Courtney Marie Andrews – Deaf Institute, Manchester – 24/08/2017

Life on the road must be tough. So hard in fact that Courtney Marie Andrews forgot that she’d played in Manchester exactly seven months ago and just 200 yards away, claiming her last visit here was six years back, playing to 20 people at the Dulcimer bar in Chorlton. But she’s forgiven.

I’d like to think my three-paragraph TMB review of that February performance (she was supporting the Handsome Family) was at least partly responsible for her selling out the Deaf Institute this time out but in reality it was that solo gig itself that did it, together with her appearance on Jools Holland’s show since, bringing her to the attention of a nationwide audience. I got the impression tonight’s crowd had come from far and wide for this show and expectantly. They weren’t disappointed.

With an image and style somewhere between Mom’s apple pie and truck stop babe, innocent and yet knowing, wise beyond her years, and with a little more of Vegas about her than her home city of Phoenix (the keyboard stand had a picture of a huge cactus draped over it), she performs a modern and sometimes edgy incarnation of Americana that has much in common with the likes of Kacey Musgraves.

Before we saw Courtney we got treated by Californian Will Stratton who has a new album as well. Will’s a very accomplished singer-songwriter with a great line in humour, timing his little stories perfectly to his guitar tuning. He’s very softly spoken and his singing voice is gentle, too. It’s his guitar playing that really stands out though. He has the appearance of a less flamboyant Newton Faulkner. For 25 minutes (it really should have been longer) the Deaf was a no-strum zone as his fingers flitted over the fret board, on occasion at lightning speed. A perfect appetiser for Miss Andrews.

I’ve occasionally used the phrase ‘a set of two halves’ and this was another of them. Considering she’s been touring under one guise or another for the last decade, starting at the age of 16, Courtney was surprisingly hesitant and appeared even a little nervous during the early songs. Perhaps it was seeing her band members one by one banging their head on the overhanging balcony as they climbed on stage that spooked her but early doors she wasn’t really communicating with the audience between songs. She hasn’t yet mastered the art of tuning her guitar – which she does to perfection – and telling funny stories; something which her support act, Will Stratton, does, also to perfection. At times there was a pregnant silence.

Moreover, she has the slightly unnerving habit of sporadically staring into space or down to the boards with a blank expression that is eerily reminiscent of Sissy Spacek just before she starts throwing her toys out of the pram in Carrie.

Fortunately, as the set progressed she seemed to loosen up considerably, cracking jokes in an endearing Southern Belle manner, merching a vinyl-reissued album that was on pre-sale at the venue and jousting with a self-confessed ‘stalker’ up in the balcony. By the time she got to ‘Not the End’, from her 2017 album Honest Life, the crowd were hoping to delay tonight’s ending for as long as possible. The second part of the 20-song show contains all of the upbeat ones in her armoury – some of them really rock in a live setting, such as ‘Near You’, ’15 Highway Lines’ and ‘Irene’ – and they were performed with gusto by both Courtney and the band, especially her guitarist, with whom she seemed to be entering into a relationship as the night wore on.

At the same time, I have to say that she’s at her best alone with her acoustic guitar, singing slower and more traditional bluegrass, country and folk style songs. That’s when her exceptional voice really shines through.

Her songs cover many different subjects, a sizeable slice concerning coming of age, her experiences on the road, homesickness and how she’s learned to cope with life’s troubles, while occasionally encompassing politics, such as one she wrote during a truck stop in the immediate aftermath of last year’s Presidential election, while “drowning my sorrows in cocktails”.

Fortunately, that story was related in a very mature and low key manner; almost as if she’s resigned to her fate. I guess that – apart from the mainstream meeja – we’ve all had enough of politics now and I reckon she has, too.

Six albums completed already at such a still-tender age and another’s on the way – we were treated to five new songs during the evening. She promised to return to Manchester “soon” and I believe her. It must be that apple pie. Only next time out Courtney, try to remember this show, please, when you’re reminiscing on your previous visit.

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