Thursday, June 28, 2012

Colleen Bain was the shy one in the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band – the one who occasionally smiled self-consciously but never spoke or sang. Four decades on, she’s Colleen Trenwith, and she’s found her voice.
Trenwith (fiddle and vocals) is the centrepiece of the four-piece country band Tales of Tennessee, currently on tour, who presented an excellent concert last night at the impressive new (well, newish) Carterton Events Centre.

It’s probably not quite accurate to describe Tales of Tennessee as a band. They’re more of an act that has coalesced out of other outfits and comes together when other commitments permit. Andrew London (guitar, banjo, keyboards, mandola and vocals) is best known as a member of Hot Club Sandwich and western swing exponents the Cattlestops, while Moira Howard (acoustic bass guitar and vocals) and Ian Campbell (guitar and vocals) form the core of Kapiti Coast-based acoustic country band Legal Tender.

It was a laid-back concert in which Trenwith, whose day job these days involves teaching bluegrass at the University of East Tennessee (imagine that – a New Zealander teaching budding bluegrass musicians from the Appalachians), charmed the capacity audience with anecdotes about life in Johnson City, Tennessee, a town located at the epicentre of American roots music: hence Tales of Tennessee (Trenwith suggested googling the grotesque story of the day the good citizens of Erwin, TN, hanged a circus elephant for murder).
She played a couple of traditional Appalachian fiddle tunes, provided sweet harmonies and even sang one song herself in a nicely balanced set that ranged through Alison Krauss, Bob Wills, Gillian Welch, Guy Clark, Neil Young and even Doris Day. Trenwith’s sensitive, sonorous fiddle was the unifying element in this eclectic selection, underscoring the fact that this is a country band even when performing a crowd-pleasing pastiche of Doris Day’s decidedly non-countryish Everybody Loves a Lover.

The crowd was also treated to three of London’s compositions, including the whimsical Concrete Block Motel, a song about the tribulations of touring small-town New Zealand. London’s an extraordinarily accomplished musician, effortlessly fluent on every instrument he picks up and an excellent singer and songwriter as well.
All the songs were superbly rendered but for me the most affecting was a heartfelt version of Fleetwood Mac’s Songbird, with Howard providing the lead vocals. The only slightly disappointing aspect of the concert was that they chose as their encore Neil Young’s Long May You Run, which seemed a bit of a downer after all that had gone before.

Otherwise it was a great night’s entertainment, low-key but very satisfying. If Tales of Tennessee happen to be coming to a town near you, shake off that stubborn snobby prejudice against country music and get along.

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