Live review: Financial Times (London) – Gretchen Peters, Bush Hall

March 23, 2012 9:46 pm

By Ludovic Hunter-Tilney

The Nashville singer-songwriter specialises in tales of regret and loss, sung with great clarity

One starlit night recently Disney teenybopper Miley Cyrus, of Hannah Montana fame, was moved by Gretchen Peters’ new album to tweet her 5.2m followers. “Looking up @ the stars w/ Gretchen Peters on. What a soul. Her love & pain inspires me to be a better songwriter.” At Bush Hall, the object of the praise offered a wry welcome to Cyrus and her teen-pop fans. “Young girls need the older girls to tell ’em how it’s done,” Peters, 54, deadpanned.

The Nashville singer-songwriter (Twitter followers: 3,300) has grown accustomed to being less famous than her admirers. As well as writing her own material, she’s a songwriter for hire: big country acts such as Martina McBride have had hits with her songs. Meanwhile, in her solo career, she has quietly gone about making a niche for her own brand of classy Americana.

Her latest album, Hello Cruel World, is among her finest, and at a sold-out Bush Hall she played the new record in its entirety. Peters specialises in tales of regret and loss, sung with great clarity. The staging was pared down with Peters, on acoustic guitar, accompanied by her husband Barry Walsh playing piano and accordion, and Christine Bougie on electric guitar, steel guitar and drums. The songs had a languid pace, a gracefulness that drew on the religiosity of mainstream country music without becoming explicitly religious or overly sentimentalised.

In “Five Minutes”, she sang the part of a middle-aged luncheonette waitress on a snatched cigarette break, drawn into memories of a past relationship, urged on by a gentle but probing guitar and piano soundtrack. “Idlewild” was an autobiographical account, at once sophisticated and moving, of a child intuiting the break-up of her parents’ marriage. The straightforwardness of the staging gave it even greater power.

The second half of the set drew on older material. “The Secret of Life” was boilerplate country-pop, a product of the Nashville professional songwriter side of Peters’ personality. “To Say Goodbye” was a boogying Rolling Stones-style number, followed by a beautifully wistful cover of the Stones’ “Wild Horses”. Closing number “If Heaven” was a bittersweet ode to the fleeting nature of childhood happiness. Miley Cyrus will know about that one day.

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