Juanita Stein's debut solo album America has been one of the highlights of the year and she's currently on tour to promote it. We caught her in front of a receptive and respectful Sunday night crowd at Gullivers in Manchester with her three-piece band supported by Laura James and We Were Strangers.
We Were Strangers tonight is Stefan Melbourne on his own. This project has been on the go for a couple of years now and released an album Beneath A Broken Sky earlier this year, from which five of the six song set was taken. The sixth track, a new one debuted tonight, was a highlight, full of the same emotive powerful resonant lyrics that we've come to associate with them, delivered with a piercing intensity to an audience that, unusually it has to be said for Manchester, stood and listened intently. Giving It All, a single from earlier in the year, has a similar impact with Stefan's raw and rich vocal style giving the song extra edge and gravitas.
Next up is Laura James and a very different style of vocals. Soft and beautifully expressive, her six song set is played to silence in the room as people are stunned by both the fragility and the emotional depth to her voice and the way it conveys the stories of falling in and out of love and the changing of the seasons. She charms us between songs with awkward stories of drinking a bottle of wine the last time she played here and throwing up afterwards and offering to sing for us in a corner after the show and at point laughing that a section was instrumental when she'd forgotten a line earlier in Autumn Song. She finishes off with a cover of Elliot Smith's Twilight, that somehow manages to do the majesty of the original justice. Quite why someone somewhere hasn't picked up on her incredible voice and made her a reluctant star never ceases to surprise us. By the response she gets at the end, it seems the rest of the room agree with us.
To accompany her on this tour and The Killers support slots that follow it in November, Juanita has assembled a three piece band to help flesh out the songs off America, and whilst they remain true to the originals there's also a harder edge to them that works fantastically well. Starting with Florence and working through nine songs on the album plus Broken Bones from her band Howling Bells, the songs retain their country influenced tinges from the record, but also have an edge to them that makes you want to dance along to them as well.
It's not too loud to allow Juanita's voice to take centre stage and it's the way she uses the voice as an instrument and as a means of allowing the listener to live the hidden layers of the songs through her intonation and style that grabs us, live as well as on record. The likes of Stargazer, Someone Else's Dime and It's All Wrong straddle the gap between country and rock with a leg in both camps, but taking the best from both worlds to create something that's truly special, particularly in such an intimate environment as Gullivers' ballroom and, for once, it actually feels like a ballroom.
She's on great form too, slightly surprised at the attentiveness of the crowd, laughing at having come up with a code Gin Cocktails For All Dirty Girls to help her remember the tuning sequence for her guitar and telling us how she learnt the guitar solo in Cold Comfort that her father wrote so she could play it live. By the end of the show she's built a rapport with the audience not just for the music, but her humility. Not even a dodgy microphone connection during Black Winds can faze her, she just fixes it herself and carries on.
America is one of the finest albums of the year, a real late night record to let yourself unwind to and this live show was a wonderful Sunday night comedown. Like Howling Bells, this record hasn't had the attention that it truly deserves. It'll be interesting to see how it goes down with Killers fans next month, but in these close-up surroundings, it was one of the most pleasurable live music experiences of the year so far.
Juanita Stein's official website can be found here and she is on Facebook and Twitter.
Laura James' website can be found here. She is also on Facebook and Twitter.
We Were Strangers' website can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter.