Live in Milton Keynes
By Lesley Hastings
Anyone who has read the review I wrote for Think Country of Striking Matches debut album, Nothing But The Silence, will know that I am a big fan of this incredibly talented duo, having been fortunate enough to see them play live several times the past including on their first visit to the UK for the Country to Country festival in 2014, so when a string of tour dates on these shores was announced recently I was at my computer ready to book to see them at London’s Union Chapel the morning the tickets went on sale. And what an amazing evening it was, as has been well documented in several reviews you may well have read including one on this very website of course! ( don’t miss Annette Gibbon’s per-show interview with them too!)
Imagine my delight when, due to a last minute cancellation at the venue, they announced they would be playing at the wonderful Milton Keynes Stables whilst over here, too, one of my favourite music venues ……I was onto that immediately, securing a fantastic seat and was already eagerly awaiting my second Striking Matches experience in six days whilst on the train travelling home from their London show. Another chance, too, to see the support act for this tour, UK singer/songwriter Lucy-May……another artist I’ve reviewed for this website when her EP was released. With her debut album due out on 17th May this was great timing and a fantastic opportunity for her to reach a wider audience.
Both Union Chapel and MK Stables are all-seated venues, and I had noticed a wide age range in the audience at the London gig. Being more remote and not near public transport, the Stables does tend to attract a more mature audience, which was the case in this instance, and everyone was in their seats ready for Lucy-May taking to the stage. Accompanied just by her guitarist, Paul Morhen, this was the most confident performance I have seen from her and the two appear to have a good connection on stage . She moved around engaging the audience, her vocals always secure, and included songs from both her EP and CD. In order to fit in as many numbers as possible (which, when you have a limited time on stage, was a sensible move) her patter and song introductions were limited ( and a tad nervy!) but it seems that several of the numbers were inspired by personal experiences including an emotional rendition of “Hole in my Heart” written about the passing of a close friend. Most of the songs worked well in their stripped back form, the only one I felt really needed some extra accompaniment being the closer, the upbeat “Whirlwind” which is the title track from her CD, and several of the songs would have benefitted from some backing vocals ( don’t know if that’s something her guitarist is confident in providing?) . But all in all an enjoyable set.
So, back in our seats after a brief interval ( when Lucy May was signing copies of her CD, available ahead of the official launch) and we were all ready for the main event!
The London date had seen Striking Matches duo, Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis, accompanied by their drummer and bass guitar player ( brought over from Nashville) for the first time in the UK, a move that received mixed reviews. Although my feelings were that this wasn’t really necessary in the relatively small venues on this tour ( and several people commented that the drums were slightly overpowering at times ) they will no doubt need the extra backing when returning to play the larger ones . It did give a “rockier ” edge to the set. The rhythm section was in fact dropped from subsequent dates on this tour, and this was the case tonight, with Sarah and Justin choosing to take to the stage on their own, bursting into their opening number “Trouble Is As Trouble Does” with the energy I have grown to expect.
Ironically, Sarah really was in a spot of trouble with a broken guitar string towards the start of the song….switching to her other guitar ( she has multiple instruments lined up to play on stage) the duo seemed to loose the thread of the number and when they had finished Justin joked that what we’d heard held the record for the longest version ever of the song! He also mentioned that it was his guitar they’d expected to fail them, and pointed out several cracks on its body sustained throughout this tour and named after the various venues ( if you’ve seen him play you’ll know what a pounding he gives his Takemine!) . The excitement and energy these two bring to their live performances is beyond description, and needs to be seen to be believed, and the appreciative crowd were transfixed from the start. They have already got a substantial following in the UK and seem to genuinely appreciate the support from their fans here, they are truly thankful and humbled by the reception they get and often refer to their visits here as coming home ” as home where you have people waiting for you and you are made to feel welcome”.
The set naturally consisted mainly of tracks from their debut album “Nothing But the Silence”, released since their last visit to the UK, and although the audience was reticent to join in the singing when asked they were happy to clap along when prompted, such as during “Hanging on a Lie” and “Ain’t Leaving Without Your Love” ( I am sure some people were hoping for The Shires to join them on stage for this one as they had in London, the mention of their name evoked a large cheer, but sadly other commitments prevented this from happening). Original songs were interspersed with the odd cover , ” Are there any Buddy Holly fans in the audience? Apologies! ” they joked before an incredible version of “Not Fade Away”, and their cover of “Crossroads ” which highlighted their love of the blues received a deservedly rapturous response. One self penned song not on the album ” He Only Loves Me When It’s Raining” made the set ( as Justin said, an appropriate one to sing on a very wet May day in the UK!) which to my mind is a total masterpiece and I am happy to say they are considering including it on their next album …..yes, another album at some point from these two, bring it on!
The pair not only write from the heart but are superb instrumentalists and vocalists, with their “guitar duelling” in many of the numbers being almost legendary already ( they admit to being competitive!). Justin’s “flying fingers” and Sarah’s slide playing never cease to take my breath away. Sarah’s switch to electric mandolin for a couple of numbers during the set added some lovely variety , indeed in London she joked that one day she’d have someone at the side of the stage to hand her the instruments instead of having to run around the stage locating them herself ; I’m sure that this will soon be the case! What did surprise me was that there was no one on hand at Milton Keynes to replace her broken string…..she told me afterwards that she was hoping it would have been sorted out as the guitar she consequently had to play throughout had a totally different sound to it.
As well as the adrenalin rush of their playing on the uptempo numbers, the duo were equally impressive performing their ballads, with their emotional voices complementing each other and harmonising perfectly. I love the way these two share lead vocals throughout. Possibly their best known song ( thanks to the TV show Nashville, for which they’ve written several numbers and to which they referred merely in passing instead of milking as some artists would!) is the beautiful ballad ” When The Right One Comes Along”, a real crowd pleaser, but to my mind and to my surprise the most moving song of the night was “God and You”, the closing track on the album . ” If the CD is a novel then this is the epilogue” said Justin when introducing it. I must admit the song had never touched me in the way it did on that stage and the memory will live with me for a very long time. This helped compensate for the fact that they omitted my favourite album track, ” Like Lovers” which I’d heard them perform in London with it’s co-writer, UK’s Jon Green ( and yes, Sarah, please feel free to play it especially for me next time I see you, as you said you would!)
Closing their set with “Make a Liar out of Me” we all knew the pair wouldn’t escape without an encore, and they returned to the stage to cover Elvis’ ” Can’t help Falling in Love with You” which they explained was appropriately recorded for the BBC’s tribute to the 60th anniversary of the King’s first Sun Studio recording ( various artists were asked to cover their favourite Elvis number)
Judging from the standing ovation from the audience ( many of whom were at the merch stand to meet the pair after the show) and eaves dropping on the comments made whilst people were filing out , this was another hugely successful gig by Striking Matches who have won over the hearts of many on these shores. They seem genuinely thankful and humbled at the reception we give them here, and are already booked to return in July ( to play some double headline shows with The Shires) and November ( for full band sets at several larger venues) .Their talent and originality is a breath of fresh air, even if their live shows are more akin to a tornado! Thanks, guys, you rock!!