Now in it’s 14th year, the Panarts Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival has a knack of attracting big-name and interesting acts to play in Belfast. Now stationed squarely in the Clayton Hotel, the festival spreads across a number of floors and rooms and runs for five full days.
I first encountered Ashley Campbell when watching the moving documentary about her father’s last tour, I’ll Be Me. Seeing her playing as part of her father’s band and how she cared for and supported him as his condition deteriorated was as touching a depiction of living with Alzheimer’s as I have ever seen; but more of that later.
Opening the evening was Belfast born singer/songwriter Owen Denvir, a stalwart of the festival and one of four acts from Belfast chosen to travel to Nashville in the coming weeks to play, write and record in the capital of country music. Owen has a truly self-effacing way about him, telling fairly personal stories about his songs and performing them with an ease and sincerity that belies his age. His voice is great and his playing is melodic and rhythmical. Denvir involves the audience early in what was an all-too-short set, but he still found space for “Jackhammer” (a great slice of radio-friendly pop) and “You Don’t Want to Love Me” which veers into Mrs Robinson territory (the film, not the song).
Ashley Campbell takes the stage and it is immediately obvious that this evening is going to be low key and fairly intimate. This is her first time playing in Belfast, apart from a brief appearance at the festival launch, and tonight she is accompanied by her brother Shannon (guitar and vocals) and by Eli Bishop (fiddle and vocals).
With her first album, The Lonely One, due for release the day after this concert and with appearances at the massive Country to Country Festival in Glasgow and London coming up over the weekend it was pretty natural that the bulk of tonight’s set was made up of tracks from the debut album. Ashley Campbell seems way too young to have written an entire album about heartbreak, being dumped, break-ups and bad relationships, but that’s what she has done. Before that puts anyone off, there is a real diversity of writing in the album and at least one upbeat and happy number thrown in.
“Better Boyfriend” is a tongue-in-cheek take on being single and independent and actually not needing a boyfriend and Campbell’s high and crystal clear voice is perfect for this type of material. “The Lonely One” is firmly old school and Tex-Mex in style with Bishop’s fiddle providing richness, depth and warmth.
There is time for Campbell to showcase her banjo skills on instrumentals such as “Carl and Ashley’s Breakdown” (co-written with Carl Jackson) and the old bluegrass standard “Shuckin’ the Corn”. She is a fine player, both on banjo and acoustic guitar.
Switching between banjo and guitar, Campbell comes across as a very engaging and laid-back performer and she peppers her set with stories and anecdotes. She tells us about learning to play the banjo for a college theatre production, taking two lessons and then ending up playing banjo in her father’s tour band.
A story of how her new album involved late-night production sessions with another brother Cal leads into what Campbell describes as her favourite song on the new record, “Nothing Day”. This is a fairly enthusiastic hymn to the delights of doing nothing all day and it is a much more upbeat and bouncing number. I may have heard a faint reference to smoking a joint with Willie Nelson’s son, but don’t quote me on that.
We get songs about sitting in bar and watching your ex with their new love and wondering should you get drunk(“What I’m Doin’ Here”) and songs about really bad relationships (“The Taken Man”) which has a much darker, Americana feel to it.
Campbell takes time out after covering John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind” to talk a little about her father. She talks about his diagnosis at the time his Ghost on the Canvas album was being released, and his decision to make his diagnosis public and to keep on working and touring. Hearing her talk about how a two-week tour to promote the album turned into a two-year international farewell tour and lead to the film I’ll Be Me was genuinely touching. This is followed by “Remembering”, which she wrote and recorded for the soundtrack of the film and which paints pictures of her childhood and her memories of her father as his memory began to slowly slip away. Her obvious and honest sense of loss was apparent when she had to correct herself after talking about her father in the present tense.
Campbell finishes on “Looks Like Time”, full of biting black humour about those times when you run into an ex years later and they look, frankly, a bit rough. This certainly lifts the mood; there are too many sharp lines in here but “God gave you the perfect face – I guess he took it back” stands out in my memory.
For an encore, Campbell introduces what she (rightly in my opinion) describes as one of the greatest songs ever written, Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman”. Most people are familiar with Glen Campbell’s definite recording of the song, full of beautiful bass lines and layers of rich orchestration. Tonight we get to hear a version that is stripped back and has an almost folk/roots feel to it and which brings the crowd to their feet.
By the time anyone reads this, the new album will be released and Ashley Campbell will be winging her way to the Country to Country festival to play in front of much bigger audiences than this evening. The new album is as accomplished a debut album as I have heard and I have a real feeling that the English and Scottish crowds are in for a real treat.