Words by Ed King / Pictures by Katie Foulkes
Nell Bryden’s been busy. The past seven years have ‘seen her travel 300,000 miles to play 1,400 shows’, and now she’s on another UK tour, playing 14 gigs throughout January. But tonight, a Sunday, she’s at the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath. The place I’m supposed to be in 15 minutes.
But I’m at home, watching ‘Marley & Me’, feeling lazy enough to give the whole thing a miss. And now I have Jennifer Aniston in a swim suit… the odds are not in Nell’s favour.
Just catching the end of Robert Lane, the Birmingham singer songwriter – and Bryden’s support in the city, I walk into a healthily full room. Apparently Ms Anniston isn’t as popular with everyone else.
Bryden’s backing band slink onstage; dressed in head to toe in black, they scream either professional stage hands or morbid middle aged.
Either way, Bryden confidently claims her Sunday stage, declaring ‘this is not a serious event, so feel free to have fun’, as a wave of British reserve trickles through the crowd. My social tourettes tells me to scream the word ‘LIMEYS’.
Opening with ‘What Does It Take?’, the title track from her second album, Bryden stamps out some polished blues rock. Her deep, soulful vocals – with a considerable and confident range, move effortless through a well versed introduction.
The crowd sway, the crowd whoop, the crowd shuffle out awkward little steps; and as we’re led straight into ‘Tonight’, the upbeat invitation to ‘arrive fashionably late again’ (ha, vindication), I look around for the barn doors and hay bales.
‘Helen’s Requiem’ brings more somber tones, with Bryden paying homage to the people who suffered, and died, due to Hurricane Katrina; before ‘Echoes’ give credence to the American troops serving in Iraq.
Musically I’m on board, the slow twang enticing me more than the hoedown, but I struggle with the context. Songs about disasters, or war (or both), just feel narcissistic, to me. TO ME. And, moving on…
‘Buildings and Treetops’ opens with glorious keys, always a good move in my world, and is the first time I notice the harmonies (one set coming from Bryden’s rhythm guitar/tour manager).
‘Green Dress’ delivers a blue jeans ballad, with Bryden’s accomplished vocals rising up form a simple line of verse to smack us in the chops; before ‘ The Only Life I know’ continues the lament, with a build up and crescendo that silently electrocutes most of my neighbours. I fear the room may explode in a maelstrom of frustration and dad dancing.
Moving firmly between songs, Bryden is as professional as they come; balancing the ego massage (ours, not hers) banter with a tight performance portfolio. And talented, there is no doubt.
Bouncing between the slow, modern Jazz tempo of ‘Fingerprints’, to the Hills Street Blues of ‘Downtown Lullaby’, and throwing some Iron Butterfly keyboards from left of centre (didn’t catch the song, something about a loaded gun), we witness her musical evolution; with the Darwinian zenith found in Bryden’s most recent material.
Her experience shows, and as she closes the main set with a fearsome delivery of ‘Second Time Around’ – Bryden’s debut single from 2007, the man to my left tells me ‘she’s the best person I’ve seen in Kings Heath since John Lee Hooker.’
The inescapable encore opens with ‘Sirens’, a song written about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York, and I start biting my lip again, but a little less than before.
Until ‘Shake the Tree’, the title track from Bryden’s latest album, closes the show; and I ignore the dubious connotations and say goodnight to a busy room full of contented grown ups.
Nell Bryden’s not my cup of tea, or indeed finger of bourbon, but even I left suitably impressed; the girl can certainly deliver. And whilst I won’t be following her around the UK next time she tours here, as much of the front row seemed to have done, I leave the Hare & Hounds glad that I’d come out.
And besides, in this day and age – how far away can you get from an episode of friends. Perhaps Bruce Almighty is on Netflix…
For more on Nell Bryden, visit http://nellbryden.com
For gigs from Birmingham Promoters, visit http://birminghampromoters.com