Image Credit: Gill Landry
When I was a kid, we had a recorded episode of Jools Holland that compiled various Americana performances on the show over the years. I watched this programme over, and over, and over again—as a result, many of the performances are etched into my mind forever. The list of various folk, bluegrass and country artists featured included Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and the Nightwatchman (a.k.a Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello). One of my favourite tracks, though, was the Old Crow Medicine Show’s ‘Tell It To Me’. Looking back, this song—which is about the desperation of cocaine addiction—was probably a little heavy for a ten year-old. But nevertheless, it stuck with me. So when I was offered the chance to review Gill Landry, who played and sung with the band for a number of years, I jumped at it.
Arriving at the Crescent, the tone for the night was clear. The room had been furnished with tables and chairs, while folk ballads played out on the PA and middle-aged groups of friends settled down with pints of IPA. I am not knocking this at all; indeed, I’m used to being one of the youngest people in the room whenever I happen to go to a folk show. So I settled down, feeling comforted by the homely atmosphere as the Beard and the Mermaid took to the stage. Apparently this name is a pun on a song in Game of Thrones (that particular show is a rabbit-hole which I have not yet gone down) as I found out after Googling the band’s name earlier on that day. Their set was pleasant, not exactly earth-shattering or captivating, but entertaining. And they seemed like nice folks, interspersing tunes with origin stories—such as their song ‘Wreckers’, which was inspired by tales of Cornish pirates luring ships to the rocks with lanterns before looting them in the dead of the night, learned of by Mr Beard via the Famous Five cycle. One highlight for me was a cover of the traditional Irish song ‘Mrs. McGrath’, another childhood favourite of mine.
Before Landry’s set started, I took a look at his merch table. The prints of tarot drawings laid out piqued my interest, and the following listening experience that followed was somewhat enhanced with these images in mind. The gruff-voiced, amiable, balladeer took on a sort of shamanic aura. He performed alone, unless you count his guitar—which he later refers to as his oldest friend (he got his first guitar at just five years old). Immediately he built an electric rapport with the audience, engaging with back-and-forth from the more… spirited (plastered) people in the room. This sense of humour and self-awareness was set against the mournful, dark music and lyrical content to a great effect.
The tracks, taken from Landry’s back-catalogue as well as his latest album Skeleton at the Banquet, are universally oozing with depth and feeling. Even the more upbeat songs are written on topics that betray the ostensible optimism. There is a lot of frustration, loss, and substance abuse. But, despite all of this, the music is not depressing. The best word to describe Landry’s music, I think, would be endearing, or sympathetic. Yes, the songs are dark, cavernous as well, but certainly not without humour. ‘This one’s about a Buddhist dominatrix I met on the road in Colorado,’ he tells us, introducing the second tune of the set, chuckling along with us. This hits on another thing about Landry: he has clearly lived a hell of a life, and his music tells the stories of that life and the people he has met in a brilliant and tender way. A common theme is being on the road. Indeed, he tells us anecdotes about hitchhiking, and travelling to New Orleans for hot and debauched summers every year as a teenager. One song is inspired by a fellow he met hitchhiking in the back of a truck in Oregon, called Firestarter. ‘He wanted us to hop a train north and start a blueberry farm together,’ Landry says, ‘but I never did.’
Another thing that comes across clearly about Landry is his raw musicianship. I mean this in the sense that he has the kind of talent that can only come from doing little other than travelling, playing the guitar and singing for the best part of your life. Not only is he a skilled musician—the kind that one might describe as a ‘musician’s musician’—but this skill melds with his sociability when he is on stage. At one point in the set, an audience member shouts out a request. He hesitates for a second, saying that he hasn’t played it since it was recorded, but he’s willing to give it a try if people want to hear it—the audience affirm this with zeal. ‘Just don’t put it up on YouTube,’ he jokes.