Margo Price, Live at the Deaf Institute, Manchester
Margo Price on August 30, 2016
I travelled to Manchester for this gig, since like too many darn American musicians Margo Price was not gracing Oxford this time round. I was keen to go because there has been a fair amount of hype around Price and I was interested. Besides, I’ve got her album (Midwest Farmer’s Daughter) and I liked it as soon as I heard it. But I think I had this subliminal awareness (I’m brilliant at picking up on my own subliminal awarenesses once they’ve been proved right) that this woman is a big deal, live. Her reputation is all around being a massive trouper, slaying audiences at Austin City Limits year after year and all that. So off upwards I went.
After a misspent hour trekking round a city I somehow thought I’d find my way through without a printed map, the venue (the Deaf Institute) was very appealing. The bar halfway up the stairs was naturally staffed by hip young people wielding agave syrup and, this being Manchester, sporting Stone Roses T-shirts, but the clientele was that refreshing mix of young, middling and positively elderly that so often appears at country-flavoured gigs in the UK. Makes a blogger freewheeling towards forty feel quite sprightly.
The music happened at the top of the building, in a gorgeous little space (and I don’t only say that as someone who spent all night in it sinking tequila and pineapple); it was as cosy as the nice living room of one’s most artistic friend, yet boasted the advantages of a much larger place (a bar. Also, a funny little glass room halfway up the wall for the most rarefied of fans. And a T-shirt stall, selling garments with the slogan I’ve always wanted for my clothes: ‘Let’s Go Back To Tennessee’.)
The support act were a lively bunch of older fellows who were clearly more local than Margo and reminded me of the times my grandfather used to make himself cry, singing ‘His Bridle’s Hanging On The Wall.’ Not that this lot were maudlin, they proper went for it; beaming and stomping and twiddling double basses, doing songs with lines about a ‘rockabilly filly’; at one point the singer called out ‘Tell them ‘bout it, Jensen’ to his lead guitarist who looked like a thin John Humphries on his night off. Still, it wasn’t until they revealed at the end that their outfit was called Mike Badger And His Shady Trio that it all really began to feel a bit like being in an episode of Phoenix Nights.
But you know, they had plenty of beans and they warmed up the crowd. We were all primed and ready when Margo Price followed her burly band onstage looking like a country mermaid. My suspicions (if I had them, and I claim that I did) about her driving presence, her ability to command a stage, were immediately confirmed. She was a livewire from the tips of her tambourine ribbon to the ends of her plait; she wiggled all over the crammed stage and her voice was, effortlessly, that honey wail which conjures up Loretta Lynn.
The comparisons with Lynn are too easy; Price doesn’t shy away from them; her album is named in obvious tribute to Lynn’s most famous song/autobiography/biopic feature film Coal Miner’s Daughter; but they’re being made for a reason. Price oozes the authenticity of hard-knocks and worn-strong defiance. She embraces the truth of country, that life is always hard and sometimes really hard and that often that hardness comes down to lack of money. And then there’s the big voice that could wrap around the whole South.
She opened up with ‘Gotta Travel On’ which established some credentials straight off, and followed it up with her own ‘About To Find Out’ which could get the heaviest legs jumping – courtesy of lines like ‘You wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass’. Then ‘Tennessee Song’ (my companions and I screaming at each other every time she sang ‘Let’s go back to Tennessee’ because we’d love to), and then ‘Hands of Time’, her memoir song, about what drives her – the saddest memories, the worst times. It’s the stuff of literature as well as country music, but never mind literature. ‘Weekender’ is a cracker for occasions like this, the not-very-repentant song of a nonetheless practical woman who’s spent time in jail because she drank too much, because her life happened to be intolerable sober. If a man sang it (probably Waylon), it would just be another song. With a woman singer – a young, good-looking, somewhat frail creature who still manages to look like she could knock you flat in a second – it might be shocking, except that country is built on this stuff and country has belonged to women just as much as men for a very long time. The only thing that separates Price from Kitty Wells in this song is that she wrote it herself, and she lived it first.
Her songs are great, and if you can’t see her live anytime soon (and also obviously if you can) I recommend the album. But her taste in covers could win the most hostile heart over. Waylon Jennings, Neil Young, Levon Helm, Loretta Lynn (of course), a so-far-obscure number called ‘It’s Not Drunk-Driving If You’re Riding A Horse’; and a glorious spangly version of Gram Parsons’ ‘Ooh Las Vegas’ which would have made a dribbling fan of me if nothing else had.
By the time she was winding up with ‘Since You Put Me Down’ and the anthemic ‘Four Years Of Chances’ (‘She’s not messing with that one, is she,’ one of my companions said), there was an enclave, solidly female and mostly strangers to each other, dancing in the corner next to the bar. Ignoring the men. During ‘This Town Gets Around’, on the line ‘it’s hard to tell the real thing’, Price paused and took a calm look round at her over-excited audience before finishing, ‘from a fake.’ All within a second. There you are. It is, and it isn’t.
She looked like she was loving every second of it, even after years of gigging around. If she wasn’t full of joy she looked like she was, and either way she is a consummate professional. Enough snap in her garters to power a small town for a year, and country as can be.
An old-timer next to me started talking as soon as the lights went on, eager to tell me how that was the best show he’d seen in years: I faded out of the conversation a bit when it turned to Edwyn Collins and more local heroes, but was brought back with a bang when he mentioned in passing that he’d seen Townes Van Zandt play the Stockport Labour Club twenty-five years ago. And let that be a lesson to me, not to be such a fucking snob. The best of country isn’t looking for reasons to put its nose in the air. The only truth it needs apart from talent is pain, and rollicking as it was, last night was soaked in both.
Margo Price is appearing in London at Scala on the 1st of September, and at the End of the Road Festival on 2nd September.
Gotta Travel On
About To Find Out
Hands Of Time
It Ain’t Drunk-Driving If You’re Riding A Horse
Since You Put Me Down
Four Years Of Chances
Desperate and Depressed
This Town Gets Around
Ooh Las Vegas
Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)