Julie Byrne will be a familiar to those that have a vested interest in the world of folk. For the last couple of years she has made a spattering of appearances at festivals and small shows in the UK, but it is with her latest album release that she appears to have caught the ear of the music press, and her presence is starting to radiate with the kind of intensity that would suggest that this tour will be one of the last opportunities to witness her in such an intimate venue.
The album ‘Not Even Happiness’ was released in early 2017 and is an understated masterpiece. It just ticks all the boxes: each song provides the listener with wonderful guitar playing, melodies that immediately draw you in, and a lyrical content that impresses most. The album relays Byrne’s struggles with opposing forces which often find themselves exhibiting the very same space. Byrne delves into notions around the longing to find someone with whom to find a permanence with, set against the innate desire within her to roam the world playing the music in which she delights. In addition to this, there is the fact that she is clearly drawn to a life in the countryside, whilst living in New York, a dilemma which Byrne remedied by spending much of last year working as a park ranger in the city’s Central Park.
Performing in Birmingham for the first time this evening, it is perhaps apt that an album overflowing with juxtapositions which effect the human condition is being performed in Birmingham’s Hare & Hounds (the most tenuous of associations, but some of my best work I believe)…apologies.
Before the headliner makes her appearance, the pleasantly populated room are treated to the work of Jim Ghedi (guitar and harmonium) and Neal Heppleston on the double bass – an instrument, it turns out, was crafted by the latter, a snippet of information relayed to the audience by Byrne during her praise of the support for the evening. This revelation is all the more impressive, given the seemingly youthfulness of both Ghedi and Heppleston, but following at the culmination of their set it is evident that both musicians are consumed with a love of folk music, and of their dedication to it, there can be no doubt. Ghedi prologues each song, most of which, are instrumental, with short stories about the inspiration for their creation. It’s almost as if Ghedi would easily give up the accoutrements of the 21st century happily for a simpler life roaming the peak district.
Ghedi’s singing voice is low and effortlessly authentic. It is somewhat disappointing that tonight’s audience hear so very little of it this evening, though perhaps Ghedi was saving it for the culmination of their set, as this is easily the stand out performance of the evening. Ghedi shifts from guitar to take his place behind the harmonium, hands clasped to the instrument and with each squeeze, seemingly propelling the very breath from his body. It was a pleasure to be treated to such a devout performance and Ghedi would easily be a wonderful addition to the city’s folk festival later this summer.
The pace and poetic leanings of Byrne’s latest release have drawn comparisons with Judee Sill and Leonard Cohen, indeed, as Byrne ascends the tiny staircase leading to the stage, cloaked in a beige mac, she is wholly reminiscent of Cohen during his legendary performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.
The first song of Byrne’s set is taken from her latest album. ‘Sleepwalker’ permits us a glimpse at the delightful guitar which dances around Byrne’s solemn vocal delivery. Soon after, Byrne is joined by the producer of ‘Not Even Happiness’, Eric Littmann. In addition to providing a sense of the flourishes that pepper the recordings, you get the feeling that Littmann is also there to offer Byrne a reassuring presence. There is no need for this as the room is filled with nothing but admiration for Byrne. It isn’t long before Birmingham’s love for the headliner see’s her relax to the point whereby she begins to relay glimpses of the aspects in her life which inspired her songs. These revelatory moments take Byrne by surprise as she makes the point of declaring that she is not normally like this, but upon arrival in Birmingham, she felt a sense of relief and calm, having performed the night before in London. The pressures of which, need no further enhancement.
After a brief deviation from material from the latest album for Byrne’s sublime and emotionally charged performance of ‘Marmalade’ – taken from 2014s ‘Rooms With Walls and Windows’ – Byrne vacates the stage momentarily, descending the stairs and finding herself immersed in a sea of applause. Soon after, Byrne makes her return, unable to neglect making a fleeting acknowledgement to the embarrassment that always accompanies the long established charade between artist and audience when it comes to the encore.
The last song of the evening is ‘I Live Now as a Singer,’ and Byrne is joined once more by Littmann on the most ancient looking synthesiser. At Byrne’s request, the house lights are reduced until she resembles nothing more than a hazy blue shadow. Byrne’s opening vocal perfumes the room: “There ain’t no use fighting for me”. Judging by the warmth exuded by the audience as the closing notes ring out, it would appear to be too late. This Birmingham audience will always be there for her, and will surely be in attendance the next time that she ventures this way.
Reviewer: Chris Curtis
Photographer: Ian Dunn