Emily Barker and Luke Drinkwater | Review
CQAF • Black Box • 06 May 2017
By Cara Gibney
“Oh my Rosetta, guitar-slinging woman You got me singing the blues”
Emily Barker’s voice was bluesed and mellow and gradually becoming louder as she rendered ‘Sister Goodbye’ across the dimmed Saturday afternoon Black Box. It was the last weekend of Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. It was warm and bright and festive outside; it was happy. Inside though had an added ingredient – the slight, and at the same time, enormous presence of Emily Barker – her voice, her guitar, and her songs.
Emily Barker is the Australia born, but long time England based singer-songwriter, musician, and composer who has several albums under her belt, both solo and with multi-instrumental trio The Red Clay Halo. She is also developing a reputation for her skills in writing award-winning music for TV and film. Last weekend she was playing Belfast’s Black Box accompanied by Luke Drinkwater on double bass.
Her song, ‘Sister Goodbye,’ is homage to the original soul sister – Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s from Barker’s forthcoming album Sweet Kind of Blue, and is written from the perspective of gospel singer Marie Knight. As she stood on stage in the Black Box, Barker explained to the room about how Knight was Tharpe’s close friend (they performed duets together in the 40s). Knight was the person who would always fix Tharpe’s hair and her make up before a show, and she was the person who carried on that ritual one last time before Tharpe was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia. Her long-time friend and fellow performer was there to ensure that “the godmother of rock and roll” was looking her best for that final curtain call.
In the Black Box, the slow steady double bass from Barker’s stage compatriot Lukas Drinkwater helped to open ‘Sister Goodbye’ and it tolled a special kind of harmony with Barker’s guitar later in the song – marking a rhythm, a kind procession through the melody. And as it came to an end Barker veered away on her own; unaccompanied, unaided, she hailed a last, long, slow “Bye-bye sister” to this under-regarded hero of the likes of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. A hero of Emily Barker perhaps.
‘Sister Goodbye’ was co-written with Boo Hewerdine, the English singer songwriter behind the band The Bible, way back in the 80s. (Does anybody remember ‘Honey Be Good’?) He’s been writing and performing solo for a long time now, and collaborating with the likes of Emily Barker. He also co-wrote ‘Over My Shoulder’ with Barker for the new album. It’s a heart breaking song, written not long after the world was alerted to the death of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi who lost his life crossing the Mediterranean with his Syrian family.
Last weekend was the second time I’d seen Barker perform the song. Last time was 2016’s Out To Lunch Festival, where she made audience members shed a tear with her explanation and ultimate performance. This time she opted for less introduction, less scene setting. She let the song do the talking. The room was hushed, intent. Drinkwater took up a bow for his double bass as the song ended, scratching a deep, waving a seascape; a heavy engine.
At one stage Drinkwater quietly left her on her own up there, with only her guitar for protection. She went on to still the room with the haunting ‘Anywhere Away’ from the film Hector, and when he joined her again it was for the murder ballad ‘Fields of June’. “This one’s not so nice” he smiled, “I get murdered.” Words were an added weapon for Drinkwater on this one, Barker was armed with guitar and harp rack. As Drinkwater plucked the deep strings of his double bass, he sang the story; later employing a bow, pulling a whole new sound from the instrument, with Barker singing verses to the silent room.
They finished on the title track of her new album, then they allowed us back out into the afternoon, out there to the May sunshine where faster things were happening. There was an oddly familiar feeling to re-entering the day after a Black Box afternoon gig. The vague squint from the daylight, the standout song (‘Anywhere Away’) still in your head, the disorientation on which way to turn when you walk out the door onto Hill Street. And strangely, there was something really quite comforting about that.
Emily Barker’s new album Sweet Kind of Blue is released 19 May.