By Lesley Hastings
It was a Sunday night. An extremely cold Sunday night. And Valentine’s Day too. Not the sort of evening you’d expect a high turn out to hear a singer/songwriter who, on her own admission, is more renowned for writing about incest, murder and pyromania than slushy love songs. But then again, Nashville’s Gretchen Peters has built and incredibly loyal following here in the UK over the years, and this Buckinghamshire venue was packed out for this gig on her current tour, marking her 20 years as a recording artist.
We are very fortunate that she is a regular visitor to these shores, I have seen her play many times both in her own right and with her songwriting friends Matraca Berg and Suzy Boggus on their ” Wine, Women and Song” tour. She is one of my favourite writers and I never tire of listening to her, Gretchen really knows how to tell a story, paint a picture and deliver lines that send shivers down my spine.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing for her, originally from Boulder, Colorado the transition from Nashville songwriter ( which resulted in her first Grammy Nomination and a CMA for “Independence Day”, most famously recorded by Martina McBride) to recording artist/performer in her own right has been a rocky road. She admits that her first two albums were less than favourably received and her early tour dates poorly attended. But cream always rises to the top and Gretchen now has a huge fanbase worldwide, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014 and most recently walked away with two UK Americans Awards, her album “Blackbirds” winning International Album of the Year ( in a very competitive category, other nominees being Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves and Cale Tyson) and its title track winning International Song of the Year.
So, to the gig in question, there was no support act and we were treated to two sets from Gretchen and her band ( MD/husband/long time collaborator Barry Walsh on keyboard/accordian and two superb Irish musicians, Conor McCreanor on bass and Colm McClean on lead guitar/pedal steel ).
Fans had been asked what they wanted to hear played on this tour, a retrospective of Gretchen’s career to date, and as expected many of her best known numbers made the set list but there were also a few surprises such as ” Love and Texaco ” from her second, self-titled album released way back in 2001, and one of her Brian Adams co-writes ” When You Love Someone” which is included ( as a duet with Brian) on her latest release ” The Essential Gretchen Peters”, a double album featuring her most well known songs on one disc and previously unreleased tracks/demos/work tapes on the other.
The first set included the afore-mentioned ” Blackbirds”, a modern day masterpiece as far as i am concerned, and generous as always Gretchen gave a shout – out to the song’s co-writer, Irish-born Ben Glover with whom she works a fair bit these days with some amazing results. As wonderful as her band were ( sadly there was a few sound issues ) I must admit that I particularly loved the first few songs in the second set, which started with Gretchen alone onstage at the piano performing a breathtakingly beautiful, stripped back rendition of ” Independence Day” then picking up her guitar and treating us to “If Heaven”, a song I want played at my funeral by the way! Barry then joined her for a song that she dedicated to the late Terry Wogan ( it was one of his ” Desert Island Discs, he was a huge Gretchen fan) , the beautiful ” When You Are Old”, one of the few valentine-appropriate offerings of the night!
But the biggest round of applause came later in the second set after the performance of one of her most loved compositions, “On a Bus to St. Cloud”, which i am sure the majority of the audience was waiting to hear, and which was sandwiched in between two of my personal favourites ( if I had to chose from her incredible back catalogue) ” Five Minutes ” ( one of the most wonderful story telling/picture painting songs I can think of) and ” Idlewild” which I find so incredibly sad and moving. In between numbers, Gretchen’s added just enough patter to throw some light on her career and included some amusing anecdotes, but it was her songs that did most of the talking.
During the sets, polite applause after each number was the order of the day from the transfixed audience, but at the end of the evening there was a well deserved standing ovation from the appreciative crowd, many of whom were at the merch stand after the gig to get albums signed and chat to Gretchen. Both she and her husband are very approachable, I had an interesting chat with Barry ( who even remembered my name!) about the current state of the country music scene ( no, I won’t reveal what we said!) and I had been cheeky enough to have clambered onto the stage to grab a set list which both he and Gretchen were only too happy to sign. A wonderful momento of a fantastic evening, I stepped out into the cold February air feeling thankful for all that Gretchen has given us so far and hopeful that there are more wonderful songs to come…….here’s to the next 20 years!
Secret of Life Independence Day When You Love Somebody
The Matador If Heaven I Ain’t Living Long Like This
Guadalupe When You Are Old
Hello Cruel World Black Ribbons
Love and Texaco Sunday Morning
Blackbirds When All You Got is a Hammer
Woman on the Wheel Five Minutes
Ring Around the Moon On a Bus to St Cloud
Everything Falls Away Idlewild