with Hymn For Her
The Attic at The Railway
24th October 2012
The Attic at the Railway is a warm, intimate room, and tiny, so it was a surprise … a very pleasant one as it turned out … to get not only The Mastersons but the unbilled Hymn For Her. Two American male / female couple duos for the very reasonable price of one.
Hymn For Her
Hymn For Her were the surprise support. OK, if you haven’t seen them search them out on YouTube. I’m reproducing their CD cover (yes, I bought one as soon as I’d heard them) because it gives an idea of the sense of humour (and looks very much like the stage play of Jerusalem). Their daughter was with them.
The album was recorded in their 1961 Airstream trailer on a cross-country tour. As they said, there was heavy rain on the roof on one track, but it sounded good so they left it. The names add … Wayne Waxing and Lucy Tight (Loose y tight?). Their originals usually have one word titles making it easy to recall the set list, except they didn’t announce the second song. It was Grave, (unannounced), Ballad of Hollis Brown, Not, Fiddlestix, Dark Deeds, Thursday.
Hymn For Her describe themselves as punk grass, or lo-fi rock. What I scribbled in the interval was “The Dillards meet Brownsville Station with a pinch of Jesse Fuller” … I was thinking of Martian Boogie by Brownsville Station which boogies on with a great sense of humour, and Jesse Fuller’s one man band (e.g. San Francisco Bay Blues). The instrumentation is the first thing that strikes you. For most of the set, Wayne played guitar, harmonica, bass drum and hi-hat all at once. Later he switched the guitar to banjo, which he used as a hand drum for a quick drum solo during Fiddlestix. Lucy played cigar box guitar. This home made instrument echoes the stuff early blues players made up for themselves. It has a bass guitar string and two guitar strings, separately amplified. The neck is described as a broom handle, but it has to be harder wood than that to be drilled for the strings and work. It’s fretless, and played with a metal slide. I counted six or seven effects pedals on the board at her feet which were used to shift its sound considerably. Later, they swapped the banjo and cigar box, and Lucy did bass drum and hi-hat as well as banjo. Phew! That’s not all. The mic stand and the edge of the hi-hat both got employed to play Wayne’s guitar at points.
The range of moods varies from rocking (Grave) to sad country (Not) to ribald rollicking humour (Thursdays). The centrepiece was a long Ballad of Hollis Brown … a well-chosen cover, in that it’s not often covered, and has never gone from folk to Hendrix-style treatment (using the cigar box slide) like this before. A great version. The very close setting of the Attic allowed us to see every nuance … the guitar touching the hi-hat to end a song, and the plectrum stuck on Wayne’s forehead for lines about religion. This is really a fun band to watch, and also melodically and instrumentally fascinating too.
I was switched on to The Mastersons months ago, after reviewing The Civil Wars. I was told, ‘If you like them, you’re going to love The Mastersons too,’ (Thanks, DP) and no one in Britain had heard of them. I ordered my CD of “Birds Fly South” from the States and have had time to get well into it. Both these duos are couples, so unlike The Civil Wars, who are not, but make a big stage act out of making up to each other.
The Mastersons are an immediate contrast. Both are from Texas, but domiciled in New York (we wanted to live in a blue state, Eleanore announced, and added that they had brought their ballot papers to the UK to make sure Obama got their vote). Eleanore has a superb classic country and western voice. As a Texan, Chris conjures up Buddy Holly, definitely not Willie Nelson. It will take any guitarist ten minutes to stop gasping in pleasure at the sight of Chris’s white and gold Gretsch electric guitar.
I knew the songs, but in this CD / download age, or rather with my advancing age, titles don’t stick like they used to with vinyl. They played the whole album I’m sure plus at least one or two new numbers. The set opened with the first album track You Don’t Know, had the beautiful Birds Fly South(last track)in the middle, along with Crash Test (track two) which to me was the obvious catchy single, and finished with The Other Shoe (track three). A musician once said that with CDs and downloads, you should put your three strongest songs first, not arrange them over two sides of vinyl.
The single, or virtual single, from the album was One Word More and they told the story of the video (link – judge for yourself). It was done in Wes Andersen style they said, with a humorous family party. They showed it to their label who expressed great enthusiasm (the TV sitcom Episodes came immediately to mind when they said this …). Then it never got played. Someone had taken exception to the small kid in a Roy Rogers outfit with a cap gun as non-PC. Blink and you’ll miss the cap gun.
They’re a very likeable duo, and I enjoyed all the talk between songs too. They come across as totally natural, in contrast to The Civil Wars who don’t drop “the act”. The songs are their strong point. I very much hope they will return as promised with their band and play the larger room at The Railway. These tours always have to be stripped down for economy, and I missed the bass guitar from their album, but they made a virtue of the limited instrumentation. Eleanore plays violin and you think “violin” (lovely tone and melodic) NOT “fiddle” (scratchy and raucus).
They’d had kind of a bad day. Eleanore had opened her violin case after the flight and found the violin broken. She was playing with a hired non-electrified instrument (with the price tag dangling from the heads), which meant she had to stand tight in to the microphone, and also violins are extremely personal instruments. They also announced that they’d arrived for the tour to find the record company had a total stock of 40 CDs in the country. This is a disaster … the economics of these small scale promotional tours rely on selling a good batch of CDs at every gig. Similar happened to me on book promotion tours in the early 80s. You would arrive to find the local rep wringing their hands and saying the stock of books was on a cargo boat somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and so the only copies for the tour were the ten I’d brought with me. So no free promotional copies, and given the inevitable purloining of books from the display, you end up at the last talk … the really big one with massive audience … with one copy …the one you’ve carried strapped under your shirt and slept with it under your pillow to guard it. That sort of cock-up had stopped happening by the 90s, and I assume heads rolled. Whatever, my publisher had got more professional.
The Mastersons had been promised copies in a couple of days, but all I thought was “This is when you realize having a die cut sleeve with shaped cut-out was a REALLY bad idea.” You can get CDs run in a few hours, and you can get conventional jewel cases with sleeves done fast too, but I know these very attractive sleeves are a longer job. Still, if they have stock in America, it’s a Fedex job.
I’m feeling avuncular. After a wonderful evening of beautifully crafted songs, they finished with a country song (a standard, I assume, but I don’t know the title) which they did without microphones or electrics. I’ve seen Simone Felice do the same at Winchester. The whole vocal quality changes and the experience is very direct. Great ending. Back to avuncular. I had thoughts on their set. When you have a largely unfamiliar album, you should put a well-known cover in the set. It ties the audience in. The Civil Wars Billie Jean is the example. The set would be boosted by a cover. I don’t know what … the bleeding obvious would be Love Hurts in Gram / Emmylou style, but it could be The Everly Brothers (though they’re beginning to fade from memory), The Byrds, The Beatles, a C&W classic, a more recent pop song done in their style as a surprise. Familiarity is important, so no obscure covers.
The other avuncular tip. CD sales. The record label’s been a pain BUT the sales are limited anyway because a lot of people will have heard of The Mastersons, booked a ticket, and then bought the album before the gig. Look at artists as diverse as Simone Felice, The Blues Band and Asia. You need a CD which is prominently marked ONLY AVAILABLE AT GIGS. This can be as simple as a live recording (refreshed once a year). It can be an EP of outtakes, or as The Webb Sisters did, an EP of work in progress, which will eventually be a whole album. You do it with a simple sleeve, and carry a master and a CD with the full artwork so if you run out you mid-tour can have more done quickly, and locally. You do it on your own label therefore and make sure your contract allows this. I really wanted to buy something. I already had the CD. I’m stopping myself duplicating on vinyl, which they had. I’ve got too many T-shirts. Some, like The Band, are too precious to wear.