Lynn Miles with Bill Morrissey
at the Borderline, London, England
(11 November 2001)

The Borderline, a small but popular London club just off of busy Charing Cross Road, seemed almost deserted. Only 40 tickets had been pre-sold for this gig; it was easy to find a good place to sit or stand. The basement room was dark; James Taylor sang in the background as concertgoers conversed with the bartender and saw performers wander the floor before the show. It seemed another age -- people gathered in a dimly lit basement to drink beer and hear folk music.

"Well, this ain't Hollywood; it never gets that good," sang opener Bill Morrissey as he embarked on his set. Morrissey, who has played venues this size as a headliner in the United States, was undeterred by the small turnout. His voice was its usual gravelly self, sort of a combination of singing and speaking. He is a consummate storyteller, and he never merely sings as much as tells stories with music. His first number ended abruptly, as many of his songs do. They're three- to five-minute short stories about life, and like their subject matter, they can have their sudden stops and starts.

As he looked at his watch, he commented that he had time for one more number. "So I'll just play a two-hour version of Kumbayah." Instead, he used his time (under two hours) to regale the audience with tales of his journey, stories behind the songs themselves, and perform compositions he professes to be autobiographical. He writes them first, "and then it happens to me -- so I'm working on a new song about winning the lottery," he said with a sly smile.

The stories he told about the songs sometimes were almost as entertaining as the music itself. Shakespeare may never seem the same after hearing Morrissey's tale of "Romeo Bob" in Austin, Texas. He mentioned how his first mother-in-law didn't realize her position was "only a temp job." When he asked the audience for advice as what to see in London the following day, he laughed when someone called out a request. "No, I'm not asking for requests. I'll do 'Handsome Molly,' but where should I go tomorrow when I wake up?" He really wanted the audience's help to determine his itinerary. He engages his audience. "Can I take you all out for a beer afterwards?" almost sounds sincere when he asks the question.

His songs tend to be sincere slices of life, but his sense of humor can be pervasive. On "Letter to Heaven," about the afterlife according to musicians, he mentions that "it's a great life when you're dead." After all, "Mama Cass has dropped some weight," and "Elvis likes to visit Earth to drive some people nuts." (Around that point, he stopped briefly to inform the audience that "I didn't say it was one of my best songs.")

However, when he starting talking about Mississippi John Hurt, he became serious. One of his more recent albums is a cover of Hurt's songs, and his passion about that music is evident. He make a quick joke about the "Thames River Delta Blues" and how it it's "like the metric system with 10-bar grooves," but it was obvious that he's extremely fervent about playing the Delta blues. He was in his element playing guitar and singing in that style. He was just as passionate about Robert Johnson's music and expressed pleasure that his music "was out to more people." On his composition "Robert Johnson's Back in Town," he explained how "each song comes from a hole inside/where a soul had been," playing with the popular legend about Johnson.

When Lynn Miles took the stage, she joked with her band, including Keith Glass on mandolin and acoustic guitar, about what to play. The first song on the set list just seemed too obvious. Without further comment, they launched into the first two numbers. Miles, a native of Ottawa, Canada, started with songs from older albums, but by the fourth number, she decided to audition material from Unravel, her latest CD. Around that point, she took time to converse with the audience. She confessed that they'd left behind the adapter for their amp and joked about how it should be "one currency, one current." She also explained how she'd written "Black Flowers" while driving through the West Virginia and Kentucky regions in the United States. Miles' voice, which didn't seem as strong as it might be on her first numbers, was full for this one. It came across better through the sound system -- full and dynamic on an original composition that sounds like a ballad in a minor key and features Glass slide guitar.

For "Surrender Dorothy," another song from the new album, Miles performed solo; the band exited briefly, and she was alone on stage with her guitar. "I wrote this song because I was a huge fan of The Wizard of Oz," she explained. She picked up the analogy of the road when she visited the Judy Garland museum in the late performer's midwest birthplace. Although some lines might contain a wry humor ("These shoes are too tight/the damn dog's got fleas"), it's a slow number that's rather poignant and serious -- even with the "Over the Rainbow" riff at the end.

"I don't want to do this song," Miles said to Glass, preparing for another song from the new album. "It's your show, it's your career," he replied with a laugh, and she started to explain the inspiration behind "When Did the World."

"I wrote this song after I had an interview on the Internet with a journalist, and they started to tell me about their marital problems even though I didn't want to know. So I wrote a song about it." As with "Surrender Dorothy," it's another poignant piece with lines such as "You used to trust everyone/now you can't even trust yourself." Once again, it features Glass on slide guitar.

Most of Miles' songs are poignant, even if they're lighthearted. She played some older numbers, such as "I Loved a Cowboy," an upbeat, whimsical memoir about a past romance, and an audience request, "It Was Love," a dramatic piece about love that "was the restless kind." However, on "Sunset Boulevard," she let loose with a danceable, syncopated beat and a Suzanne Vega-type talking/singing style that just must be classified as "cool." Miles lived in California for four years, which she admitted was culture shock after Ottawa. This song came about after a road rage incident with "a man of the cloth" who flipped her off. "Don't give the right of way/even if it's a hearse," she proclaimed. She wasn't serious; she was having fun with the lyrics, the style and the bit of dueling guitars she was playing with Glass. "Anywhere," a song about the joys of automobile ownership, "even though it's very, very wrong," began as a toe-tapping number that built to a rock beat.

Although Miles admitted that she was tired (she confessed to having stayed up way too late the previous night in Holland), she clearly was enjoying herself by the end of the night. She announced that Glass's run-down, old mandolin -- the one with the bad pick-up -- had never sounded better. She closed her set with the title track from the new CD, a song that dares to cross the singer-songwriter genre with alternative country and folk/rock.

Both Morrissey and Miles are singer-songwriters that are difficult to pigeonhole. Morrissey blends folk with blues and jazz styles, and Miles leans a little towards alternative country and folk/rock. They were an interesting combination, but they wound up being two good acts to juxtapose. The audience, albeit small, was appreciative and enthusiastic. Perhaps more people might dare to show up the next time they cross the pond.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 9 February 2002



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