Honky Tonk Rose at the Oak HouseReview
I have seen locally based Country supergroup Honky Tonk Rose several times since their formation. Their great experience, wonderful musicianship & desire to put on a great show has always appealed, but even more attractive is their evident love of what they are playing & an ability to wander through all country genres, highlighting the lesser know songs along with the classics.
This time however, was my first experience of them since the departure of founder Roses Holly Hewitt (lead vocals) and David Page (lead guitar & vocals), whose membership of vast numbers of other bands (including, but not limited to Gloria Sunset, Retroville & many permutations of the Hounds) did not, alas, leave them time for Honky Tonk Rose. Instead violin/fiddle maestro Jools Street (the Rude Mechanicals Band, I, Doc Brown, Russian Girlfriend & many more, including playing with Dubliner Sean Cannon recently) and singer/guitarist Sylvie Fielden-Nicholls (vocals & electric guitar) have now joined core Roses Big Jim Widdop (vocals, lap steel & dobro), Horace Panter (bass), Malc Evans (lead vocals, acoustic guitar & mandolin) and Rick Medlock (drums).
Generally, when bands change lineups, especially when the incomers form a minority, you might expect the act to stay roughly similar with minor adjustments. So I was intrigued to see what would unfold. Perhaps inevitably given the quality of the band, it was effectively seeing a new outfit. Obviously bringing in a violin changed the arrangements and offered completely new dynamics: the interplay with the steel guitar in particular producing a very different sound. Equally, Sylvie's vocal style & pitch (not to mention her unique stage presence) meant that she did not step into Holly's considerable shoes, but brought her own along instead (they were a pair of cowboy boots for the record).
However beyond this, the band had taken the opportunity of revamping almost the entire set: which was pretty amazing (I can't imagine they find too many rehearsal slots mutually convenient). They still play a huge range of songs from all styles of country & associated genres from writers such as Gram Parsons, Jim Croce, Rodney Crowell, the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, the Carter Family, Hank Williams etc etc (and thankfully the superb Cajun version of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land", a showcase for Jim is still in the set), with each one introduced by Horace which helps especially with the stuff I didn't recognise.... The expeditions into countrified versions of soul songs & other non-country genres is reduced with this lineup, and whereas the former formula swung, the new one does too, but it also rocks a bit harder & louder.
The venue, at Leamington's Oak House (formerly the Liberal Club) is an interesting one. Previous gigs I've been to there were upstairs in the function room, but this one was downstairs in the members' bar. On the plus side, the audience response was brilliant: loud & appreciative with much dancing: most of those present seemed to be club members rather than Honky Tonk Rose's travelling support, so they clearly won new fans over. The negative side was the large pillar mid room which presumably left Sylvie & Malc audible but invisible to most of the audience (I took the precaution of siting myself up close & wide of the obstruction). I am advised that they are looking to remove this (they assure me that it's non load bearing).
Apart from the audience mentioned, it was great to see another local country star Cary Lord in attendance at her first Honky Tonk Rose gig. A member of many local bands & one of the Leamington Crown Hotel jam night musicians, Cary was a member of the all female ‘Indigo Lady' who played Nashville in 1986 at the 15th Country Music Association Awards and picked up an award for "CMA International Show", and at the infamous ‘Bluebird Cafe' in Nashville & who also worked with Boxcar Willie & with Elvis's backing singers the legendary ‘Jordanaires'. Cary was telling me that her forthcoming latest solo album has a strong country feel too.