Courtney Marie Andrews is an outstanding talent and a huge favourite of mine. Since seeing her solo acoustic set at the Arts Centre supporting The Handsome Family a couple of years or so ago I have also travelled to see her at Bush Hall and also the Islington Assembly Hall. I don’t travel to other cities for gigs for just anyone so that gives an indication of how special she is to me. Her reputation continues to grow as more and more people discover her music, and she was recently the the winner of the UK Americana Awards title of Best International Artist.
Such is the state of quality live music in Norwich, seemingly on any given evening of the week, that had they been happening on different nights I’d have also liked to have been at two of the other gigs happening at the same time, namely Anti-Despair Machine’s strong line-up at OPEN featuring The Regrettes, Gladboy, and Aphra, and the OST night at Cinema City’s courtyard with Max Taylor, Dawn Chorus, and the debut appearance of Fresh Flowers featuring Emily Winng, Ben C Winn, and Kellie Siddall but it was never in any doubt that I was going to be at NAC for Courtney Marie Andrews. I’d been looking forward to this ever since it was announced months ago.
On another warm and humid summer evening most people were trying to cool down in the Arts Centre’s beer garden ahead of the gig, with a half-moon in the daylight sky, I knew this was going to be a magical evening, which was opened in warm and relaxed style by Brooklyn-based Texan Buck Meek who also plays guitar in the band Big Thief. Armed with just his electric guitar here he was playing solo (but still introduced all of his band) and told tales of interesting characters in the US, asked us about if we have Cadillacs and then if we have Magnolia tress his favourite, and one of mine too, I do have one but not a Cadillac – he had an engaging stage presence and manner and a nice style of music to start the evening off in a very warm NAC hall.
The room had a healthy-sized crowd as the band came on with the front row spots all claimed well ahead of their entrance, the band and Courtney were warmly welcomed and opened strongly launching straight into Long Road Back to You, and then, How Quickly Your Heart Mends setting the standard for a terrific set. This was goosebumps stuff right from the off, her voice sounding amazing and the band tight and comfortable. Each and every one of them is a fine musician and they set just the right tone for the songs, subtle and sympathetic drumming, great keys and backing vocals, outstanding guitar work from Dillon, and a new bassist who has barely been in the band a matter of weeks yet seems to have fitted in seamlessly. And then of course there is Courtney’s unique and formidable voice. Comparisons would be unfair, this is quite simply one of the voices of her generation and it really stands out as one. As well as this though she has that ability as a songwriter and singer to express feelings and thoughts in such a way that it deeply connects and resonates with the listener, especially those with empathy or shared experiences and emotions. Such heartfelt sincerity and integrity in her work shows what a true artist she is and this is always felt by the listener. She’s on the path as an artist that was surely always her destiny.
The lead up to the release of the wonderful album Honest Life is about where I joined in the admiration of this special singer and although she’d previously gone under my radar she has been releasing records for a decade already but tonight most of the set was drawn from the two most recent albums. When I saw them last September in London I was chatting with the band afterwards and they said when the tour finished they were headed straight into the studio to record the follow-up to Honest Life, within six months the album May Your Kindness Remain was on the shelves and they were back on the road touring it, a magnificent album full of soul and commentary, observations of people encountered and the collective struggles of the challenges of living through these strange and uncertain times. Emotional challenges are tackled too but there’s a binding thread of kindness that shines a light of positivity, such as (getting by on the) Kindness of Strangers but there’s a cheeky “sarcastic love song” too with I’ve Hurt Worse. On the last tour promoting this album I bought a t-shirt with the caption May Your Kindness Remain, it’s almost as if wearing such beautiful words raises my own vibration and I have never had so much reaction to an item of clothing as I do when wearing this shirt, I am often told by people what lovely words they are and asked where they come from. It’s a wonderful thing and I have consequently connected with and often seen the kindness of strangers as a direct result. We need more of this sort of connectivity with each other. The songs seem to call for understanding, empathy, and of course kindness, to help each other through whatever hardships we face. Similar attitudes to Rainbow Girls on American Dream, uniting in what we share in common rather than letting the powers that be divide us.
Midway through the set Courtney told us that when she arrived at the Arts Centre she recognised it and remembered that Handsome Family gig and asked if any of us where at that one. I and several others raised our hands but this was something special to have her back again and headlining with the full band at our beloved NAC “Being on the road so much you almost forget all the places you’ve played, until your phone remembers the wifi password from last time but I sure do remember this lovely old church!” She also pronounced Norwich perfectly. I also heard in the audience the “Bloody marvelous!” man, who travels to many of her gigs who likes to shout this compliment at a suitable point at each gig and who has been present at most I have been to.
For ninety minutes she and the band played beautifully and flawlessly, a set full of soul and emotion it was quite moving and almost something of a spiritual experience. It’s not often I’ve seen such a mixed audience spanning many decades, everyone connected by the shared appreciation of an outstanding artist and her songs. The sincerity and intregrity of it is so obvious to all, Courtney’s sparkling eyes ablaze with creativity and passion for what she’s doing. It’s a powerful and moving thing to be at a Courtney Marie Andrews gig, it feels quite uplifting too actually.
There was a touching and heartfelt tribute to the recently passed Aretha Franklin with a cover of Chain of Fools. The Queen of Soul is obviously a massive inspiration to Courtney and she more than did the song justice with a powerful and storming performance. Throughout the set she was either playing one of her guitars or the keys but a few times she bounced around the stage with just a mic in her hand, it was good to see and I think the whole band were enjoying themselves. We were even treated to an excellent new song. Guilty.
Excerpt of “Chain of Fools”
The audience absolutely demanded an encore and initially Courtney came back onstage alone, put her acoustic guitar back around her neck and asked if we had any requests. Someone called for Irene and she said “That’s coming” and someone else asked for Honest Life and that’s what she started with before being joined by the rest of the band for Irene and closing one of my favourite gigs of the year with an energetic cover of Paul Simon’s Gone at Last.
I would have loved to have bought some vinyl to get it signed but I already own them all! Indeed, last time in London I did actually buy a second copy of May Your Kindness Remain purely so that I could have a signed copy so I have already started doubling up on it! This time it was the beautiful tour poster print (which she kindly signed too) and another t-shirt for a gift, as well as a lovely chat with Courtney and the band. Thanks too to my good friend Yve Mary B for snapping me and Courtney, Yve you seemed to learn in moments what it took me ages to master with my own camera! 😉
Afterwards, on a euphoric post-gig high, I went for a wind-down at the Ten Bells across the road. Outside I met with a group of young fans from Ipswich who’d travelled up to see the gig, telling me just what Courtney and her songs mean to them and what an experience it had been to see the gig and meet her. I could relate to that. Inside the pub I was also, once again, asked about the lovely words on my t-shirt. I explained to this lovely couple all about the beautiful gig I had just floated out of and the amazing artist I had seen. The barman, George, very kindly agreed to play the new album through Spotify on the pub’s speakers so that they could hear for themselves, wowing those hearing her for the first time. All of us connected by the music and the sentiments when we could quite easily have all been in our own corners and opposite sides of the bar we were instead all on the same wavelength and engaged with each other in a sort of CMA appreciation after-party. This is the special power that Courtney’s music and message has, I am feeling this all the time. It was the most beautiful and lovely way to end the evening, having wonderful conversations and connections with people I had not met before. We all felt it too. The Kindness of Strangers. Thanks to them all, and especially thanks to Courtney whose music, message and words just resonate and does something incredible and positive to the collective energy of those who share it. Please come back to Norwich again someday.
I was also covering this gig for Outline Magazine and the review appears here. Many thanks to Courtney Marie Andrews, Norwich Arts Centre, and Outline Magazine.