“Look around your neighbourhood and you will find something great”. Before he has even played a note this evening, Tom Brosseau suggests that to discover true beauty and inspiration we need not travel any further than our own back yard . The American folk singer and storyteller later goes on to tell us that “my goal in life is just to document North Dakota”. And while there may well have been just the slightest hint of irony in his assertion, there can surely be little doubt as to how much this Midwestern state means to him. Last month Brosseau released North Dakota Impressions, the third album in a trilogy (after Grass Punks (2014) and the following year’s Perfect Abandon) that lovingly explores his life, times and the people he met whilst growing up in and around the town of Grand Forks.
And it is to North Dakota that he takes us tonight, recreating in vivid musical technicolor the sights, sounds and smells of America’s 39th state. In the languid country-folk of ‘No Matter Where I Roam’ we can almost feel the barley and taste the local sugar beet. On the talking song ‘A Trip to Emerado’ we are transported with him into that long brown Cadillac that Brosseau’s grandmother had driven through a North Dakotan rainstorm so many years ago. The thought of drinking malted milk had never sounded so warm and inviting. And on ‘You Can’t Stop’ – the last song recorded for North Dakota Impressions – as Brosseau’s voice veers somewhere between that of Thom Yorke and Hank Williams we find ourselves helplessly seduced by the power of his hopes and dreams.
Yet for all of the sweet innocence and plain, simplistic beauty that Tom Brosseau teases from his childhood memories, there is also a darker edge present in some of his other work. ‘How To Grow a Woman From The Ground’ – with lines such as “cut your wrist on the fins of the fish and drain all that you can” – creates a similarly strange and twisted world to the one that is often inhabited by The Handsome Family. And Brosseau’s compelling cover of the American ragtime singer and guitarist Blind Blake’s ‘Rope Stretchin’ Blues pt. 1’ does initially sound just as incongruous when coming from a man who resembles the straightest and most clean-cut of Ivy Leaguers.
A quite marvellous three-song encore concludes with ‘Goodnight Irene’ where Tom Brosseau is joined at the front of the stage by Jonny Sellers (guitar) and Polly Bolton (mandolin) from support band Stillhouse – who earlier had put in an enlightened set of neoteric folk – plus Bolton’s father, for a joyful waltz through the old Lead Belly classic. Thanks to the inspired and combined efforts of local promoters Please Please You and By Candlelight, this is surely what Thursday nights are made for.
Photo credit: Simon Godley