The Steel Woods + Austin Jenckes + Sam Lewis

Thursday 5th September 2019

Bush Hall, London

Americana came to Shepherds Bush in several guises tonight, with the three sets covering the spectrum from Folk through Country to Southern Rock. And hugely enjoyable it was too!
 
Difficulties in locating the reviewer and photographer passes meant that we listened to half of the opening set from the bar area outside the main room, but the early birds gave Sam Lewis a warm reception. The Nashville based artist performed solo, accompanied only by his own guitar, and seems to be ably continuing the tradition of folk troubadours like Townes Van Zandt and Loudon Wainwright.
 
Sam might have been expected to plug his most recent album – 2018’s ‘Loversity’, which was for sale at the merchandise table – but in practice only the opening ‘Everything’s Going To Be Different’ and ‘Natural Disaster’ came from that release. ‘Waiting On You’ was the title track of his sophomore album from 2015, while ‘In My Dreams’ was taken from his eponymous 2012 debut release (sometimes also known as ‘Sammy Sings Songs’).
 
That meant that the remaining three songs were new enough not to have been recorded yet and, of those, the closing ‘Neighbors’ wry lyrics drew more than a few appreciative chuckles from his attentive audience. Sam had performed without a setlist, but, on learning that I intended to include his set in my review, he swiftly wrote one out from memory for me; what a gent!
 
Setlist: Everything’s Going To Be Different; Waiting On You; The Light; Natural Disaster; In My Dreams; What Does It Mean?; Neighbors (sic).
 
Next up was Austin Jenckes from Duvall, Washington, who had gained some nationwide attention in the USA when he appeared on television in season 5 of “The Voice”. I’d missed his appearance at the new(ish) Pizza Express club in Holborn a few weeks previously, so I was keen to hear his set.
 
Austin couldn’t be accused of being over-recorded prior to this year’s ‘If You Grew Up Like I Did’, which was on sale at the gig; extensive on-line searches revealed only two previous albums in a decade (‘Coming Of Age’ in 2009 and ‘An American Story’ in 2012), both of which appear to be long deleted.
 
Unsurprisingly five of the set’s eight songs were taken from his latest release, which, as the title suggests, reflect some of the difficulties he faced while growing up. ‘Fat Kid reflects’ the feelings of not fitting in and yet it’s now the richness of his voice, rather than his physical stature, which is starting to make him stand out from the crowd.
 
Writing the achingly beautiful ‘If You’d Been Around’ and the newer ‘You Don’t Even Know Who I Am’ may have been a form of catharsis for him, following his father’s suicide, but the songs never felt maudlin. Indeed, powerful as this solo performance was (like Sam before him, Austin was accompanied only by his own guitar), the songs take on even greater life when played by a full band on the CD recordings.
 
As a set closer we were treated to Fleetwood Mac’s timeless ‘Landslide’ (it’s hard to believe that this song pre-dates even ‘Rumours’, having first appeared in 1975); anyone who can do such justice to a song so closely associated with the great Stevie Nicks is an artist to look out for.
 
Like Sam, Austin also performed without a setlist, but kindly offered to write one out for me from memory; bless him!
 
Setlist: Bet You’d Look Good; If You’d Been Around; People Crazy; Fat Kid; American Nights; Ride Away; You Don’t Even Know Who I Am; Landslide.
 
Headliners The Steel Woods from Nashville are in the Southern Rock tradition, with some outlaw Country in the mix. I’ve heard them likened to Lynyrd Skynyrd, but to these ears there are more similarities to Blackberry Smoke; either way, that’s no bad thing!
 
The band was formed by the two guitarists, Wes Bayliss and Jason Cope (Wes also handles most of the vocals), and is rounded out by bassist Johnny Stanton and drummer Jay Tooke. Their debut album ‘Straw In The Wind’ appeared in 2017 and was followed up this year by ‘Old News’; their setlist was drawn pretty evenly from both highly recommended releases.
 
Whether by accident or design, the band alternated between its two albums every 20 minutes or so: four of the first five songs came from ‘Old News’, then came four from the debut, followed by four more from the later album and culminating in four from ‘Straw In The Wind’.
 
There were three cover versions in the latter half of the set: a nice take on J.J. Cale’s ‘Same Old Blues’ and a shorter than usual Allman Brothers tribute in ‘Whipping Post’ (perhaps a bit of a tall order for anyone to follow Gregg Allman’s iconic vocal), but the pick of them was ‘Southern Accents’ by Tom Petty. Sad to think that all three of those voices were lost to us between 2013 and 2017.
 
A song by song analysis of the band’s own compositions is unnecessary, as they are uniformly strong and well worthy of wider attention. If I had to pick a favourite, it might be the title track from ‘Straw In The Wind’; for anyone new to the band, a YouTube listen to that song would be a good place to start.
 
Sadly there was no opportunity to speak to the band members (they remained in their dressing room post-gig with representatives from their record label, although my CD was taken backstage and returned to me fully signed), but hopefully they will return to these shores soon. Catch them when you can.
 
Setlist: Rock That Says My Name; Wild & Blue; All Of These Years; Without You; Blind Lover; I’m Gonna Love You; Uncle Lloyd; Whatever It Means To You; Same Old Blues; Better In The Fall; Whipping Post; Old News; Compared To A Soul; Southern Accents; Straw In The Wind; Hole In The Sky; Axe; Let The Rain Come Down.
 
Gary Smith (photos courtesy of Tim Russell)