The ladies and gentlemen occupying the front-row seating of the compact studio room in Birmingham’s Glee Club, rather abruptly cease with their conversations, as the presence of the evening’s headliner makes a sudden appearance before them. Steve Gunn, unassumingly potters away, setting up his equipment — a minimal arrangement, consisting of two acoustic guitars, a handful of pedals, and the always dependable Fender ‘Princeton’ amp — on the tiny stage perched just inches from the silently transfixed lucky few who have secured their spots front and centre. Actually, given the intimacy of the room, all of those in attendance could be forgiven for congratulating themselves upon their proximity to the highly regarded musician.
Gunn arrives in Birmingham; a handful of dates into a solo tour that will see him pepper his way across a whole host of european countries for most of April in promotion of his debut release — ‘Eyes On The Lines’ — for the esteemed Merge Records. This latest release has seen Gunn maintain his unquenchable thirst for learning and development, as a guitarist — for which his is most widely associated, collaborating with the likes of Lee Ranaldo; Kurt Vile; Michael Chapman and Angel Olsen, to name but a few — but also, as a songwriter and singer, the latter being an aspect of his arsenal he has taken a longer period with which to feel comfortable enough to push to the fore.
Any doubts or insecurities that could envelop a solo performer in such intimate surroundings, appear to be well removed from the thoughts of Gunn. There is such a quiet assuredness that surrounds him; demonstrated by the focus and devotion displayed in ensuring that the sound is as good as it could be, as he temporarily maintains the guise of guitar tech, before leaving the stage for the briefest of moments, taking no more than a couple of steps, before returning, ready to rattle the notion of what can be produced by one musician and a guitar.
Earlier in the evening, the room were treated to an assured and intriguing support slot from Shropshire’s Nathan Tromans; performing under the name ‘The Trail of Thomas Love’. Tromans arrives to the stage and jokingly makes reference to the imminent performance being the second night of his Glee Club residency — it transpires that Tromans performed the previous evening at the clubs screening of the newly released documentary film about Mark Linkous: ‘The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse’ — a rousing endorsement before Tromans has even played a note, surely?
A major inspiration for Tromans appears to be his own personal history, with many of his songs connecting his present with his ancestry, captured in the song ‘Journeyman Miller’; detailing the ups and downs of an ancestor during the early 19th century. Tromans opens with ‘The Song That You Live In Is Mine’; which could easily be considered a love song, then again, it could easily represent Tromans’ fascination with his ancestry, and how the songs he sings affords him the opportunity to live alongside them, albeit for the briefest of moments. In addition the real and imagined histories which inform Tromans’ songs, his beautifully simple instrumentation, and his patient and comforting vocals draw the listener in further. The set brings to mind Lee Marvin’s ‘Wand’rin Star’; not just because of the country / folk connotations, but for the pace of most of the songs. Tromans’ finishes with a song called ‘Nature Is The Noise’, which tells of a desire to seek solace away from the oppressive grind of the city, in favour of the countryside.
From a song all about a desire to move to a more rural setting, we arrive at the night’s headline performer, Steve Gunn, promoting an album which he has said, he consciously wanted to reflect living in a city, capturing all the characters with whom he intertwines during his days residing in New York.
Gunn opens with the song ‘Old Strange’; taken from the 2013 album ‘Time Off’. A perfect song with which to demonstrate the highly accomplished technique that Gunn has acquired through his many years of dedicated schooling. Next up is the first appearance of material from the new album. The superb ‘Night Wander’ still manages to maintain its glorious tumble sensibility even without percussion. ’Water Wheel’ is offered up next, with Gunn maintaining a vehement focus on his guitar as his fingers trace the eye-watering complexity of the paths mapped out across his fretboard.
‘Milly’s Garden’ and ‘Wildwood’; both taken from the 2014 release ‘Way Out Weather’ are prefaced with two enthralling stories behind the inspiration for their creation. The first being all about a real life resident (to this day) of the rent controlled building in which Gunn still lives. In addition to claiming an unused area in the innards of the courtyard, it seems that Millie’s other priorities extended to staying up late to watch evangelical sermons on television at a volume so intrusive, that the once tolerant Gunn was forced to address the situation, leading to a confrontation, from which their friendship never recovered.
The story behind ‘Wildwood’ is as amusing as Millie’s, but there is also a great poignancy surrounding the song’s conception, and interestingly, Gunn’s relationship with it has changed over the last few years. Gunn reveals that the song was a favourite of his late father. It is fitting then, that this is the song with which Gunn decides to close, before being cajoled back to the stage by rousing applause from all those in attendance. Let’s hope that this experience has persuaded Gunn to make a return to the city the next time that he lands upon these shores.
Reviewer: Chris Curtis
Photographer : Adriana Vasile