The bearded Nashvillian brings sad songs, honeyed vocals and a dash of authenticity to the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival
It’s fitting that Nashville resident Otis Gibbs is back in Belfast for the 9th annual Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.
Since BelNash's inception, it has championed the craft of songwriting above the oftentimes crass commerciality of the mainstream music business, where image trumps imagination and sentimentality is a poor substitute for sentiment. And when it comes to song craft and true emotion, Gibbs is up there with the best of them.
Gibbs takes to the Black Box concert stage just after 9.45pm, armed only with an acoustic guitar. Dressed in battered jeans, a black shirt and a nifty black trilby, the bespectacled and Old Testament-bearded troubadour fluffs the opening chords of his first song, which gives him the not altogether unplanned opportunity to be introduced for a second time – this time by himself.
'Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Wanamaker, Indiana, please welcome OTIS GIBBS!' he roars, drawing a larger welcome from the audience than he received first time around, before starting his set with ‘Second Best', a song about the touring life taken from his most recent album, 2012’s Harder Than Hammered Hell.
Not only is Gibbs an excellent songwriter and singer – with a voice like honeyed bourbon – he is a consummate showman in the old-fashioned sense of the word. His between song patter is as much part of the show as the tunes: Gibbs gives his music context by sharing his tales of growing up, the working life and the loves and losses inherent in life.
As entertaining as his stories are, it’s the music that the audience primarily came to hear. Songs they have taken to their hearts and cherished on the six albums Gibbs has produced in the past ten years. Songs like ‘Never Enough’ or ‘Broke and Restless' (he performs both tonight), which manage the feat of being uplifting even when Gibbs is singing about hardships.
Often compared to artists like Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen in his detailing of the life’s and loves of the working man, Gibbs also brings to mind the romanticism of early Tom Waits in songs like crowd favourite ‘Small Town Saturday Night', or the melodic simplicity of Townes Van Zandt in ‘Ain’t Nothing Special'.
And like the above named artists, Gibbs knows how to pierce to the heart. He tells us about a close friend, his best friend, who he worked with for five years planting trees – 'not saplings, big trees' – and how when they were working the worst days they would promise to set that day’s money aside to do something fun with it. And they did: they went to New Orleans, California, even as far as Prague one year.
And how he got word that his friend had died, aged only 30. And then he sings a song for him, ‘Something More', which includes the lines: 'I was thinking about the lord above / And why do the good die young / And why do the worst of those among us never fail?' It is a powerfully affecting song, and a truly heartfelt performance.
Another highlight of the show is a wonderful cover of Hank Williams’ ‘(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow', which follows an anecdote about the babysitting antics of Gibbs' ‘Uncle’ Briscow, who would take young Otis along to honky tonk bars and play piano whilst Otis sang old country songs.
Customers would give Otis money, which ‘Uncle’ Briscow would then spend getting drunk. 'That was when I first learned how the music industry works,' Otis deadpans to the audience's delight.
Gibbs sure knows how to work the crowd – or, as he calls it, 'manufacture enthusiasm' – and it doesn’t matter that he told these tales the last time he played here, and the time before that. Or that he tells the same stories night after night, from Nashville to Newcastle. They, as much as the music, are all part of the show. And it’s a great show, full of beautiful songs, funny stories and shared humanity.
Before the night ends, Gibbs finds time to praise the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. 'I’m here representing east Nashville. Lot of cool people there. I’m not one of them, I just like hanging out with them.'
He also plugs his podcast Thanks for Giving a Damn with Otis Gibbs, apologises for having sold out of records halfway through the tour, tries to flog his last ten t-shirts, and manufactures an enthusiastic encore. 'I dislike encores,' he says. 'I’ll just stand here and you can pretend I left and came back.'
Gibbs finishes with one of his earliest – and best – songs, ‘Karluv Most (Charles Bridge)’, a song so beautiful you’d feel nostalgia for Prague even if you’d never been there. And then he is gone. Not very far, though. Ever the working man, he’s off to the corner of the room. Those Double X t-shirts don’t sell themselves, you know.