“We’re still happy to be here,” says Cahalen Morrison, as he takes the stage with Eli West.
The reason his happiness might have been in doubt has nothing to do with the venue, though he tells us it’s as “muggy as Louisiana.”
It’s because their hire car had been stolen, and along with it, all of their merchandise – and all of Cahalen’s spare clothes.
For someone whose songs have been likened to Cormac McCarthy novels, Morrison is surprisingly reluctant to wish biblical retribution on the heads of the thieves, hoping that, with the massive haul of merch, they might have become fans. “Maybe they’ll be our UK distributor,” he quips.
In fact, Morrison and West are a contradiction in other respects. There’s the physical contrast between the short, stocky Morrison and the long, lean West. Then there’s the fact that they play timeless music from the dusty corners of America and Canada – music that gives a meaning back to the term ‘roots’. Though their website attempts to distance them from the cliché of the ‘old, weird America’ their music is nevertheless old, weird and distinctively American, with its Biblical resonances and rural frame of reference. It’s just that in person, they are approachable, charming and Hail, I understand, from Seattle. The charm and the folksiness come together in a reminiscence from West about how, on their last visit to the Live Room, the audience sang Happy Birthday to his mother down the phone.
Their set draws heavily on their latest album, I’ll Swing my Hammer with Both My Hands. Morrison’s banjo plays off against West’s guitar, while their plangent but unaffected country / folk voices mix and match the lead. From the new album, I am particularly impressed with the western vignette of Down in the Lonesome Draw, a tough, unsentimental song that perhaps justifies some of the Cormac McCarthy comparisons. This, too, points to another contradiction, as the bleak, lyrics of some of the songs contrasts with amiable old time dance tunes.
The new material seems just as well received as their back catalogue, with songs such as Stone to Sand, from 2012’s Our Lady of the Tall Trees a particular favourite of mine. However, it’s the encore from the same album that really throws a light on their influences and their orientation within the world of American roots music: their cover of Townes van Zandt’s Loretta manages to capture the original’s blend of playful and plaintive. There isn’t much higher praise than that!
For information about the Live Room and their upcoming shows, see http://www.theliveroom.info/.