I've always thought The Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff should have a lot more gigs. For those who haven't been there, it's a converted Church which has been turned into a very nice Arts Centre while maintaining it's special atmosphere. Churches were designed for singing - and Gretchen Peters certainly made the most of the acoustics in tonight's performance.
Gretchen has chosen Cardiff as one of two warm up gigs for a Cambridge Folk Festival appearance in a few days time. She asked the audience if we didn't mind being guinea pigs for the Festival set - she got an enthusiastic applause. And I doubt her Cambridge appearance bettered this performance tonight.
Gretchen hasn't visited Wales for a couple of years but made up for it tonight.
At the moment she is going around the world touring her Blackbirds album - which be be featured in the blog later in the year ;)
Indeed, the set is mostly built around Blackbirds and her last album, Hello Cruel World.
Today, Gretchen is joined by husband Barry Walsh on Piano & Accordian, Christine Bougie on drums, lapsteel and electric guitar and Conor McCreanor on Bass & vocals.
With no support, it was a set of two halves. It opened with the driving When All You Got Is A Hammer, featuring some lovely lapsteel from Christine. This small instrumental set up really suits the stark songs of Blackbirds especially and highlights Gretchen's voice which is one of the most arrestingly gorgeous in the US music scene.
As I said, Blackbirds WILL feature in the blog later in the year - but it's songs are deeply personal, dark and brooding,
The title track from Blackbirds comes next and is followed by Pretty Things which Gretchen informs us has been playlisted by Radio 2. This is one of the most beautiful tracks on Blackbirds and gets a stupendous applause from the crowd. And at this point Barry said, 'That's why she's been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame'
The Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame
On introducing The House On Auburn Street, Gretchen asks if anybody has seen a neighbour's house burn down (the subject of the song) - well I have, so it kind of holds a special resonance for me. With other songs from Blackbirds including Everything Falls Away & Black Ribbons the set shows just how strong an album Blackbirds actually is. The album is played almost in it's entirety tonight and deservedly so, as future albums and future tours will no doubt dilute this wonderful set of songs as fewer are included in the live sets.
It's bound to end up on many peoples Best Of 2015 list and I know it's on mine.
But, there are also some choice cuts from Gretchen's album, Hello Cruel World, including the sublime, slinky title track.
One of my favourite tracks on Blackbirds is the gorgeous The Cure For The Pain and I'm so glad Gretchen played it - just as brilliant live as it is on record.
Part two opens with Gretchen solo on stage an brings us Independence Day from her debut album The Secret Of Life from back in 1996. This got a tremendous reaction from the crowd.
With a second half as strong as the first, this was always going to be one special show. With a wealth of quality material to chose from, I'm sure that some audience members would have loved to have heard their favourite songs which were left out from the set. But that's the disadvantage of being a such a great songwriter - what DO you leave out?
Following Woman On The Wheel, Gretchen left the stage to leave the other 3 instrumentalists led by Barry to play his composition, the instrumental October Waltz. A lovely little vignette in an evening of musical highlights.
But the magical moments had not ended yet - Gretchen and the band played a superb version of the most moving songs on Hello Cruel World, the song Idlewild. You could have heard a pin drop such was the latent power contained within the song.
After the encore - Conor & Christine left the stage leaving just Gretchen & Barry to give an intimate performance of John Prine's In Spite Of Ourselves. It was just as if there was no audience and they were playing it for themselves - just beguiling.
This was the performance of a lady at ease with her musical ability as a songwriter and performer. Coming off the most critically lauded and successful album of her career with Blackbirds, she is up there with the best - including Joni & Emmylou.
If you get a chance before she wraps up her Blackbirds tour - don't hesitate. You won't see better this year.