Friday, 26 April 2013

Gathering No Moss

Grainne Duffy at the Malt Shovel Tavern
27 March 2013 

Scanning through the list of performers booked to play the Malt Shovel Tavern throughout the first half of 2013, it is noticeable that acts with female members are in the minority. Of the 26 bands booked, only six feature female members.  

Guitar duties were shared with sidekick Paul Sherry
A quick piece of stat maths illustrates the current situation:

- less than a quarter of the bands booked (23%) contain any female members
- only 1/6th of the bands booked (15%) are led by a female performer

It’s the type of result that would have the equal rights movement up in arms in any other field of endeavour. Then again, we are talking about “the blues”! It’s my personal observation of audience numbers that blues is a genre of music that generally appeals more to men than women. 

Of course I’m not suggesting that this is representative of the blues music scene as a whole. In fact, it’s quite difficult to locate any meaningful data source for such an analysis. But it does serve to illustrate an interesting demographic, albeit one based on a minute slice of the blues music industry’s pie.

So it was inspiriting to welcome a relatively new female-led entrant on the UK blues circuit for their first outing at the Malt Shovel Tavern’s Wednesday night blues gig.

Feather Weight

Despite her “blues” ranking, Grainne Duffy has a strong propensity towards Rock and Americana musical genres, and it could be argued that she is not a blues performer at all. But all three music genres sit well together, and she is clearly following in the footsteps of another great blues/rock/Americana performer (and incidentally one of Grainne’s favourite artists), Bonnie Raitt.

Bedecked in casual canvas boots, black leggings and black Bob Dylan print t-shirt, the young Irish singer/songwriter belied her online publicity as a hard-nosed blues heavyweight, the kind of tough-faced individual you might expect from an inner-city council estate. Quite the reverse, this affable blues singer from Co Monaghan was light footed and free moving, and with her Gibson Les Paul slung across her shoulder, she skipped through the two one-hour sets like a feather-weight.

Expressive Nuances

Grainne’s vocal tone and style was at times uncannily similar to her hero Bonnie Raitt, but her delivery lacked power and emotional conviction. Take for example her cover of the Etta James classic “I'd Rather Go Blind”. Grainne has adopted this song as a kind of vocal showcase, but it’s a difficult number to deliver convincingly at the best of times because of the prerequisite emotional charge needed to make it fly. And when you’re doing it night after night, that’s a big ask. Her rendition was certainly theatrical, but didn’t connect emotionally. 

Guitar duties were shared with sidekick Paul Sherry, who discharged his guitar remit with energy and enthusiasm. Paul is an accomplished all-round guitarist, and whilst he placated the attendant guitar nerds’ insatiable appetites for flashy animated guitar solos, Grainne kept her guitar work fairly simple, doing what she was comfortable with as opposed to trying to impress. This worked really well, allowing her to concentrate on her guitar tone, and carefully picking out solos that supported and extended the song’s chord structure, adding colour and expressive nuances to her vocal work.

Test Of Time

The band ploughed through their set list, each number followed its predecessor in a well-rehearsed sequence, and with the exception of a requested “Wild Horses” to open the second set, the band deviated little from an apparent preset course.

The majority of the songs covered were from her current CD “Test Of Time” which was released last year, and one of my favourites of the evening was the funk-reggae styled “Sweet Sweet Baby”. By all accounts this is a popular gig number with her fans, and Grainne sponeously encouraged the audience to sing along. Obviously, her expectations were a little overreached, as I doubt than very many Malt Shovellers would be familiar with her material. A few enthusiastic respondents tried to muddle through with her on the chorus lines. 

Tipping Point

Overall, Grainne’s performance fell a little short of the immediacy, depth of feeling or intimacy needed to produce a first-class show, and despite her obvious vocal talents, her phlegmatic delivery failed to engage emotionally. Don't get me wrong! I certainly enjoyed the gig, and overall the performance was well above the standard expected, the band was a tight unit that worked effectively together, and there was a raft of talent on show. But it just never reached that tipping point, after which everything becomes "WOW". As one friend might have put it, she didn’t quite “float my boat”

“I would like to have heard a bit more from the guitar guy” one punter complained afterwards, reflecting on the fact that Sherry was merely a member of the backing band, supporting and enhancing Grainne’s performance as opposed to spotlighting his own musicianship. But there was enough there to betray a more-than capable level of southern rock guitar prowess.

When all’s said and done, the Malt Shovel gig was just one part of a whistle-stop tour of the UK by the band, and these rolling stones weren’t gathering any moss at this little Northampton venue.

Rising Star

The band was very well received by the capacity crowd, and this fledgling singer/songwriter from Castleblayney was treated as somewhat of a celebrity by a few of the attendees lining up to have their photo taken with her during the interval; something the Malt Shovel Tavern is certainly not used to.

But maybe a little stardust had already rubbed off on Grainne from her previous engagements as the opening act for world-class luminaries such as Van Morrison and Robben Ford; not to mention playing Glastonbury? Then again, maybe those happy snappers predicted a rising star, and were already on the pop memorabilia trail?

With a voice like Grainne’s, the future looks bright. But will it be bright enough to take her beyond the reach of venues like the Malt Shovel Tavern? Probably, but I for one hope she’ll be back again in the not-too distant future.


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