During a pre-show cigarette, a passing individual outside the Northern Quarter’s Castle Hotel asks Carson McHone what kind of music she plays. The Texan later admits that she never knows how to respond; is she a singer-songwriter, is it acoustic or should she just lump for the country label? She claims the latter is perhaps one she avoids because of the genre’s rhinestone reputation, but this is perhaps a tad unfair as a bevy of young artists have redefined country music in recent years and her sophomore album Carousel, released just a couple of weeks ago, is an excellent addition to this canon.
Indeed, the opportunity to see Carson McHone at the Castle Hotel feels like it could be one of those moments recalled many years later when discussing artists seen before they became huge. This makes it all the more criminal when only a handful of folk make up the audience when she returns from her cigarette and steps on to the stage. What those in attendance experience this evening is a short but very sweet performance, by a personable artist with a bewitching voice and an assured skill on the guitar; but in the close confines of the venue her descriptive storytelling and confident engagement with the respectful Manchester folk is what makes the show such a pleasure to be a part of.
The album is a fully-textured affair and Carson has stripped back her songs for this tour, made evident when she opens with the fragile How ’Bout It, as her tender vocals bring to mind Caitlin Rose. Each song is clearly a personal affair and we’re allowed an insight into her songwriting process with brief vignettes which identify the focus of a song. We learn about the identity of the arachnid in the next track, Spider Song but it is far from irreverent and Carson’s lyrics are bold and dark.
Carson admits to being slightly miffed by a recent review describing next song Drugs as abrasive, and she amusingly highlights the place of metaphor in her songwriting, before performing a stimulating ode to the opiate power of a relationship. Hawks Don’t Share is an impressive new song but the real treat of the evening is her rendition of Lucky. Once again, we’re given a brief chronicle of her upbringing and inspirations; her parents owning a club with a jukebox rammed with country artists certainly seems to have played in a role in her career choice and a love of rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson’s dexterity with tempo shifts is the inspiration behind this track. The video also demonstrates her barroom upbringing! The lack of strings doesn’t affect the more sombre opening before the song’s vitals start to beat and the uptempo chorus adds a bit of country glam to proceedings. Stripped back, we’re allowed to focus on Carson’s vocals and they’re pitch perfect!
This set peaks during this part of the evening, as the sharp-witted vibe of Maybe They’re Just Really Good Friends is complimented by the more traditional-sounding, tempo shifting Sad. Once again, we’re treated to a revealing exposé on Carson’s appreciation of this emotion before the song, allowing us to acknowledge the personal significance just a few moments later.
As the evening draws to a close there’s a warmth in the room that this young Austinite has generated. Whether it’s country, acoustic or singer-songwriter material that she delivers, it’s authentic, from the heart and skillfully performed. She leaves the stage with the fabulous news that she will be back very soon with her band in tow. Hearing these impressive songs with their full accompaniment will be an absolute delight!
Words & Images by Iain Fox