First up was Vicki Musselwhite, a local musician armed with an acoustic guitar and a pretty damn good voice. Her songs tended to be quite slow paced and deliberate, with a strong soulful voice. Despite warning us that her next song was only a few days old and apologising in advance if she forgot the words, ‘Liar, Joker, Thief’ was quite possibly the best of her lot, with engaging lyrics and emotion throughout. Despite lighting that reminds you that Unit is predominantly a night club, it was completely contradicted the subdued nature of Vicki’s set. It was an unfortunate outcome, but we got used to it.
Franklin & James were next on, a local duo kitted with acoustic guitars and a lot of charm. They lifted spirits through their upbeat vocals, heavy strumming, and friendly demeanour . There was a real sense of brotherhood between the two, both voices working together well. It’s hard not to smile when the duo take so much pleasure in performing.
“Does anyone remember Sophie Ellis Bextor?”
A single “yeah!” came from the crowd (okay that was me. I had a crush on her. Fight me), and a fun cover of Spiller’s ‘Groovejet’ began, infused with a satisfying country twang. Unfortunately I didn’t catch the whole set first hand as I left to interview Joshua James, but they definitely alleviated some of the residual sombreness left in the air, ending on their original ‘Short on Time’. It also helped my beer go down smooth, so thanks for that.
Finally, Joshua James and his band took to the stage with two electric guitars, a bass, and a drum kit. The minimalistic atmosphere of previous acts quickly faded as we were greeted by an unrecorded song entirely new to me. With a crowd of still only a handful, it would have been all too easy to give in, play a few songs, and chalk it up as a loss. However, no-one let this get to them; Joshua’s facial expressions showing just how lost in his music he can get. Performing for one person, or one hundred, it’s no different. If anything this turn out contributed to a truly intimate setting.
A hasty transition into ‘Queen Of The City’ left no time for applause. The new single sounds like a more traditional rock song, and contains one of his catchiest hooks.
‘Surrender’ was next. With an almost waltz like rhythm, the disco lights made sense for a split second. Maybe Joshua felt the same way as he stepped from the stage into the emptiness of the dance floor, slow moving with his guitar.
‘Weeds’ is one of his many songs that manage to contrast pretty tones on the surface with depressing concepts (“Didn’t anyone mention hate is all we show?”). The instruments faded towards the end, leaving Joshua to sing in solitude bar the supporting humming from Evan. In this instant the silence of the crowd became apparent, hearing every sound. They finished the song up by seamlessly integrating a small portion of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’.
The band all pulled their weight. Lawrence, the drummer, had injured his hand earlier in the tour, but this didn’t hinder his ability to provide both soft and heavy percussive elements. Isaac (bass) and Evan (guitar) provided solid backing vocals throughout. The band really showed merit during the powerful breakdown of ‘So Did I’, layering all their noises and creating a heavy ambience.
In case there was any doubt about the darkness that is often present in his music, the next song ‘Cheyenne, Wyoming’, inspired by a young boy kidnapped in Wyoming on Christmas. Slow and stirring, expect this to be released as a B side soon.
Joshua busted out the harmonica, ready for ‘Ghosts in the Town’. A song about leaving behind an old life and beginning anew. With clean string melodies and an outro so soft and sincere it was hard to stay dry eyed, he displayed once again that his voice is one of his finest weapons.
‘Coal War’ started and the band managed to inspire the crowd to join with the percussion through stomping and clapping. I imagine this is what it’d feel like to be part of the stereotypical gospel choirs you see in film. The heavier part of the song reiterated how Joshua’s soft voice can transform into a passionate scream when it needs to. The set was concluded, rather appropriately, with the final song of Willamette Mountain; ‘Feel The Same’.
I think the event was truly summed up in the moments following the performance. As people lined up to buy merchandise and exchange words, it became increasingly clear that the music had really connected with the few present.