Laura-Beth Salter and Rachel Newton

The Courthouse, Thirsk

26 October 2012

It's snowing. Only a bit, at first, but I finish the mile-and-a-half walk from the concert venue to Thirsk station in a blizzard. Now it's another two hours at least before I get back home at some time after 1 a.m., with a lot more walking, probably through more snow. Why am I doing this mad trip just to see a couple of hours of music?

Because some musicians are worth making an effort for. And tonight's gig was more than worth the effort.

Laura-Beth Salter sings and plays mandolin. Rachel Newton sings and plays harp and occasional fiddle. I have seen them both multiple times before but never in a format quite like tonight's. The publicity gives them equal billing but doesn't give any idea of what the format is. Will they each play half a show? Will they play as a duo? Will there be other musicians?

Well... none of the above. They sit on stage together (I say stage, actually it's just a rug on the floor) and begin with a duet, but after that they alternate playing, Laura-Beth doing two or three of her songs then Rachel doing two or three of hers. Only occasionally do they accompany one another either vocally or instrumentally. And it's a brilliant format, working so well because of the big contrast in their styles. Laura-Beth Salter sings blues and 'old-time' American music, Rachel Newton sings traditional Scottish ballads and plays insanely complex harp tunes. You feel like you're seeing two different gigs simultaneously. And when they do accompany one another, their voices and instruments complement each other perfectly.

A large part of the show is their own compositions, with a couple of songs from their 'regular' band, The Shee, and a few covers by people like Hank Williams. I recognised everything Rachel played or sang (I think I probably own every CD she's ever played on), but Laura-Beth's selections were largely new to me. Some (the self-penned ones) I remembered from her show in Glasgow earlier in the year, but I'm not really familiar with her American influences. But the songs I did know from both of them sounded different tonight, stripped down from full-band arrangements to mostly just one voice and one instrument, which just emphasised how beautiful their melodies are. Both voices are pure and strong, completely different from each other but each suited to the style of songs they choose. Rachel's harp playing looks and sounds mind-bogglingly complicated. Laura-Beth’s mandolin is less outwardly flashy but the strength of her songs is in their heart-felt lyrics, not their showiness.

Between songs they appear a lot more at ease than they sometimes do when announcing songs with The Shee, sharing jokes and anecdotes with the audience, even getting a bit of a sing-along going, and generally giving the show an intimate feel.

'Intimate' is a word that's over-used to describe small gigs, but it's accurate here. The room in the Courthouse is very small. The audience of about 40 people filled it comfortably, and nobody could have been more than about 10 feet from the musicians, who simply sat on a couple of chairs set on the floor with us arranged around them. It's a brilliant way to hear this kind of music. Given the size of the room, I'm not sure they even needed to be amplified. But whoever was doing the sound was brilliant at his job, because although they were amplified it was so subtly done that I couldn't tell—the music seemed to come directly from the two women in front of me and sounded entirely natural and perfectly in balance. Overall I'm thoroughly impressed with the venue.

Don't know what else to say. It's after midnight, I’m cold and wet, the train's late, and I would do it all again for either of them. Best concert I've ever seen? Maybe...

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