Sierra Hull and Justin Moses | Upper Chapel | Sheffield | 27.01.23
Standing next to the four stone Ionic columns in front of the Upper Chapel Unitarian Church on Norfolk Street tonight, waiting for the sound checks to finish, I’m reminded of the days when I would wait by eight similar columns just a little up the road, in this case, those of the Corinthian order, as I waited on the steps to see such bands as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Wishbone Ash at the City Hall in the early 1970s. Sheffield has always been pretty good with its architecture as well as its music. The one other thing about tonight’s presentation, which also reminds me of those early days, is the excitement and anticipation I’m feeling before the show. I’m actually really looking forward to this concert and I sense that those beginning to form an orderly queue around me, share the same sort of enthusiasm, not least the promoter Stuart Basford, whose role isn’t limited to his promotional skills and unquestionable taste, but also to that of delivery boy, picking up the pizzas from across the road.
Sierra Hull and husband Justin Moses appear to be the calmest and most composed people in Sheffield tonight and the kind of music they create requires that extra bit of attention. If anyone in the chapel has any doubts as to what the term ‘sore fingers’ means with regard to bluegrass pickers, then it will soon become obvious. These two play like demons, whether one has a guitar and the other a mandolin, or whether they both have mandolins, playing them simultaneously or even whether they just pull out the guitars, both musicians labour their chops for the duration.
The Upper Chapel is a dry venue, therefore no clinking of glasses or disruptive visits to the bar mid-song. Sierra and Justin can present their music knowing full well that their audience is paying attention. At times they play more notes per beat than is humanly possible, but this is perhaps due to the two musicians picking up their instruments from a very early age. It becomes second nature. Using just three mics, each attached to the same stand, the couple huddle in Grand Ole Opry fashion, in fact the chapel itself lends itself to that same sort of atmosphere, including one or two bits of stained glass, very much akin to the Ryman back home. The venue probably makes the Nashville-based musicians feel very much at home.
As the two musicians settle into their first set, while our ears become accustomed to the volume these three mics, making the performance sound as acoustic as possible, almost as if they’re playing in our respective living rooms, the songs and tunes begin to flow. There are songs and tunes from Sierra’s most recent album 25 Trips, notably “Beautifully Out of Place”, “How Long” and “Last Minute”, not to mention the gorgeous “Ceiling to the Floor”, where this reviewer empathises completely with Sierra’s fear of heights, though this doesn’t prevent me from perching myself on the balcony for the show.
One or two older songs also come out to play, “Best Buy” for example, which sees Sierra in a playful mood, in fact everything about tonight’s performance is playful, joyful and uplifting, matched always by Sierra’s infectious smile and engaging personality. Paying tribute to those who have gone before, it’s rather pleasing to hear the duo’s take on Doc Watson’s “Walk on Boy”, with the Doc’s memorable voice echoed in this fine rendition.
After various cancellations, postponements and reshuffles, this eagerly awaited appearance by the duo has been very well worth the wait.
Jocelyn Pettit and Ellen Gira | Bishop’s House | Sheffield | 18.02.23
Bishop’s House is an old yeoman’s house with a history that stretches back to the mid-16th century, to the times of Mary Tudor, its ancient stone floors and beamed roof a preserve for many stories and secrets. Once you step into the house, it feels like you have stepped directly into history. One imagines this experience to be even more enchanting to visitors from abroad, and in this case, Jocelyn Pettit (pronounced Peddit) from the west coast of Canada, and Ellen Gira from the east coast of the USA respectively. A small but enthusiastic audience gathered under these creaky old oak beams in the dimly-lit ground floor concert room, illuminated by a corner standard lamp and a smaller table lamp placed upon an old carved chair. Jocelyn and Ellen met in Glasgow back in 2018, the city where Ellen now resides, almost immediately forming this musical partnership. If the centuries appear to be etched into the stone walls of this fine old building, then youthfulness is etched into the faces of tonight’s two guests, as they walk into the room for tonight’s concert, Jocelyn carrying her fiddle, whilst Ellen carries her cello. The two musicians are a long way from home, yet their confidence as first rate musicians is immediately felt as they launch into “Fleur Reels”, the opening tune from their debut album All it Brings. The stone slabs beneath Jocelyn’s feet can feel the weight of her clogs as they provide the highly rhythmic and percussive taps, reminiscent of those in Quebecois music. I imagine, if there had been a little more floor space, one or two step dances may have ensued from both Jocelyn and the audience alike. Much of the set is centred around the duo’s debut record together, notably “Powder Room Jigs”, which demonstrates the duo’s musical telepathy, something Ellen jokingly refers to as Cellopathy, a new word for the relationship between these two significant instruments. During the evening there’s plenty of whoops and hollers from the audience, courtesy of one person in particular, who clearly enjoys the more uptempo numbers. The duo must feel very much at home as the room swells with love. It’s not difficult to warm to this duo, whose infectious smiles remain on their faces throughout each of the two sets. The songs are occasionally borrowed, Dougie Maclean’s timeless “Ready for the Storm” for instance, together with Kate McGarrigles’ gorgeous “Cheminant a La Ville”, delivered in French, two songs that appear on Jocelyn’s current solo album Wind Rose. Two full sets featuring both songs and tunes, together with some fun between-song interplay, makes for a hugely enjoyable evening and hopefully it won’t be too long before we get to see them in these parts again.