Artist: Hatful Of Rain
Venue: The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth.
Date: June 29th 2013.
Portslade may be the last place to nurture a group of musicians dedicated to American Roots and Bluegrass, a music, which has become synonymous with sad tales and exuberance in equal measure. So here we are in a 500-year old tower in Old Portsmouth listening to a band of musicians, whose inspiration dates from a less aged time but from a more distant land, if we disregard any influence of Celtic and British folk roots. This is the first gig I have attended arranged under the auspices of Square Roots Promotions, and Ken Brown has chosen well in presenting Hatful Of Rain, on what turns out to be the warmest and busiest day of the year so far, and driving to the gig proves slightly less daunting than finding that elusive parking space.
Competition in American Roots music is strong but the band start with a Gillian Welch song, immediately raising the bar and the quality level for the evening, which sets out to incorporate murder ballads, hoedowns and even a song about the joys of starvation. Straight away we discover that singer/multi instrumentalist Chloe Overton has the ideal voice, matched by a maturity and understanding of and for the idiom. The broad church of material played, mostly self-written by the group and individually reflects in the array of instruments on display. James Shenton is an accomplished violinist and blows the occasional harmonica, Welshman and raconteur Phil Jones gravitates from double bass (only one) to banjo, while Fred Gregory handles mandolin and acoustic guitar duties. Dexterity and natural feel are what marks Hatful Of Rain out as more than just meddlers in this field. In Chloe, they have a songwriter of skill and sensitivity, whose music is a perfect combination for the individuals who all bring something special to the proceedings.
Positioned round an omni-directional mic, which not only picked up the vocals in the fashion of a 1940/50s club, but as Chloe stated, imitated the set up of a country/roots band of contemporary America. You could almost imagine Patsy Cline or Hank Williams giving some welly into such a set up. Over an hour a half they included all songs off the debut album ‘Way Up On The Hill’, including the title track which has earned Chloe a stunning royalty cheque of well over £400, thanks in part to Bob Harris’ championing of the group. The song stretches the remit of the group way beyond such lazy genre definition, and Phil’s banjo introduction clearly sets the tone. James’ violin tour de force on his composition ‘Jerusalem Tart’, was a break neck helter-skelter ride incurring the righteous approval from Chloe. ‘Strawberry Leaves’, the aforesaid starvation song bounces along in deference to the nature of the lyrics.
When Chloe moves back, Phil Jones introduces a lot of the songs including his own ‘Rockin’ Chair Daddy’. Behind his double bass, he decidedly looks the part of a rock and roller skiffler, who has decided to step out of his comfort zone, but still can’t shake his roots. ‘Whiskey’ is cut from a similar cloth. In true fifties Grand Ole Opry fashion, every time a solo is called for, the protagonist steps up closer to the microphone, and boy do they all play fast and furious. This is probably the easiest PA mix, Andy Thomas has had to do in some time. The strangest interlude occurs when Phil asks if the audience has any questions, only to be questioned as to where they get their name (Tom Waits’ ‘Long Way Home’, incidentally). The full house certainly warmed to the humour and the quality of the music played tonight, leading to a well deserved two song encore.
The Square Tower is a beautiful setting for such a close and intimate gig (‘weddings also a speciality’) and tonight we get to see one of the South’s more interesting purveyors of the genre, who manage to push their style well over into different territories. Any time Hatful Of Rain are in town, you’ll need no excuse to miss them. After all, whatever the weather, the sun always seems to shine when they’re around. Now everyone back home to catch the Stones at Glastonbury.
*all images reproduced with kind permission of Donna Brown © 2013.