Monday, February 20, 2006

American beauty


An unfamiliar city (Cardiff), an unfamiliar venue (Chapter, or more specifically one of the two theatre spaces therein), an unfamiliar crowd (mostly middle-aged and seated, and sufficiently sizeable for Pete and I to contrive to miss each other) and unfamiliar artists. This is stepping into the unknown.

First up is Danny George Wilson of Grand Drive performing solo. Bounding up to the microphone wearing a bright red shirt and a broad cheeky grin, he looks every bit like a stand-up comedian. What follows, however, is not a torrent of one-liners but six neat but slight acoustic songs - which would be fine were it not for one incessant niggle: authenticity. (Yes, that old chestnut - but, given that we're firmly in Uncut territory here, I think a little bit of rockism is excusable.) There's just something jarring about an Englishman singing about BMXs and boy racers in an American accent and to a very American musical style. Mojave 3 were much the same - remember them? Sounded like they were from the dustbowls of the American Midwest, when really they were indie scenesters from North London.

After an interval of no more than five minutes, headliner Neal Casal takes to the stage - such are the joys of seeing a solo acoustic performer follow a solo acoustic performer, even if it does preclude disappearing for another swift pint. Last time he was in Cardiff, in the summer, he was playing with Johnathan Rice in front of thousands as the opening act on the REM tour when it called at the Millenium Stadium. The time before that, playing on his own at the Barfly, the set was interrupted by some drunks clowning around with an umbrella. There's little chance of a repeat tonight - the crowd is impeccably behaved, aside for the odd undignified whoop here and there. One chap even goes so far as to volunteer to venture downstairs to the bar and thereby miss out on a couple of songs in order to bring Casal up some much-needed liquid refreshment.

Much-needed a drink of some description may have been, but alcohol perhaps isn't quite what Casal needs. Between songs he appears tired and jaded, losing track of what he's saying in his New Jersey drawl. At one point he refuses to play certain old songs requested by audience members because they're "too depressing" - one gets the impression that if forced to do so he'd crumple up in a heap mid-song and curl up foetus-like on the stage.

And yet Casal is often witty, and, when playing, utterly in command of the room. There are no mobiles chirruping, there's no irritating chatter around me, stood at the back. The audience seem to be asking him silently to do as one bloke at the front blurts out aloud and somewhat embarrassingly: "Go on Neal, cast your spell".

As one might expect of someone compared to Gram Parsons and Gene Clark who has toured with Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Casal deals in exquisite Americana, his gorgeous lovelorn songs evocative of dusty shoes, open highways and distant mountains. His guitar playing is sublime, and his voice even better.

But the problem with Americana, for me, is that everything's about loss, about how things used to be "in the good ol' days". It's about living in the past - lyrically and, it has to be said, musically. There's an inherent denial that the future, or even the present, could be as valuable. And as such, touching as it can be, it just doesn't excite.

I come away feeling that I've been entertained, but that I'm not ready for that subscription to Mojo just yet.


Pete's review of the gig


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