Steph Cameron & Joe Nolan at the Railway Club (January 24, 2015)
There was a time when playing music live didn’t involve running miles of wire from banks of foot pedals to instruments and amplifiers. Steph Cameron recently released a fine solo debut album that harkens back to that time: recorded in three days, the album features only Cameron on guitar and harmonica. Last Saturday, she and Joe Nolan played a show at Vancouver’s Railway Club that saw both playing solo sets in about as pure a musical environment as you’ll find: a single microphone and about as little amplification as you can really get away with.
By the time Cameron kicked off her set, the back room of the Railway Club was swelling at the entrance with a crowd large enough to raise the temperature of the room noticeably. The first notes of Railroad Boy drew a huge round of applause from a crowd that had come in as far from Langely — about 50 miles and at least one toll bridge east of the city.
Given the minimalist production on the album, it’s no surprise that, when listening to Cameron live, she sounds almost exactly like she does on album. The singer’s voice was clear and confident as she ran through a set that included album material like “Sad Eyed Lonesome Lady” and “Goodbye Molly”. The guitar work for the night was as sharp as the vocals, and with Cameron swapping seamlessly between finger picking and chords, it would have been easy to close your eyes and convince yourself that there were two guitarists on stage for most of the almost-hour-long set.
While Cameron’s set focused on material from her first album, there were a couple of new tunes rolled out. With work on a new album planned for the fall, here’s hoping one of the night’s highlights — a song called “Richard” — make the cut.
Joe Nolan isn’t quite as minimalist as Steph Cameron, but he’s a solo artist travelling between gigs in the tradition of the wandering troubador. Nolan had two guitars on stage with him — one a solid body electric and the other an open acoustic fitted with a pickup. With the heat continuing to grow in the unventilated room, he also had two beers, because “…you gotta stay hydrated”, he joked with me.
That joke serves as a short moment of insight into Nolan’s persona: he’s a bit self-deprecating on stage and quick to smile between songs. When he introduced “Tightope Dancer”, he told the audience that if they liked it they could get it on his most recent album Tornado and that “…if you don’t like this song, you can still get the CD and just skip over this one”.
When he’s playing, though, Nolan is all business, opening his set with a display of mad guitar skills on his electric before switching to his acoustic for a gorgeous down-tempo rendition of “Letters from Juliet”, from his debut album. The rest of the set saw Nolan switching between both instruments frequently and focusing on material from last year’s Tornado, with a moody version of that album’s “Did Somebody Call the Cops” — a particular highlight of the set. Like Cameron, Nolan played some unrecorded material that shows great promise for his next release.
The back room of the Railway Club is one of those great old bars that’s coated in a veneer of dust from a lack of use (they usually serve only from the main room’s bar). It’s the kind of place the Coen brothers would have chosen to shoot scenes from Inside Llewyn Davis, and that’s more or less the spirit that Cameron and Nolan evoked. With the scent of slightly stale beer and red wine in the air, and the heat of a happy crowd, the two just stepped up to a single microphone and played beautiful music exceptionally well. You can’t do much better than that.
Joe Nolan and Steph Cameron are touring Canada’s west together for most of the month. Dates for these and other gigs can be found on Nolan’s web site or on Cameron’s Facebook page (you don’t need to be a Facebook member to view it.) You can order the artist’s albums directly from their website or download Joe Nolan’s albums from iTunes and grab Steph Cameron’s stunning debut Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady at the same time.