The few hundred people shoe-horned into the back room of McCabe's Guitar Shop last Saturday night were absolutely treated. After years of international acclaim, Laura Cantrell finally arrived on the West Coast for her first ever show in Los Angeles - thanks in no small part I think, to KCRW music director Nick Harcourt, his station co-promoted the show.
Sometimes the reverence for McCabe's alone, a Santa Monica institution since 1908 makes it all feel too perfectly worthy, I was once asked to 'talk outside' while Jonathan Richman played. And I wish they would do more to secure the guitars before the show. Some guy was underwhelmingly bashing away behind me while we waited for the band to start. As Andr?©e said, it's the only way he'll ever get to play in a sold out room. As Elisa Vegliante says, "When I See People it makes me want to commit a crime..."
When Laura Cantrell walks into the room, bringing with her a wealth of stories, those manners and that accent, you barely want her introductions to stop and the songs to start until she stops talking and the songs actually do start, then together with her exceptional band, they insouciantly reaffirm all that is important about pop music as an form of art, communication and entertainment. Dry wit infuses her songs and the banter between. Few, even in this room can match her musicology-anthropology chops. She's a damn musical paleontologist, more-like.
And so the songs come, Bees, inspired by Beverly Hillbillies 30s radio founder Zeke Manners, songs about Bonnie Owens and California Rose for Rose Maddox. And throughout the band are just superb, can I say that again? It probably can't be said often enough. Mark Spencer who looks like Denis Quaid without the personal trainer, (oops I shoul'na said that - DQ will probably already be optioning the Laura Cantrell story so he can be in it) - Spencer probably just looks at a musical instrument the way Norman Mailer sees a typewriter, knowing ten minutes later, greatness is going to come out.
Although country, folk and bluegrass inflected, the band are not about to be sidetracked into the straights of any particular adult ghetto. Laura's voice borne aloft on her melodies can oh so easily tug a tear from your eye but there's that great girly-knowingness about it all.
The nights interpretation of the single 14th Street proves its impossible not to use words like enchanting or delicious when describing this near perfect pop song. It's like the Best of the Bangles reduction sauce in one 45, with a deft touch of the evil Phil Spector's bridgework thrown in for pure joy... And its easily the stalker anthem of the year...
"I see you walking up 14th Street,
and you don't know
That I'm following behind you
counting my steps as I go...
Maybe 10 steps or 12 divide us in two,
I don't want to catch up with you...
Now I'm so close behind you
Almost walking in your shadow,
Maybe 1 step or 2..."
14th Street was written by Emily Spray, I've often thought (and doubtless many have thought it and said it before me plagiarism alert) that songs this good, the great songs, must be constructed by committee - like an entire Brill building of songwriting PhD's honing and polishing this beautiful, insidious thing and pouring in essential dashes of this, that and the other as it moves from floor to floor. I think someone said something like this one time about Culture Clubs 'Church of the Poision Mind' just too good for one band.
Towards the end of the show, Laura mentions DJ John Peel, whom we loved and he touched and changed so many lives. He'd described Laura's Trembling Kind album as "My favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life."
Two encores later and she ends with one of her own songs, the poignant Old Downtown, and she's gone. At this rate she'll be back by 2010 - lets hope its sooner than that.
Laura Cantrell - vocals, guitar
Jeremy Chatzky - bass
Jimmy Ryan - mandolin
Mark Spencer - acoustic guitar, lap steel, piano