Sid Griffin & The Coal Porters / Greg Trooper – Hop And Grape (Manchester, England)
Despite Manchester’s reputation for turning out groundbreaking British rock acts (from the Buzzcocks to Joy Division to the Stone Roses to Oasis), the city also is generally quite supportive of American roots music. Indeed, even on this typically dank Manchester Sunday evening, a decent crowd turned out to see American expatriate Sid Griffin and his band the Coal Porters perform a tribute to country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons (despite the competing attraction of Elvis Costello and Ron Sexsmith at the nearby Apollo Theatre).
Ex-Long Ryder Griffin has become something of an authority on Parsons, publishing a book about him in 1985 and currently pursuing a possible film documentary on the legendary artist. Griffin obviously has a great deal of respect and admiration for Parsons’ music, but this show only tended to trivialize the music he sought to pay tribute to.
Kicking off with “Luxury Liner”, the Coal Porters proceeded to reel off a set almost exclusively made up of Parsons’ best-known tunes — “Grievous Angel”, “Sin City”, “Drug Store Truck Driving Man”, “One Hundred Years From Now”, and so on. Great songs every one of them, but delivered more with the tongue-in-cheek, boyish humor of a pub tribute band than with the warmth that you might expect from such an aficionado.
The Coal Porters are a tight musical outfit, and in Rob Childs they have as good a pedal steel player as there is this side of the Atlantic. But Griffin is not blessed with a particularly strong voice. His limitations may be of little consequence within the uptempo and sometimes anthemic sound of his own music, but the songs of Gram Parsons demand rather more. It may be that Griffin is aware of this, as he handled the lead vocals to either Childs or bassist Pat McGarvey for several songs. Neither are anything more than able harmony singers, so this failed to address the band’s fundamental weakness.
It wasn’t until the reappearance of opening act Greg Trooper, who joined the band for an encore of “Hickory Wind”, that we really heard the beauty of Parsons’ work. Trooper is a competent rather than outstanding vocalist, but he filled the song with far more feeling and emotion than had gone before.
Trooper’s primary strength is his songwriting; earlier, he delivered an impressive solo acoustic set of songs taken from his excellent 1998 disc Popular Demons before being joined by the Coal Porters for his finale. Trooper’s performance put a shine on an otherwise disappointing evening.