In this modern world of technology and convenience; instant communication, instant gratification, instant noodles, there is still an untouched tribe destined for a slow life governed by the seasons, by the land and populated by those who are suspicious of city folk and of any judgement they haven’t proven for themselves. These people are spread across the world, not in the dark hearts of National Geographic jungles, but in vast, open stretches of The United States, Australia and Canada. I came from one of these places and I have learned to recognise my own kind. Once out in the hustle and bustle they quickly learn to navigate and adapt, but any reminiscence of home sounds, to others, more like time travel than recent memory.
I believe Colter Wall is one of these people, from the prairie plains of Saskatchewan, he sings of times and places that most people wouldn’t believe exist outside of the movies. The fictional West imagined in American folk music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, sung by neckerchiefed cowboys on Porter Wagoner’s TV show was inspired by such places. Nowadays, music fans might be excused for cynically believing a cowboy taking to the stage with his guitar is a creation, a marketing ploy, the Disney version of the wild west, the gold rush era and individuals challenging their manifest destiny. As Colter Wall takes to the stage tonight, I know they’re wrong.
23-year-old Colter Wall may dress the part of the plainsman headed out to the fields of his hometown of Swift Current, but carried in that gentle-faced young man is generations of storytelling, music and life experience. On first listen, no one can understand how someone so young can channel the voice of a whiskey-burned, experience weary bard. This kind of artistry can only come from total emersion, the place, the music and the history has formed him. He comfortable references the songwriters and singers before him who have been his influence and his guide: Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, George Jones and a heavy dose of Johnny Cash.
How well versed this London audience is the history of the music is hard to say, it’s a packed house but the first instinct is for people to start whooping and hollering, yelling, “yeehaw”! Let me clear something up, very rarely do people cowboy country ever feel the need to shout ‘yeehaw’. Here’s a little history, it is a made-up word, bastardised from a ranching command to ‘yee’, move the heard forward and the instruction to turn left, or ‘haw’. These days ‘haw’ is used to describe something a little ‘left-handed’ or hinky. Wall looks suitable bemused by the reception but happy to see the turnout. For him, this is a return to the UK so you could say, this isn’t his first rodeo.
Seated alone on stage, he opens with a tune originally written as a poem by eastern Montana cow wrangler, D.J. ‘Kid’ O’Malley, about a weary traveller headed for Alberta in the west of Canada, who dies in a riding accident, When the Work is Done This Fall. Originally published in 1893 and made famous in the 20th Century by singers like Marty Robbins and Michael Martin Murphy. Wall’s version is sorrowful, imbued with the original intention to be used a parable and a warning about straying too far from home.
Following on, bringing us all back from the olden days, Wall tells a story about Swift Current, jokingly referring to it as ‘Speedy Creek’ and two guys with ‘69 Chevy Camaros who, “Got into a disagreement over a lady, like all the greatest disagreements between men.” They settled the argument by shooting each other’s cars full of holes. His matter of fact telling of this story of John Beyers (Camaro Song) seems to excite the audience, for whom settling anything with classic cars and guns seems akin to being shot into space. After a simple and tuneful ballad, he announces, “One more tune on my lonesome before my buddies come up here and help me.” What follows is a fun song, The Trains are Gone, inspired by a book Wall read about the Union Pacific Railway. The end of each stanza he gives a soft yodel. It’s a pleasant sound, but not the art form made by a Hank Williams or even say, Jay Munly.
Joined on stage by a full band comprising; drummer, bass guitarist, steel guitar player and an excellent harmonica player, they flesh out the brilliantly catchy Thirteen Silver Dollars. A song with all the right elements to be an instant classic. The steel guitar is put to beautiful use on a song about the famous rodeo in Alberta known as the Calgary Stampede. Wall’s speaking voice is nearly as deep as his singing voice when he says, “Here’s another new one about home”, I’m starting to sense he maybe homesick from touring. The lyrics of Saskatchewan In 1881 warn ‘Mr Toronto Man’ to go away from his door. Anyone who could be imagined regarding a person from the gentle city of Toronto as a threat to their way of life must truly be from the boondocks! Here is the point at which a listener might get confused between the real Colter Wall and the storyteller, the dreamer.
He gives good clues, his first album was entitled Imaginary Appalachia, and this song is pointedly set in an historical time. At no point is he taking credit for a lived experience. In reality, the demands of the industry and the artistry have brought him to live in the cosmopolitan city of Nashville. His starting point, however, is steeped in authenticity. The music industry people who mould the image for an artist, who decide how a singer will be presented to consumers couldn’t have believed their luck. Colter Wall arrived as a near fully formed attitude, accent, dress, name, and less cynically, talent and potential.
Inspired by the slightly kitschy track Motorcycle Song on Arlo Guthrie’s album Alice’s Restaurant, comes a sinister take on the subject with Motorcycle. This is an ode to self-destruction and the outlaw lifestyle, not the carefree ditty about the open road. The vocals on this version are given a note-perfect echo from Wall’s guitar making it both a musical and lyrical triumph. The crowd love it and the responsiveness is growing as the set moves along. Thinkin’ On A Woman shifts up a gear with substantial blues guitar riffs.
“Do a folk song for you, by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot,” tight version of a tune with the inclusion of instruments played in the round, turning to a harmonious combination. The subject is about “robbing trains and stealing chickens” (it seems when you are a desperado, no gain is too big or too small). On the title track of his new album, Plain To See Plainsman, Wall admits his nostalgia for home. It is a sweet little waltz, evoking the beauty of the landscape and the pleasures of a simple life.
Once more to the dark side, as Wall swigs back a beer and growls, “This is a song about women”. Never has his voice sounded more seasoned than on You Look To Yours, a song about being barroom drunk with a woman he desires, there is a resignation both in the vocals and the lyrics. Stepping further into the dark comes his hit, historical prison ballad, Kate McCannon. Picking up the baton from the great murder ballad writers and transporting it to a time when songs which perceive women as property, marked for punishment in the event of free will, is a thankfully outdated idea. Yet, the lyrics are smart and the delivery sublime, this is art and not something to be dissected by modern politics. Worthy mention goes to the harmonica player on this one, he can bend his notes with such a slow length that it becomes an elegant enough placebo for a violin or other less volatile instrument.
Wall’s musical influences are given a showcase with a pacy, shuffling version of George Straight’s Big Ball’s In Cowtown. Wall gives it a jangling tune reminiscent of mid-‘60s Bob Dylan. Townes Van Zandt’s Snake Mountain Blues is the ideal choice for Wall’s haunting voice. In the bridge of the song, as the guitar part softens a drunken Glaswegian voice lifts above the music, impassioned, “This is SO good!” Frankly, he’s just saying what we’re all thinking.
An original song tells the story of Me And Big Dave, “A good man who makes bad decisions.” A song about reputation and hypocrisy which features a soul-sore wail and wane of the steel guitar that makes you hope Big Dave is doing ok, wherever he is now. Another story about a character met on the road led to a fortuitous opportunity for Wall to bridge the gap between his influences and his own music. Into the chicken shack restaurant where the band were playing one night walked (barely) living legendary songwriter (Sam Elliot look-a-like) Billy Don Burns who penned songs for the likes of Willie Nelson and George Jones. Based on what he heard, he gifted Colter Wall the gorgeous song Wild Dogs. If the power of a rising star is in any way due to forming a narrative, moments like this are gold. So is the song, romantic cinematic and stirring, no other voice could really do it justice.
The grand finale of the evening is the dark number Sleeping On The Blacktop, made popular by inclusion in the multi-Oscar nominated film Hell Or High Water. Big, chunky guitar parts push in and pull away making space for the vocals, all underpinned by percussion that mimics the strike of an anvil. The most recognisable song for the audience they let out an almighty cry on identifying the opening bars. If the reactions of fans in this overstuffed gig are anything to go by, the next visit of Colter Wall will need a bigger venue. There is more than word of mouth in this young man’s favour, but this crowd will be able to tell of the time they saw him before the fame and the stadiums.
Photography by Paul Lyme and Live Review by Sarah Sievers of Colter Wall at Scala, London on 29th August 2018.