On paper, it seems an odd match. Indiana based outlaw country and California inspired jangled rock, Austin Lucas, “the tattooed George Jones,” backed by the 12 string fabulations of Oxford’s The Dreaming Spires. Sure, they share a record label in common but this could be something like Willie Nelson backed by Big Star which, when you think about it actually doesn’t seem like a bad idea so maybe the folks at At The Helm Records were “thinking out of the box” when they dreamed this one up. It helps of course that Lucas’s latest album has several songs that have a silvery sheen to them, a cross between Sturgill Simpson’s metaphysical moments and Gene Clark’s cosmic wanderings and a sound which The Spires were well equipped to provide in the live setting along with the tougher Bakersfield type songs.
Akin to the old “package” tours, we got two acts for the price of one tonight with The Dreaming Spires playing a set before backing Lucas. From the off there was a powerful thump in the rhythm section to back Robin Bennett’s jangled Rickenbacker on Everything All The Time, a glorious swatch of Paisley Underground/Overground rock (and not a womble in sight). The cowbell intro to Strange Glue hinted at a Stones type raunch but instead we were led into a slightly surrealistic wordy perambulation backed by a fuzzy Big Star like Memphis soul sound mashed up with the percussive drive of Cornershop. There was a sense of the baroque Gene Clark in the keening Road Less Travelled, a mild venture into psychedelia on Strength Of Strings (dedicated to Dylan’s Nobel prize) which slowly built up into a crescendo before they crashed into Harbuton Mead which thrashed around with an energy that recalled the halcyon days of The Long Ryders. House Of Elsinore was a throwback to long lost days of hippie minstrels channelling ye olde folke songs with electric 12 strings supplanting lutes as Shakespeare and Bach like riffs floated from the stage before ending with a sly nod to The Who’s psychedelic masterpiece, I Can See For Miles.
Far away from being a whimsical recreation of jingle jangle times The Spires thrummed and throbbed with keyboard swells and Eastern accents from Tom Collison while Jamie Dawson powered away on drums along with Joe Bennett’s supple and melodic bass playing. Their climatic Dusty In Memphis was a fine salute to the power of rock and soul while Searching For Supertruth was a blizzard of strings and things.
After a short break, Austin Lucas took to the stage for a feisty couple of solo numbers starting with a powerful rendition of Go West. With gutsy vocals and a dramatic habit of snapping his guitar strings he immediately grabbed our attention. Somebody Loves You was a ferocious example of high mountain folk allied to a punk like snarl with his guitar playing reminiscent of Michael Chapman’s fluid fingertips. The band then came on, Telecaster in place for a muscular Ain’t We Free and a rousing Kristie Rae with The Spires locking into Lucas’s hard-boiled country sound, their harmonies opening the song, but it was back to the Rickenbacker chimes for Thunder Rail, a welcome reminder that Lucas can write soaring pop tinged anthems. Unbroken Hearts, the opening song from the latest album, Between The Moon and The Midwest made the case for the evening’s pairing, the band capturing excellently the glossy sheen of the recorded version and adding a soulful groove with some fine organ playing. Likewise Wrong Side Of The Dream and Alone In Memphis hit a fine and soulful country groove but there was a step into a deeper country mode when lap steel was added for the keening country lament Pray For Rain. Here Lucas showed why he has been compared with George Jones, the sadness of the song at one with Lucas’s recent loss of his dog Sally, an event which had soured his arrival in Europe. Despite this Lucas was in fine form jesting with the audience and the band.
All too soon we were near the end of the night with the band departing leaving Lucas asking the audience what he should play next. Amid a plethora of requests the overwhelming winner was Shoulders, so, perched on the edge of the stage, Lucas tentatively began this moving song off mic, slowly building up into a spellbinding rendition with some of the crowd singing along. For the last song the band returned for a blistering Call The Doctor, a vibrant slash of spangled joyous rock’n’roll and a perfect end to a perfect night.