that honed a path to the ultimate line “Believe in yourselves, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.”
Well-loved tracks from the 2011 self-titled Petunia & the Vipers album pleased the hell out of us too. Parts of the audience had steadily become raucous over the course of the night. Songs like “Mercy” un-closeted the out of time clappers and holler-ers. The last time I had seen this signature track performed it was by the full Vipers 5-piece, with a magnificent almost big-band feel to it.
Tonight was “Mercy” in its purest form. It was stripped back, acoustic, two men and that microphone. Did I notice the absence of Stephen Nikleva’s guitar and Jimmy Roy’s lapsteel? Yes of course I did. However the brilliance of Nathan M Godfrey’s playing made this version all his own. Petunia yodelled and roared and growled while Godfrey, in a human manifestation of understatement, made it all look easy.
Lucille (from the album Inside Of You) was a warm and beautifully strange love song. Godfrey had been shape shifting from his NRP 14 fret resonator guitar to mandolin all night, and for this the mandolin was floating above the vocals like a bee. “I need you like the flowers call for the dew” sang Petunia as his pauses and nuances held us close to the song’s chest.
Last song of the night was Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”. Godfrey was back on the resonator while Petunia’s voice simply muted us. The last note of refrain wavered for as long as the guitars were played. Petunia stepped back and strummed. Then with a “good night everyone” the square was circled. The stretched note that Petunia hushed us with at the start of the show had gone on a 360 degree journey through The Great Plains; and was met by his last note of the evening back on stage. The sound engineer removed the kazoo from the mike stand. It was done gone over.