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Photo by Joanna Chattman


Leadbelly, May 30

An hour-and-a-half or so with Eilen Jewell can do serious damage to your liver, brain cells and celibacy. Even if you’re not drinking. Or leaving your seat.

Her show is like some ultimate bar hopping/pub crawl night: the kind you don’t want to stop even when dawn rudely intervenes; the kind that accumulates patrons along the way - attracted, rather than put off by the evident enjoyment of the rowdy crowd accompanying her; the kind that lifts you up rather than wears you down as you (metaphorically or, if you wish, actually) dance, drink, flirt, dance, drink, smooch, dance, drink, get it ON.

Here a night begins before you even hit the bars, with the promise in the slinky blues of It’s Your Voodoo Working and the honky tonk Heartache Boulevard, two songs which look forward to the possibilities, and prep you for the right mood with their emphasis on moving up and on.

Some of the possibilities promised of course could be risky, the kind that the ride-in-a-buggy country of Reckless warns of in a brief, light tempering of enthusiasm. However, as Jewell sings in Loretta Lynn’s You Wanna Give Me A Lift, “I’m game for just about anything”.

That said, sensible suitors would note that the slinkiness is balanced by a no-nonsense attitude. While sweet-as-pie, neither Miss Lynn nor Ms Jewell are easy marks: “You say you take a little drink and we'll go for a ride on a star/You want to give me a lift, but this gal ain’t going that far”.

But hey, soon enough High Shelf Booze, done slightly woozy – not half cut but with a bit of a lean and a lopsided smile – brings Billie Holliday to the table and Rio Grande (where you can almost hear the parping Mexican brass behind the spring-loaded bass of Johnny Sciascia) makes your hips twitchy and frisky so that the inquisitiveness of Jerry Miller’s guitar solo works as a prod.

Lost in the swing you won’t notice at first that it’s time to move to another bar, as the closing time ballad Santa Fe (and its little tears at your heart) make clear, so the railroad rhythm/dining car dance feel of Dusty Boxcar Wall is a good bridge to the rougher floor and more crowded space of Big Maybelle’s Don’t Leave Poor Me, and, soon after, Howlin’ Wolf’s You’ll Be Mine, which posit you among clientele more on the make. There’s some serious body heat happening here.

Even the best intentioned and credentialled don’t always succeed though and at some point on a night out with Jewell you may find yourself in a room with a long bar, low lighting and Jason Beek’s brushed drums keeping you company as you nurse a glass of something grainy and ponder Another Night To Cry.

There’s no closing time in this bar though, only a transition from too too late to too too early. So, the slow burn blues of Where They Never Say Your Name keeps you from the sunlight with an edge of bitterness infiltrating the moroseness, and the unsteadily weaving on your feet solo dance of The Flood and the regretful hillbilly haunt of Mess Around have you wondering if it is time to call it quits.

Experienced night travellers with Jewell know better. First you take time to soak in the warm comfort of Boundary County (“I took too hard to the whiskey”), pull yourself together through Bessie Smith’s Down Hearted Blues and then, refreshed, you kick out the bluegrass jams with Head Over Heels.

Now you’re ready. Ready to reset your drinking-and-loving clock with the backroom blues of You Know My Love (“has never died”). Barman set me up another Eilen Jewell. Make it a double.

Eilen Jewell plays Leadbelly tonight, May 31, then Hardy’s Bay RSL on June 1

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