St Stephen’s Uniting Church, January 28
It’s not the past, which you’re guessing about, that can trip you up sometimes; it can instead be the supposedly familiar present.
Plenty of people play music in old-fashioned styles, old-fashioned structures and, often enough, old-fashioned clothes. Some of them take on the mannerisms, accents and language of that past too. It is respect and fandom and fetishism in varying degrees.
Virginian singer/songwriter Dori Freeman, whose family has lived in the Appalachians for generations, whose grandfather was writing songs more than 70 years ago (a charming and amusing example of which she performed in this show), whose musical territory encompasses folk, gospel, traditional country and that late 1950s period where country, rock and pop intersected, does something a little different with this.
Eschewing “traditional” dressing for a floral playsuit that was the envy of all of us dissolving into puddles of sweat in the hot and humid church, and with husband Nicholas Falk on drums, backing vocals and banjo, Freeman plays from what you might call a small room tradition.
They are quiet both literally (a minimal drum kit of small bass and snare is brushed as much as tapped; volume is low; voices are soft) and figuratively (projecting just enough to reach the back of this modestly proportioned space; telling stories that deal with the minutiae of lives and loves).
Each song is built around Freeman’s quite beautiful voice, sometimes in close harmony with Falks and sometimes without any musical accompaniment at all, and there are moments of joy throughout every song.
Go On Loving, written by her with Loretta Lynn in mind, is a ballad more wistful than sad; her interpretations of both Louvin Brothers and Doc Watson songs rang true and bright; the blend of voices in her Where I Stood was sibling-like; and the gospel moments both old and original, as in Working On A Building, had heart.
For the moment however, Freeman’s stage presentation does not match her voice or songs.
While she has worked on between-song chat it is during the songs that she is failing to connect completely. In essence, songs hang between stage and audience, rather than move back and forth, and without the intimacy good small room tradition requires, the show feels stifled.
But I reckon there are three ways to overcome this.
1) Freeman needs to literally and figuratively drop her eyes from above our heads/a spot at the back of the room and begin singing to us. 2) She should vary tempos and delivery, and consider dropping in songs such as Jim Reeve’s Yonder Comes A Sucker earlier in the show to break up the pattern. 3) She should not be afraid to let more of the personality we saw between songs come through within the songs and begin to fill the room, big or small.
One thing about Freeman though, the base material is there; it’s refining that comes next.