Thea Gilmore at Pacific Road

Here’s to tonic, here’s to gin, here’s to sparks and here’s to gasoline…

Last night I went to Birkenhead’s Pacific Road to see Thea Gilmore on the opening date of the tour to promote her latest album, Murphy’s Heart.  It was a brilliant show that ranged from the Springsteen-like power rock of the opening numbers to the delicacy and introspection of acoustic numbers performed solo.

Once again, I pondered the mystery of why this superb singer-songwriter hasn’t broken into the mainstream.  Sure, many of her albums are uneven, and she does, at times, have a weakness for songs built around lists.  But she has written some of the outstanding songs of the past decade – songs like Old Soul, The Lower Road, Drunken Angel and Come Up With Me, to name just a few.  Two of her albums are perfect – last year’s winter solstice collection, Strange Communion, which The Times said was so good it proved that Gilmore is, ‘unarguably one of the finest singer-songwriters of her generation’ – and the live set, Recorded Delivery.  And it is true that Gilmore is so much better live than on disc – the live recordings of Old Soul and The Lower Road on Recorded Delivery were far superior to the studio versions, despite the latter having star guest performances. It’s not that the albums are over-produced, as some critics have argued, but that that often the production doesn’t serve the song or Thea’s vocals as well it should.

Certainly the performance last night by Gilmore and her superb band was faultless.  The band is outstanding band, consisting of partner Nigel Stonier on acoustic guitar, Roy Martin on drums, Vickie Edwards on bass, Jim Kirkpatrick on lead guitar providing the Springsteen riffs, and multi-instrumentalist Fluff on fiddle and Q-chord.

Pacific Road had seated the concert cabaret-style, with tables seating six persons, so you could sit and drink while watching the performance.  I was rather mystified looking round the audience – there didn’t seem to be anyone there under 30, and most I’d say were my side of 50.  Yet Thea has just turned 30: strange.  Thea and the band came on soon after nine, following a support set from Louis Eliot, a young folk singer from Cornwall.

Thea and the band opened with a storming rendition of the anthemic ‘Come Up With Me’, a reminder of how she has produced so many of these numbers with strong and catchy choruses, as well as those that make your heart catch, your skin prickle and your eyes fill with tears.

‘Automatic Blue’, off the new album, is certainly one of the latter kind. Thea introduced the song by explaining she wrote it for a friend who, after 20 or more years married and with kids, met an old love again, but ‘was very dignified…he backed off and watching someone so in love with the person they couldn’t have made me feel very sad.

Love is either wild frontiers or automatic blue…

The only time you can see her is when you close your eyes
You put your phone back in the drawer
And straighten your disguise
Think of the colours of your children
The songs you give wings to
The spring’s arrived and there’s a sky
It’s automatic blue

Thea has said that are some songs that its very hard for her to leave out of a set. ‘ I think I’ve only ever played two shows without ‘This Girl Is Taking Bets’ for example. Yeah.. I guess that would be the biggie.. its a very old friend and a real statement. I feel like something is wrong if its not there. It was there, along with one of my absolute favourites, ‘Old Soul’:

Well, I’m looking for an old soul
Where am I gonna go?
I’m looking for an old soul
Does anybody know?
I don’t want the worldly wise
I don’t want a good disguise
Just looking for an old soul

‘Cause when the days grow old
And the night gets cold
I’ll need a young heart
But an old soul

The constant thread throughout the evening was Thea’s impeccable vocal delivery, while the encores again demonstrated the breadth of her capabilities. During ‘Holding Your Hand’, alone with her acoustic guitar, you could hear a pin drop as she held the audience spellbound, while ‘Are You Ready’ closed the night with rousing, full-on apocalyptic rock.

I’m gonna haunt you
I’m gonna haunt you
Through the playgrounds
Through the fires
You’ll be saluting at the stars
And I’ll be holding your hand

I’m gonna haunt you
I’m gonna haunt you
Out on the other side of luck
Where every business deal is struck
I’ll be holding your hand

I’m gonna haunt you
I’m gonna haunt you
On every knife edge
Every trip
And on every needle tip
I’ll be holding your hand

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Set List

Come Up With Me
Call Me Your Darling
Coffee and Roses
Automatic Blue
Have You Heard?
You Belong To Me
Old Soul
Not Alone
Down To Nowhere
Teach Me To Be Bad
This Girl Is Taking Bets
You’re The Radio
Love’s The Greatest Instrument of Rage
That’s How The Love Gets In

Holding Your Hand
Are You Ready?

3 thoughts on “Thea Gilmore at Pacific Road

  1. Why not as popular as deserved? Why a baby-boomer audience? I guess because her music is a rehash of/derived from/homage to (take your pick) Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell etc.

    My lad, Tom, made an obvious but also interesting point the other day that may explain the dearth of under-30s. He said: “Your (generation’s) music was always lyric-based; ours isn’t”. He wasn’t claiming any high ground here. In fact he thinks alot has been lost by the shift to synthesised rhythm, not least the politics (in the broad sense). But the latter is what his generation listen to when they are out. They listen to their parents’ music in private

  2. Interesting point about the music we grew up with being largely lyric based. I suppose that was because the folk/singer-songwriter movement, typified by such as Dylan and the rest, itself grew out of the beat poetry and the earlier folk and blues traditions (think Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger), in all of which words and their messages were of crucial importance. Even our dance music (Tamla-Motown, etc) had to have a good, if simple, lyric that you could sing yourself. Another point is that today the music scene has fragmented into so many sub-cultures, of which song-based music is only one (or, rather, several). But you’re right, too, they do listen to their parents’ music in private – our Sarah enjoys Springsteen, Hiatt and Crowell – but not with her friends. Thea Gilmore’s music is derivative (what truly isn’t), but she has a voice of her own that comes across in her best songs which are finely-crafted.

  3. I’ve seen Thea Gilmore twice this year – at Kendal at Easter and at the RNCM last night. I agree she is often better live than on record and I agree her albums are uneven and I agree the production approach on her CDs doesn’t always suit her. But I can’t agree she is derivative. I think she is thoroughly original. I can see some connection with Joni Mitchell but only in the sense of being musically adventurous (a la Hissing of Summer Lawns) and lyrically clever. Thea Gilmore has nothing in common with Bob Dylan. For a start she is in the English tradition, and anyway she is stylistically varied. I can’t imagine Joni or Bob coming up with You Belong To Me or indeed singing it at all, still less, as Thea did last night, delivering it simply and to perfection. That was second in my opinion only to the au revoir she bid us, a capella, at the very end, which raised the roof. She is a dyed-in-the-wool folkie who is trying to cross over into gentrified rock because there are a lot of Fairport and Steeleye baby boomers who buy her work. It is very interesting watching her do it. She sings everything with utter belief. Nothing is inauthentic about her. But she must decide if she’s fish or fowl. That ambiguity is what stops her being enormously successful, in my humble view. She can be big in the Kirsty McColl sense or the Bonnie Raitt sense, but not both. Either way she’ll be great, and she’ll be great anyway. Nice website by the way …

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