The Islington, Tolpuddle Street, London, N1
Shannon McNally – The Islington 19th October
Shannon McNally isn’t a name that will be known to many Afterworders; indeed it’s clear from the size of the audience (about 40 of us) in The Islington she’s not that well known across London. It’s a shame that she is such a well-kept secret, because she has a gorgeous voice and uses it to beautiful effect on her own and other people’s songs.
I first came across her about 15 years ago when I got a mini-album (8 songs, 30 minutes music) she made with Neal Casal, titled Ran On Pure Lightning. After that I heard no more of Shannon until earlier this year when I saw a glowing album review of an album called Black Irish on the No Depression website. It’s produced by Rodney Crowell and has, with his contacts, a galaxy of names performing. I was surprised to find she has been producing albums regularly in the intervening years. For all I knew, not that I’d given much thought, she could have retired. I bought the album and loved it, so I was really excited to find out she was touring in Europe. This it turns out is her first ever London gig and I feel privileged to have been there.
So to the show. It’s Shannon on acoustic guitar accompanied by a guitarist named Brett Hughes. But it’s the voice we’re here for and Shannon delivers. Again and again. While her tone is nothing like Suzy Boggus, I was minded of Suzy with her control, her ability to deftly rise and fall so smoothly and keep completely in tune. Beautiful and awe-inspiring.
In his sleeve notes Rodney quotes John Leventhal as saying Shannon having “the right amount of girlish smoke”, which is on the money but tells only part of the story because there is a mix of honey and whiskey in there and the overall its just a gorgeous mix.
The set is a mix of her own songs and covers. Given that the album was produced by Rodney you would be forgiven for thinking her music is mainly country influenced, but Shannon is a child of the South and covers all sorts.
Her own song I Went To The Well is a basic North Mississippi blues but she says its very simplicity makes it difficult to play well. She plays and sings with total conviction and pulls the whole thing off with aplomb.
She covers Levon Helm’s Rock My Soul (and has a amusing anecdote about how much she loved Levon’s speaking voice, being acquainted with him on a personal level, as well as his singing voice), Bobby Charles’s I Don’t Want To Know and the Staples Singers Let’s Go Home, Susanna Clark’s song about Townes van Zandt, Black Haired Boy, finishing with The Band’s It Makes No Difference then for the encore playing the second best country song ever written, Townes’s Pancho and Lefty. (At the end I overheard her being asked what the best song is – she says it’s Patsy Cline’s Crazy).
She also covered a song by guitarist Brett Hughes (from a forthcoming solo album) called Sweet Little Bird. I should mention Brett as he is one of that seemingly inexhaustible stream of fabulously talented guitarists that emerge from the States and especially from the south. Understated when required, soloing as if his life depended on it at others, always being the perfect foil for Shannon’s voice.
The set highlight (and album highlight) for me was her own song Banshee Moan. It has added topicality in touching on women being exploited in the entertainment industry and was dedicated to all those women speaking up about Harvey Weinstein. But it’s not a polemic, it’s a gorgeous song (posted below).
This was Shannon’s first London gig. I hope she’s back soon. I hope some of you turn out and that next time she plays London it’s to 400 not 40 people.
Mostly Over 40’s. But age is no barrier to the appreciation of a consummate artist.
It made me think..
It must be really frustrating to be so talented and trying to make a living out of music yet playing to such a small audience in a a small venue. Next time she comes over I hope she’s going to be in front of at least 400.