On Thursday I went to Kings Place to see Emily Barker play with her new band and with her new songs. She’s spent time in Memphis and the Sam Phillips studio recording a new album, “Sweet Kind of Blue”, which is inspired by the sounds of that city: country, blues, soul. It’s a step away from the more Celtic folk sounds that characterised most of her work with the Red Clay Halo. The music that first got a hold of me, from the moment that I saw Emily singing “Pause” at the Lexington in 2012, strumming the electric guitar, while the Red Clay Halo laid down the most beautiful harmonies.
Since then the music of Emily Barker has occupied a special place for me. Part of that beautiful/sad sound I called Duende in my book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey“. She was one of a trio of artists who have soothed me and moved me more than most in recent years. Whose music I have returned to constantly. The other two, of course, being The Staves and Lindi Ortega (though I would now also have to include Daisy Vaughan).
It was disappointing when Emily and the Red Clay Halo broke up in 2014, just after they’d made their most complete album, “Dear River”, and Emily’s most heartfelt. A love letter to her homeland, Western Australia, but also to her new home in England. The sweet pain of the exile. I’ve listened to “Dear River” a lot. It was already looking to the sounds of America – it felt like Bruce could have been an inspiration. “Letters”, the story of her ancestors in a war torn Holland, with its rousing guitar bridge, is up there with “Pause” as my favourite Emily song, but both might just have been edged out by the tenderly wistful “In the Winter I Returned” – all the choices I have made lead me to this place. That became a bit of a mantra for me, a reason to rejoice in the present, never to regret the choices of the past.
And so to the show tonight. King’s Place is a modern and rather impressive arts centre tucked under the Guardian building in Kings Cross. The music it hosts is normally classical or jazz, with just a bit of folk. None of yer rock’n’roll riff raff. Leave that to the Scala, just down the road. Emily and band were playing in Hall No 1, all wood panelling and comfortable seats. The acoustics were excellent. All a bit polite though – lots of people my age nodding appreciatively and applauding politely after every song. Seems to be the way with folk concerts. I felt like it would be wrong to take any photos for this blog. Would have been frowned upon – and an attendant might have ticked me off. So I conformed. Give me a load of youths leaping around at the Scala any day!
But the music… that was great. A nice mix of new songs and a few old old favourites. Emily entered the stage on her own and sang a gospelly piece, “Precious Memories”, unaccompanied. She carried it off superbly. The band came on and they launched into new single, “Sister Goodbye”, another soulful piece. Then we had “Dear River” and “Letters”. So pleased about that! The new songs ranged around those Memphis sounds – a couple that I particularly liked were “Blood Moon” and “No 5 Hurricane”. The new album comes out in May. Should be good.
Inevitably, the highlights for me were a few of the old favourites: not just “Letters” and “Dear River”, but “Little Deaths”, “Disappear”, and, for the encore, lovely versions of “Nostalgia” and ” The Blackwood”. Her band – Pete Roe (who also played an excellent support set) on guitar and keyboards, Lukas Drinkwater on bass and double bass, and drummer Rob Pemberton – were slick and subtle and added some rich harmonies. This was an Americana band, with added celtic soul.
I did ask myself whether, if this was the first that I had ever seen of Emily, I would have been quite as struck as I was that time at the Lexington in 2012. Maybe not – what she is doing now is classy, but not necessarily as distinctive as her earlier work – but I’d still have liked it a lot and would have followed it up. Artists all have to move on, grow. And Emily is growing into an accomplished country soul singer, on a journey into Americana. I’ll be travelling with her!