“I’m pretty nervous tonight,” Nancy Wallace confesses to a packed Borderline. “I can see the whites of your eyes,” she tells the people in front of her, all of them staring in her direction, rapt as ecstatics, transported, hanging on her every word.
There was really no need for Wallace to worry. Three songs into a brief set, drawn from both traditional sources and songs from her recent solo album, Old Stories, she has the audience quite mesmerised, to the extent that a hush falls over the crowd moments into her first number, one of those dark traditional ballads that end up with people in graves, unhappy lives all they’ve left behind, the kind of cheerless fatalism that makes you think of Thomas Hardy and consumptives coughing blood.
The grim stuff doesn’t stop here fans of this kind of spectral trad-folk bleakness will doubtless be thrilled to discover. Even a song as superficially pretty as “Many Years” has a disfiguring undertow of loss and elsewhere the songs she sings puts you in mind of forlorn lasses, weeping at gravesides, the weather wet around them, boggy landscapes hung with mist, paupers limping by, children with rickets and stumps for teeth.
She’s only on stage for about half an hour, but takes the audience in that time somewhere else entirely and then is gone herself.
So now here’s William Elliott Whitmore, his banjo, tattoos and hoarse blues holler, the audience already rowdy and getting rowdier still as Elliott lifts a beer in salute, sits himself down in an ornate wooden chair that looks like the kind of thing you’d find on the back porch of a shack somewhere in the Mississippi Delta and starts bellowing, no other word for the noise he’s making, which is in turn accompanied by much thigh-slapping and noisy foot-stomping, Whitmore making the rowdy most of the limited resources he evidently prefers.
The crowd are hooting for more before he’s even finished, surprisingly energised by Whitmore’s songs, most of which when they aren’t about dying seem to be about what happens next, as on “Digging My Grave”, one of many songs in his repertoire about glum death, the big light going out for keeps, the maggoty termination of things.
There’s a rousing gospel roar to “Lift My Jug” that further enlivens his clearly besotted fans, some of whom are tempted to sing along, perhaps encouraged by the bottle of what from where I’m standing, which is too far away for a taste, looks like a bottle of Jack Daniel’s that Whitmore offers them.
“Would anyone like a sip of this?” he asks, his voice like something malfunctioning badly under the beat-up bonnet of an old truck, not quite a death rattle but heading in the right direction. “Don’t put the cap back on it,” he further instructs. “Keep passing it.” The faithful at the front dutifully obey, although several numbers later, Elliott appears disappointed when the bottle’s handed back to him, not quite empty.
Elliott plays the part of the blues hobo well enough, and certainly looks the part. But as with, say, Seasick Steve there’s a hint of pantomime here, a kind of mugging, an overdoing of gruff veracities that occasionally grates. The audience lap it up, though, can’t get enough of it in fact. And it’s difficult in the end not to be swept along by a run of songs like “Hell Or High Water”, “Johnny Law” and “Old Devils” – all from Whitmore’s recent Animals In The Dark album – which come towards the end of another fine Club Uncut night.
We’ll be back here again, on May 11, for Pink Mountaintops. See you then.