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Cahalen Morrison and Eli West
For their Sheffield debut, the Seattle-based bluegrass/old time duo Cahalen Morrison and Eli West managed to attract a maximum capacity audience tonight, as an orderly queue gathered through the centre of the bar area at The Greystones. The completely sold-out Backroom venue had an air of anticipation about it as drinks began to line up on the front of the stage, whilst the audience took their seats for what promised to be an exciting show. There's little wonder really, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West's reputation arrived long before them; with three album releases, a string of concert tours and numerous festival appearances to their name, the two musicians arrived in a city all ready for them and they in turn were prepared to deliver precisely what was expected of them.
The concert began with an opening set by West Yorkshire-based four-piece band True North, whose singer Maria Wallace not only acted as compere for the evening, but was also responsible for the actual event itself through her True North Music promotions. Maria was overheard to say of the venture "we do this to help out a few friends really", which is as good a reason as any for putting on quality music anywhere. Furthermore, helping friends in a music genre such as this is not only admirable but also very much appreciated by many, not least the artists themselves as well as the people who make an effort to come out and see good music in this area.
The band played a gentle set, which included both self-penned songs and contemporary country/folk material, with songs such as Steve Earle's Hometown Blues, Boo Hewerdine's Harvest Gypsies, Jean Richie's The L and N Don't Stop Here Anymore, as well as one or two of Maria's own songs including Home Again which the band finished with. The band also featured James Munroe on double bass, Neil Diffley on guitar and John Beevers on fiddle.
Cahalen Morrison and Eli West could probably be identified as the shorter one and the taller one respectively, but also as the one who plays the banjo and mandolin with equal virtuosity and the one who might possibly be one of the best flat-pick guitarists ever to have stepped onto the Backroom stage. Both descriptions might very well be correct when identifying their mutual differences, but where the two meet right on the button is in their beautifully tight harmony voices; so tight in fact, that you often wonder which voice is actually coming from whom.
Tonight the duo were on top form right from the start, despite a near fatal disaster at the beginning, when Eli's guitar strap came loose from the guitar before a single note had been struck. Catching the guitar just in time, the thoroughly relieved guitar player said: "it isn't even my own guitar, so that would've been bad." His musical partner went on to say "we like to smash up our guitars before a show, not after". This opening mishap was more an ice-breaker than a guitar-breaker in the end, which helped to strike up some banter between the duo and the audience, which remained good humoured throughout the evening.
Opening with Fiddlehead Fern, the song that also opens their current album, the duo got into their stride from the first note and continued throughout their two sets with the highest standard of playing. Neither overly extroverted nor shy, the two musicians maintained a business-like approach to their stage craft throughout, the emphasis always being on their standard of musicianship.
"Over the hump of a three week tour" as the duo put it, Cahalen and Eli appeared refreshed and devoid of the usual traits that an exhausting tour schedule often presents. Comfortably attired and fully alert to the task in hand, the dexterous picking that followed was just about note-perfect throughout, giving everyone present precisely what they had come for. If to some the duo's music was only previously known through their three album releases, The Holy Coming of the Storm (2011), Our Lady of the Tall Trees (2012) and their latest offering I'll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands (2014), then those particular members of the audience would not be in the least bit disappointed. What had previously been heard on those recordings was pretty much carbon copied tonight at The Greystones, albeit with that all important additional spark that a live performance always brings.
The songs selected for tonight's performance covered the duo's entire repertoire from early songs such as My Lover Adorned and On God's Rocky Shore to more recent songs including Anxious Rows, Off the Chama, James is Out and Livin' in America, the opening line from which the duo's latest album gets its title. Townes Van Zandt's Loretta made a welcome appearance as did the duo's hybrid version of Church Street Blues, borrowed from the singing of both Tony Rice and Norman Blake. The duo also performed a couple of brand new songs including Come and Save Me. Personally, the performance of the night came during the second set, when the duo performed a stunning A Lady Does Not Often Falter, reminding us once again of Cahalen Morrison's command over storytelling, the lyrics of which could easily be mistaken for traditional song.
Greeted and ultimately rewarded by an audience unafraid to whoop and holler between each song, there was the feeling that Cahalen and Eli made some friends in Sheffield tonight and I dare say it won't be long until they return. Rarely has Northern Sky been so late getting to a first gig of the year, so well into January in this case, but tonight’s concert has raised the bar pretty high for the rest of the year. That bar has also been set for True North Music, who will hopefully bring more great music to the area in the coming year. No pressure there then eh?