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Emily Barker returns to Leaf with a bluesy tribute to folk and soul

by Amy Farnworth. Published Fri 10 Nov 2017 21:26, last updated: 14/11/17

It is seven years since Emily Barker last played at Leaf, back when the cafe was located on Parliament Street, and since then, not only has she had a change in band line-up, having separated from the Red Clay Halo, but she's added more accolades and more soulful tunes to her already glittering collection. 

The intimate upstairs room of the Bold Street venue was filled with a majority of mature fans, all seated on the comfy-looking chesterfield sofas or enjoying a wine or two on the long benches and individual round tables. The atmosphere felt more jazz-club than gig, and it was endearing. Really endearing.

With the presence of such a cool, calm and collected older audience it was easy to deduce that those there that evening were true fans, keen to see how the Australian singer-songwriter had progressed since 2010; keen to hear songs from her new EP ‘Sweet Kind of Blue.’

Supported by the witty harmonies of Pete Roe, who also plays keys in her band, Barker arrived on stage in a relatively demure and unassuming manner.

The room was bathed in silence as she picked up her acoustic guitar, fixed her trademark harmonica in place and began to play.

Barker’s style is eclectic; not veering too far from any one particular genre, but instead making the basics of folk, country, blues and soul merge into one blissful melodic harmony. 

Her vocals are pretty much flawless too and the fact she combines her multi-musical skills, playing harmonica and guitar simultaneously, demonstrates a honing of her craft – she knows what she’s doing and she does it well.

Accompanied by Lucas Drinkwater on bass guitar (who later impressed the audience with his aficionado-esque skills when he plucked and massaged the strings of a double bass), and Rob Pemberton on drums, the newly-formed quartet sound tight, the tempos and dynamics sitting just right, and Barker’s voice crisp and clear above the backing of her band.

Second track, Tomorrow Be Now, is a light and cheery country-sounding offering with simplistic melodies that seem to prepare the audience for a set that won’t stretch Barker’s talents too far away from her comfort zone; from the off she comes across as inoffensive, light and breezy, and doesn’t demand too much from her audience, which, if easy-listening is what the crowd were after then it was just about perfect.

Introducing a song from her latest EP, ‘Sister Goodbye’ is a moving tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a pioneering mid-twentieth century American singer-songwriter, who brought gospel music to the nightclubs and is often referred to as ‘the original soul sister’.

The extremely beautiful melancholic blues track conveys a soulful side to Barker’s voice, demonstrating that within her, she has the clear ability as a vocalist to reach far beyond what she’s offered her fans so far, and this excites the crowd.

Flitting from upbeat, nod-along country-blues, to slower thought provoking, atmospheric ballads, Barker and her band continue to show the audience that they can be versatile, but despite this, they somehow, at this point in the set, fail to really step out of the bracket they’ve created for themselves.

Further along, Barker duets on a hauntingly mesmerising love song with bassist, Lucas Drinkwater, chilling and relaxing the audience even more than they already are, the venue swaying in a dream-like daze under the soothing red lights.

‘No.5 Hurricane’ is another slow and steady ode to love that resonates softly with almost everyone in the room, as she sings the lyrics, “I’ve got new arms to hold me now you’re not around.”

But it’s ‘If We Forget To Dance’ that eradicates perhaps hasty pre-conceived opinions and gives the crowd an inkling that she may just be ready to experiment a little more with her style, as she professes it to be the most ‘groove-based’ track on her album.

Seemingly at ease on stage, she casually switches instruments and chats to the audience with a cool grace that tells us she’s no amateur when it comes to performing. And when she plays the song ‘Nostalgia’ which was the theme tune to BBC drama, Wallander, the crowd are taken back to familiar territory, for it’s this track they recognise most.

Drawing the set to a close with the title song from her new album, ‘Sweet Kind of Blue’, and then whisking the audience into the jangly feel-good, ‘Sunrise,’ Barker once again dashes misconceptions that she’s just a country-tinged songstress. When she encores with a haunting a cappella solo, a bluesy-gospel like echo of emotion, the silence that fills the room is breathtaking.

Despite all this and despite hints of demonstration that she can transcend across genres, it was frustrating to witness Emily Barker only stepping slightly over the edge of her comfort zone.

Her voice is clearly so much more powerful than some of her songs allow it to be and she has, if she wanted, the potential to be a huge soul singer; if she could break out of the mould she seems to be coasting along in (albeit beautifully) she could really soar high. 

Perhaps Barker is content with playing it a little bit safe, only experimenting as far as she feels she needs to go.

Her set was fun; it mixed old with new and it presented a side to Barker that hopefully she’ll reveal more of in time. And for the audience at Leaf on Bold Street, it was more than ok.



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