AJ Roach is an authentic Appalachian singer-songwriter who has travelled far and wide since the release of his first album, Dogwood Winter, in 2003.
He has a nice line in acoustic melancholia and a sweet, plaintive voice, but his red braces, oversized jacket and puffy polka-dot tie strike an incongruously zany note. He looks like a one-episode date for Phoebe on Friends.
His songs are classic troubadour Americana: the rugged isolationist American dream of drinking whiskey in cheap motels and 'laying down in a strange woman’s bed'. Personally, on the power of this Black Box performance at least, I don’t buy it.
Maybe there’s not enough romance in my soul or I’ve never lived the life of a wayfaring stranger, but the words, though artfully done, sound hollow: they are the sorts of words that end up in songs like this, sung, keenly and emotionally, but without, I fear, very much conviction.
Only his forthcoming album’s title song, 'Pleistocene', cuts through the fug of coffee drinkin’ and truck drivin’ with an opening lyric so audaciously strange and out of keeping with the rest of the set that it arrests the entire room. More like that one please, AJ.
County Louth singer and flautist Nuala Kennedy and her three piece band thereafter slip quietly onto the stage and launch into a spirited interpretation of 'Matt Hyland', a bonus track on her new album Noble Stranger.
Building on the basis of brushed drums, mandolin and guitar, and Kennedy’s high, clear and beautifully measured vocal, the song slowly builds, becoming more intricate and ornamental, lead lines flitting dazzlingly through the musical mesh.
A vintage Casio synthesiser appears among the traditional instruments, but there’s no incongruity. The room is filled with rich, melodic power. There is something going on here that ties Kennedy into a tradition of strident folk experimentation: from the Collins sister’s 'Love, Death and the Lady' to Alasdair Robert’s recent exploratory readings of traditional songs.
The musical interplay is exciting and fresh and surprisingly hard hitting. The kick drum really kicks here, the other instruments bouncing off it like a cursed inflatable castle.
'Napoleon’s Dream', the last track on Kennedy's new album, starts with a Casio drone, lending it an oddly radiophonic air. 'Paddy’s Lamentation' (a sociological essay in itself!) is an American Civil War song with a disco mandolin line. You heard.
The notion of a funky mandolin makes me light headed, but there it is. Again it builds to a surprising intensity, though ever mindful of dynamics, Kennedy never has to struggle to be heard. Her flute playing is lucid, sweet and chilling: the hairs on the back of my neck never really recover.
A little wooden box of drones appears (a Shruti Box, apparently) and Kennedy sings in Irish, almost unaccompanied. Her voice is spectacular here, filling the room, bigger with the absence of other instruments, just brief abstract splashes of wah wah guitar and cymbal. It is minimal, decorative and utterly beautiful. You’ll wish you had heard this, but given the scant audience its probable that you didn’t. Shame.
Roach returns for the closing numbers and his yelping vocal set against Kennedy’s Casio tones is oddly, irresistibly reminiscent of Arcade Fire. He shines in this group setting, the band lending weight, colour and nuance to his songs.
If there is a country dirge not enhanced by synth and mandolin I don’t want to hear it. The blend of the two singers' voices is simply beautiful here, rising to extraordinary rolling climaxes, harmonising with pin-point accuracy. Kennedy’s fancy flute work is matched by fancy footwork as she shimmies from side to side like a bipedal Ian Anderson, or a Ron Burgundy who won’t upset your chicken in a basket.