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The rush hour traffic in Sheffield was particularly kind to me tonight as I crossed the city towards the Greystones, where I was scheduled to sit down with South Dakota-born singer-songwriter Rachel Ries for a pre-gig chat, which I have to say I was very much looking forward to. I first heard about Rachel through her friend and musical collaborator Anais Mitchell, who I'd previously sat down with at this very establishment only a couple of years earlier. I say 'sat down' but in fact we actually stood up, out in the car park catching a bit of fresh air whilst her then touring partner Michael Chorney sound-checked inside. On that occasion, a motorbike rumbled around the neighbourhood, as it noisily serpentined along the Endcliffe streets, finally coming to a halt right in front of us in the car park. Ah, the joys of background disturbance during interviews.
Tonight, the bar was its usual bustling self as the clientele divided itself into two camps, those who had come along to see Rachel Ries in the Backroom and those who had come along to take part in the pub quiz in the bar. After her sound-check, which I witnessed from the bar, Rachel joined me for a quick catch up whilst she scrutinised the pub menu. "What do you recommend?" she asked, assuming I was ah fait with the local cuisine, "..the steak and ale pie or the chicken pie?" she continued. "I'd go for the steak and ale pie if you think you can handle it" I suggested, unhelpfully. Later onstage, just after her opening song Got You Good, the singer would declare "Whist I enjoyed the pie I had moments ago, I'm regretting it very much." Well I tried to warn her.
With a vivid red electric guitar and matching lips, Rachel dominated the Backroom stage, basking in the glow of a single white spotlight, whilst delivering a set of highly idiosyncratic self-penned songs before a healthy 'Wagon Wheel' audience. There's a sophisticated confidence to Rachel's onstage manner, reminiscent of Devon Sproule, at once at ease with the relatively engaging audience. "It freaks me out when English audiences are so quite when I'm over here" she said, encouraging everyone to heckle, ask questions, shout out requests and generally enjoy themselves. "Get off" called out one eager voice. "hmmmm... no" responded the singer, half decisively. When Rachel asked if anyone in the audience had any questions, one willing participant immediately responded "what's your favourite dinosaur?" I was so impressed at just how quickly Rachel returned with "the Apatosaurus", followed by some self-congratulatory words of achievement "deep cuts, deep cuts". It's easy to fall in love with Rachel Ries.
After a handful of solo songs to open the set, including Pleasant Valley Reservoir, Better Wife and Unkind, to which the singer quipped "pity the man who got that song written for him", Rachel called upon the assistance of touring partner and cellist Sarah Smout, declaring "Sarah's one of yours" as she introduced the Yorkshire-born musician to the stage for the remainder of the set. Once Sarah joined Rachel on stage, the arrangements became more complex, augmented by some fine harmony vocals, especially on the utterly gorgeous Hands to Water. "Enough about boys" Rachel declared as she moved into the "Families, Grandmothers and Mennonite" portion of the set, continuing with one or two songs from Rachel's most recent full-length album GHOST OF A GARDENER, Willow, Holiest Day and the song the title derives, Ghost.
The closing few songs were recently written for Rachel's brand new CARDINEL EP, which features a selection of songs written while on a writing retreat in Rouen last June. Four of the songs made it onto the EP and three of those songs made it into tonight's set, those being Winding Road, the evocative Homing and finally Anchor, which served as the finale to the show tonight.
Earlier in the evening, Ian Bramall and Sarah Sharp, otherwise known as Yellowcake, brought to the Sheffield stage a handful of their own self-penned songs, which the duo describe variously as 'half brooding folk, half silly pop and half bad maths.' With Ian accompanying himself on guitar, whilst Sarah alternated between piano and violin, the duo performed such songs as Saints Were Sleeping, Unbroken Blue and the jolly little finisher Scrubs Lane Kite Flying Club. Sandwiched between Yellowcake's set and the main feature was Rainy Day Club frontman Tom Baxendale, who whilst accompanying himself on both electric and acoustic guitar, was appreciative of the audience's courtesy, obviously used to noisy bars, as he performed such songs as How You Gonna Make Me Stay, Our Reluctant Host and the sleek I'll See You Again.