This was Mike + Ruthy’s second appearance in Glasgow this year, the first being a spirited and well received show at Celtic Connections back in January in the Old Fruitmarket. Tonight was a not to be missed opportunity to see them at closer quarters and they did not disappoint making few , if any, concessions to the intimate setting, a far cry from their appearance at Newcastle’s Summertyne Festival last Friday and their forthcoming shows at The Cambridge Folk Festival. A five-piece band with folk roots they can rock as well; at one point Mike Merenda almost apologised for a song being somewhat loud before going on to say “that’s because it is loud.”
This Glasgow show was one of four gigs squeezed in between the two festival appearances (there’s one to go on Wednesday 27th at The Birnam Arts Centre in Perthshire) and the band were obviously out to have some fun. They treated the audience to a two hour set plus encores, the core being their main show but allowing them an opportunity to drag out some old songs and to road test a couple of new ones. There was no horn section tonight (unless you count Merenda’s occasional harmonica) but the infectious, joyous and robust playing of the rhythm section (Jacob Silver, bass and Konrad Meissner, drums) along with Rob Stein, superlative on pedal steel, hummed and roared with the front pair (playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and banjo-uke) sparring and bantering and delivering some deadly songs.
They slipped into the set with the beguiling simplicity of Simple & Sober with Ruth Ungar in fine voice on a song that is rooted in American folk music as popularised by Pete Seeger. With some fine three part harmonies wafting the song along and a sweet liquid pedal steel solo this was a hypnotic opening but then they pumped up the volume for the rousing folk rock strains of Bright As You Can, Ungar transformed into a powerful belter while the band just rocked out. Almost as if they were setting out their stall they then launched into a magnificently slow lumbering rendition of sixties’ peacenik Len Chandler’s civil rights song, I’m Going To Get My Baby out of Jail before wafting into their rendition of an unfinished Woody Guthrie song, My New York City. With these four songs they had established their credentials, rooted in protest era folk of the fifties and sixties and fuelled with the bite of later folk rock acts, a true embodiment of the spirit that inhabits the Catskills and Woodstock to this day.
While Ruth Ungar was to the front for the opening songs Mike Merenda stood up for the excellent Word On The Street as Ungar skirled away on fiddle with Stein skirting around her bowing. Thereafter we were treated to a cornucopia of delights, delightful folky numbers such as Freckled Ocean and the ominous Cigarette, their fine and full bodied tribute to The Band on The Ghost Of Richard Manuel. The pulsating Golden Eye, a song that Ungar described back in January as “country disco” allowed the band to riff magnificently while there was some soulful wailing on the powerful Rock On Little Jane and Merenda’s banjo had a fine outing on The Farmer which was Appalachian in its rippling country flavours and hi lonesome harmonies. There were some new songs, one, from Ruth called Old Days another nod to Greenwich Village times and they closed the set with an invitation to the audience to sing along on the rousing On My Way Home, the pair duelling on their respective strings and the band all offered a short solo that was somewhat invigorating. Time up but space for an encore and here they really called in the audience for an affecting rendition of The Water Is Wide, the audience reciprocating in fine voice. Thereafter there was a rip snorting Cajun like instrumental, again with solos from all band members that just about raised the roof. A fantastic show from a very versatile band, loud, soft, folk, blues, country? All of these and more. They should slay Cambridge.