Cadogan Hall, situated in the heart of London’s Chelsea, is far distant from where Gretchen Peters sets her songs but such is the way she draws her audience into her characters and places that distance disappeared. Peters is a superb communicator who speaks straight from the heart about struggle, adversity, and hope. Not necessarily easy stories but they are compelling and in that intimate venue she gathered her audience around in a compelling performance.
Peters divided her show into two sets; first with her outstanding band of life and musical partner Barry Walsh on piano, Conor McCreanor on electric and stand-up bass and Colm McClean whose slide guitar alone added a complete dimension to the show. The programme was advertised as “Strings Attached” so for part two the band was joined by four exceptional musicians, the ladies who comprise the Southern Fried String Quartet. Their contribution further intensified the atmosphere of Peters’s amazing voice.
Although Peters drew on her extensive songbook last year’s Dancing With the Beast featured most prominently. But new or old the result was complete absorption.
Even after accommodating Walsh’s grand piano and a podium for the string quartet the stage looked spacious. The Cadogan’s acoustics were perfect and filled to its 950 capacity it was the ideal setting for an evening of musical engrossment. And how that was rewarded. Peters pulled no punches with her opener ‘When All You Got is a Hammer’, a deeply moving picture of the damage wrought on the family of those from war. The band gave a sense of restlessness to the opening of ‘Disappearing Act’ so, “Good things come, good things go/ If it lifts you up it will lay you low” came as little surprise. Also from the latest record was ‘Wichita’, a brooding, menacing song Peters tells as its principal character, a “little kid”.
Only five songs in and the idiosyncratic ‘Say Grace’ confirmed that Peters had entranced her audience. As Walsh let rip the crescendo to ‘Everything Falls Away’ felt like a much needed exhalation after all that emotion so far. Apart from welcoming two of the String Quartet to join her on ‘The Matador’ and ‘Five Minutes’ there was little chat. But then if each song feels like a novel, who needs anything else?
Joined by the full String Quartet Peters got her second set underway with ‘Arguing With Ghosts’. Even before the first lines of “I get lost in my home town/ Since they tore the drive-in down” the band had created a feeling of times lost. Peters conveys self-reflection so well, here of someone looking back at her life, “At the same old kitchen, in the same old busted chair/ I’m drinking coffee, arguing with ghosts”. She creates such a sense of space, here measured in time just stretching back over years.
Peters too went back in time with ‘Revival’, ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’ and ‘When You Love Someone’, the last of which she did introduce with some of her dry wit, “something I wrote that was recorded by someone called Bryan Adams”. She seemed rather underwhelmed that the audience didn’t seem to recognise the movie that featured the song, “it was quite a well-known movie you know”. That and her observation that she hadn’t seen so many “pink English people” (it has been unseasonable hot here, but not a pleasant sight I accept).
Like the bird Peters, band and Quartet soared on ’Blackbirds’ she wrote with Ben Glover. All musicians stretched themselves, the apex being reserved for Peters’ voice. While all superb, they kept the best until last. ‘To Say Goodbye’ was a truly magnificent farewell. Playing together, each split off for their own valediction. Walsh seemed in a world of his own, and McClean, so much a part of the show, went out with a blistering solo.
If the audience were muted on their cinema knowledge they showed no such reticence in their standing ovation for a sensational performance. The reward was an apposite ‘When You Are Old’, the only time Peters detached her guitar. From what is almost more of a poem, the line “I’ll warm your heart when you are old” is a comforting reminder. But young or old, Gretchen Peters, band and the Southern Fried String Quartet warmed everyone’s heart at the Cadogan this Easter.