An intimate venue and a relatively new-named artist can lead to the musical equivalent of ‘first date nerves’. There’s an inevitable bit of ‘getting to know you’, will we like each other? will we want to see each other again?
Thankfully, two things made this awkward ‘shuffling of feet’ both short and painless on Friday night. Firstly, The String Jam Club, now based in Selkirk has built a well-earned reputation for bringing the best musicians to the Borders and secondly, anyone who, like me, had the good fortune to listen to North Californian Rita Hosking’s latest album ‘Frankie and The No Go Road’, her seventh, would be confident that this was to be a night to remember and so it proved.
An honourable mention has to go to one of the opening acts. If you have ever winced at the words ‘the support tonight is local’ wince no more. Al James and Sue Bremner were an unexpected delight. James, a laid back but beautifully layered guitarist, and Bremner the possessor of a slightly smoky, breathless voice built for jazz, combined for a set that was perfectly formed but all too short.
In fact, it was almost a shame that smoking is banned in public, the aroma of stale smoke rising from Gauloises, smoked with Parisian sophistication, would have completed the scene perfectly.
It was the clever arrangements that caught the ear. A James original, ‘El Dorado’, followed by a lovely rebuilding of Alison Moyet’s ‘All Cried Out’ crystallized the thought that this was all a little bit out of the ordianry. The fact that the two have only been performing as a duo for 12 months, made this intricate but solid performance even more impressive. As they say, this is a pairing ‘with legs’.
But this was Rita Hosking’s night and, along with Sean Feder, she made the most of it. Anyone in the appreciative audience who didn’t know her before, was left in no doubt very quickly just how good the two musicians in front of them were.
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If you’re looking for labels, Rita Hosking is an old-style country artist, and in keeping with tradition cars did get a mention. In reality she is a teller of tales woven around country and folk music that comes from the very depths of her soul and when those are combined, as well as this, magic happens.
Right from the start it was clear that alosngside Rita Hosking, Sean Feder was going to be an equal partner in the night’s endeavours. Rita Hosking may well have woven the tapestry but it was Feder on Dobro and banjo that provided the light, shade and texture. Interestingly, it was his vocals that furnished a soft foundation to the soaring emotion of Rita Hosking.
The Eildon Hills may be not be the Sierra Mountains of Hosking’s native California, but songs like ‘Tall White Horse’, ‘I’m Going Home’ and ‘Parting Glass’ were right at home in the Scottish Borders. The songs are rural in nature if not always in content, they were grown and nurtured on the land not just created in a sterile studio.
As performers both Rita Hosking and Sean Feder were unfussy and in many ways quite humble. The warm, deserved applause at the end seemed to catch the pair unaware.
The settings for each song were warm and engaging. However, the unforced confidence which Rita Hosking displayed, showed she was well aware of the power she wielded over the audience. She used that power in the service of the song, not as some superficial performance technique.
As a singer, Hosking seduced with simplicity, there were no vocal gymnastics, no ‘show’ for show’s sake but every drop was wrung out of the likes of ‘Better Day’, when the song demanded it, Hosking’s voice had a real raw, cutting edge.
But the wellspring of Rita Hosking is the writing, she teased almost at will. ‘Clean’, presented as a wry observation about a house-cleaning service, was in reality like most of the evening about so much more, You found yourself smiling at the ‘tale’ but as the reality behind the lyrics revealed itself, you felt slightly guilty for doing so.
It made for an evening when, if you were truly listening, you could never ‘give up’ on a song for fear of missing the ‘diamond’ at its centre. The hooks of Rita Hosking’s simple but never simplistic lyrics grabbed deep.
As performers both Rita Hosking and Sean Feder are unfussy and in many ways quite humble. The warm, deserved applause at the end seemed to catch the pair unaware.
In many ways, Friday wasn’t a performance in the accepted sense. The ebbs and flows were gentle. This was a night when audience and artist simply enjoyed the time spent in each other’s company. ‘Black Hole’ was a case in point, as she invited the audience to join in, it was impossible to resist the siren’s call to share the experience.
However, there were three moments which, to me, told you everything you needed to know about Rita Hosking, the story that preceded ‘Kitchen, Table and Chairs’ was almost too personal for public consumption. The fact that the subsequent song was ‘dressed’ in homespun clothes merely heightened its effect.
Like all true musicians Rita Hosking brings what she knows and lives to the table, not just what she knows about, ‘Our Land’, a song about native Americans in her hometown was, in its own quiet way, as powerful and eloquent a protest message as anything that came out of the 60s. I recommend you discover it for yourself.
Ironically, for a born songwriter, perhaps the most powerful moment of the night came courtesy of Kate Wolf’s ‘Lilac and Apple Tree’. Sang a capella, for its 3-4 minutes, nothing else existed in the room and elsewhere for all I knew, except the slim but all-consuming figure on the stage. A charge of electricity made its way from the stage and coursed through the silent spellbound room. There are moments that live with you long, this was one.
It was probably fitting that the final song of the set should come from 2009’s Come Sunrise. Had Feder and Hosking played until then, it would still not have been enough for those fortunate enough to have been there on Friday night.
Photographs courtesy of Michael A Fitch.