Nestled in amongst the crowded shopfronts along Kings Heath’s York Road, you will happen upon an unassuming gated alleyway that by day, leads to a quaint cafe that offers any visitor a welcome sanctuary from the reliably bustling high street. By night, the location is turned into a one of the finest endeavours the city has to offer.
For some years now, The Kitchen Garden CafÃ©, has been home to a group of individuals, overseen by a striking custodian known as ‘Swanny’ – picture Gandalf spliced with Bob from Twin Peaks – that have sought to bring a magnificent selection of live music, primarily from a folk tradition, ranging from established icons such as Michael Chapman, to those taking their first tentative steps into the genre. One look at the calendar of events demonstrates the diverse spectrum in which the cafÃ© operates: this summer will see an array of artists playing an array of musical styles including such as americana, bluegrass, country, new wave / apocalyptic punk, and there is even a slot for two-time Grammy nominated Kim Richey.
The venue is truly international in terms of the personnel passing through its door. This evening see’s the arrival of Australian singer-songwriter, Jack Carty on a tour billed as a joint headline with Cumbrian folk singer, Maz O’Connor. Carty has been releasing music since his debut album, ‘One Thousand Origami Birds’, which was released in 2011. The singer-songwriter has garnered significant attention back in his homeland, and has now relocated to London in an attempt to expand his reach, particularly, in terms of encountering his work in the flesh.
Carty’s latest release is the intriguing ‘Hospital Hill’. Intriguing, as the album’s conception came from Carty’s work with long-time collaborator, Gus Gardiner, a cellist and bassist whose cello work formed the foundation upon which the songs that made it onto the album were conceived. An interesting starting point in the creation of a fully fledged song.
The cafÃ© is by no means a huge venue, and when full to the brim, as it is tonight, it creates an air of togetherness which is an ideal atmosphere in which to enjoy live music. As the last few audience members hunker down in any available nook and cranny, London based Maz O’Connor tentatively makes her way centre stage, having safely navigated the smallest of corridors between audience and stage.
O’Connor is unaccompanied this evening, opening with ‘Crook of His Arm’, taken from 2016’s album ‘The Longing Kind’. A laconic, circulating riff dominates the song, whilst O’Connor’s voice is bright and well equipped to draw the listener into her narrative. The wistful ‘A Winter’s Blues’ is preceded by the first of many humorous moments that will pepper the sets of both headliners. O’Connor makes mention that this is the second visit that she has made to the cafÃ©, and when her question as to whether any in attendance this evening were present last time, the silence that greets her query is swiftly and adeptly bundled into a joke at her own expense, which results in the audience warming to her just that little bit more.
Though much of O’Connor’s material could be deemed to be autobiographical, there are plenty of examples in her set where her writing perspective takes more of a detached viewpoint, ultimately being more inclusive as they address more universal themes. ‘Emma’ is one such example. Inspired by O’Connor’s many trips to the National Portrait Gallery, her focus was drawn to one particular painting time and again, inspiring a song that sought to tell the story of the relationship between painter and muse. ‘San Francisco’ and ‘The Mississippi Woman’, again, seek to tell the stories of those that have remained unheard for far too long.
Carty and Gardiner make their way to the stage, an undertaking all the more difficult for Carty, given his looming presence. The duo open with the first song from the newly released album. ‘Facing South’, a glorious marriage of Carty’s floating vocal and the mournfully resolute strokes provided by Gardiner’s cello. The culmination of the first song is richly received by the audience, at which point, Carty takes the opportunity to ingratiate himself further, by proclaiming his grandfather was from nearby West Brom. This declaration, and the irreverent manner in which it is delivered, certainly warms the room to the charming manner of singer-songwriter.
The rest of the set, unsurprisingly, relies heavily upon the new album. ‘Hospital Hill’, ‘People Don’t Care’ and ‘Apple Tree’ are exceptionally memorable, given Carty’s ability to write melodies that permeate the recesses after one listen. ‘Low in the Highlands’ is sublime and has stayed with me since. ‘Travelling Shoes’ brings the set to a close, before O’Connor returns to join Carty and Gardiner on a rousing cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Look at Miss Ohio’.
Tonight provides one hell of a reassuring glimpse of the occasionally obscured efforts of those continuing to chip away at the rock face of integrity, should you wish to seek it out.
Reviewer: Chris Curtis