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Cahalen Morrison and Eli West
It doesn't seem all that long ago since Cahalen Morrison and Eli West last played at the Greystones in Sheffield, that particular occasion being True North Music's inaugural promotion. Tonight, as I settled on a stool in front of the stage, pointing my camera up at the duo, whilst listening to the opening few bars of Fiddlehead Fern, it seemed all too familiar, as if the intervening months had been condensed into just a few minutes. The Seattle-based duo have changed little in appearance as would be expected, standing in precisely the same spots on either side of the stage and performing much of the same material as before (together with one or two new additions). Their stage manner was just as humbling with each of the musicians almost battling for the role of 'the quiet one' and neither assuming the role of 'frontman'. Most importantly though, their playing ability was just as startling as before and despite all of the familiar aspects, the performance seemed so fresh and exciting as if it was their very first time at the venue.
This has a lot to do with the fact that these two musicians play so naturally together, so naturally that at times you really do feel it couldn't possibly get any better than this. The four microphones on stage serve one purpose only and that is to ensure everyone in the room, from those at the front to those at the back, has the opportunity to hear the duo on equal terms, otherwise they could just as well have played totally acoustic. The sound of Cahalen and Eli's natural and perfectly blended voices, augmented by guitar, mandolin and banjo, was both strong and delicate in equal measure throughout the two sets. The duo's total lack of showy showmanship and over-stated self-confidence is one of the most attractive aspects of the duo and you really do feel like you are eavesdropping on a couple of musicians simply enjoying each other's company around the campfire.
The more you warm to Cahalen and Eli, the more irritated you become at the news of the duo's recent brush with crime. "We had our car nicked last week with the majority of our merchandise in it" revealed Eli, offering to send their music out via email if the few remaining CDs ran out. Eli revealed that he has since had a recurring dream that the offender will look through the merch, see the tour dates and will eventually turn up at one of their UK gigs. The recordings were not the only thing on offer tonight as Eli also took advantage of a short commercial break to announce that his vintage 1952 J50 Gibson was up for grabs, knowing that the room was populated by a number of respected Sheffield musicians, including Richard Hawley, Martin Simpson, James Fagan, Sam Carter and Tom Wright, all of whom were pretty much familiar with the six-stringed beast and all of whom gathered around for a closer look after the show.
With Cahalen alternating between banjo and mandolin and Eli pretty much sticking to the guitar throughout, it was a rare occurence to see Eli taking up the banjo to perform one of his own compositions, Cutting In, a tune first heard on the duo's debut album THE HOLY COMING OF THE STORM back in 2010. Selecting familiar songs and tunes from the duo's "funny corner of music", which Eli explained consisted mainly of three topics, "Jesus, murder ballads and songs about trains", the duo performed such songs as Stone to Sand, Church Street Blues, My Lover Adorned, Pocket Full of Dust and The Poor Cowboy, which was treated to some fine audience participation during the highly singable chorus. Closing with the delicate gospel song Voices of Evening, one of the highlights of the set, Cahalen and Eli returned to the stage to finally conclude with a well received reading of Townes Van Zandt's Loretta.
As the popular Backroom emptied once again, its glasses collected and its seats stacked up, there was a sense of success and achievement in the air. True North Music in partnership with the Greystones had hosted yet another top notch night, which hopefully brought to new ears (as well as old), an evening of timeless music, beautifully played and warmly received; a night we shall be talking about until at least the next time.