It feels like Kentucky Appreciation day has arrived in Manchester this evening. We initially get a flavour of the state when Appalachian duo The Local Honeys perform a select handful of tunes inspired by their home. Infused by gospel tones, the acoustic melodies are complimented by fluid banjo inflections which reinforce the authenticity of their Kentuckian narratives. The genesis of each song is provided by Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs and the most potent of these is a tale of the Martin County disaster called ‘Cigarette Trees’. We love a good protest song here in Manchester and the duo’s sincerity and passion is vocally appreciated. The song addresses the 250 million gallons of coal sludge that poured into streams feeding the Tug Fork River back in 2000, making the water in some places undrinkable ever since. It’s a particularly significant moment in the setlist because of Tyler Childers’ association with the disaster; he regularly donates safe drinking water to the region and many of his own songs deal with issues particular to the state.
Having said that, he opens with a cover of a Charlie Daniels Band song before the jaunty ‘Bus Route’ drives into view. This song comes from the awesome 2019 album Country Squire, which reinforced the incredible potential of 2017’s Purgatory. A couple of years ago, Childers could be found performing on Jimmy’s tiny stage in the Northern Quarter. This evening, Academy 2 is completely sold out and it is because of songs like ‘Creeker’. Eminently singable, the crowd holler back every word and continue to do so for pretty much the rest of the evening.
The evening peaks early with a ten-minute rendition of ‘House Fire’ and we’re treated to an extended overture to this marvelous song which amplifies the smoldering atmosphere. Childers and his intensely focused band gradually build the driving patterns before this slow-burning tour-de force morphs into the full song, which is lent even more vitality with thrilling guitar and organ solos before the flames begin to recede.
Although the evening never really achieves this degree of intensity again, there is still so much to enjoy, and the clever word play of ‘I Swear (To God)’ provides the willing crowd ample opportunity to join in with gusto. Through the heady combination of bluegrass and old-fashioned swing emerges a tale of redemption of sorts and it’s one we can all identify with. The more refined ‘Tattoos’ adds some pathos to proceedings before the new album’s title track reinforces the country angle.
All these colourful variations in genre come together in magical fashion with the gently undulating ‘Feathered Indians’. There’s a mournful pedal steel providing the atmosphere but Childer’s vocals contribute the passion of this gorgeous love song. Once again, the full house recites every word back to the twenty-eight year old.
The second half of the show changes down a gear and the band depart for the final three songs as a solo Childers completes this evening’s excellent show with stripped back versions of ‘Nose on the Grindstone’, ‘Lady May’ and ‘Follow You to Virgie’. Although these final moments lack the luminosity of earlier songs, it still feels apt to describe Childers as the new King of Kentucky and the alt-country scene.
Words & Images by Iain Fox