Artist:Gretchen Peters & Barry Walsh Venue:The Sage Town:Gateshead Date:17/05/10 Website:www.gretchenpeters.com/ & barrywalshmusic.com Over the past fourteen plus years, Gretchen Peters has become one of the most revered artists to play in the UK, year after year. Her love affair with the UK has become apparent for all to see, and it is clear that she loves playing over here, as does partner Barry Walsh. With this in mind she wanted to bring her ever growing fan base here in the UK something unique and very special. Thus her latest tour was her first ever all request tour, encompassing all of her work. There were only two rules: fans had to write in with their request ahead of the show, and tell her their story or connection to the song, and it had to be a song she had written or performed. It promised to feature the stories behind the songs, personal anecdotes and glimpses behind the scenes of her 20 plus year career. The set list would change daily, dependent upon requests. None of it would be rehearsed beforehand and a lot would be improvised. A little mad – maybe, but if anyone could pull off such a tour, Gretchen could. Something of a risk – maybe, but I think Gretchen knows her fans here in the UK well enough to know that we’d be right there with her, however it turned out on the night. The idea alone held so much promise, it could only be an amazing experience; how amazing, we could not have predicted. It is no secret, I am sure, that The North East, and more specifically, The Sage, Gateshead, is one of Gretchen’s very favourite places to play and it was obvious from the outset that she was ecstatic to be back and to be sharing this unique experience with us. She introduced the evening by telling us if we didn’t enjoy the setlist we only had ourselves to blame; typical Gretchen humour! Above her head was a huge screen, with the image from the Circus Girl CD, with the added wordage of ‘Without a Net,’ the name of the tour. Launching into Room With a View, it was obvious we were in for some more obscure songs, alongside some faithful ‘friends.’ My request came next in the form of ‘Let That Pony Run,’ a song made famous by Pam Tillis, which she introduced by telling how I had first seen her fourteen years ago, back in a room of 40 people. How times have changed for her, but it’s been amazing watching them change! As for her performance of this stunning song, what can I say, but ‘Wow!’ It reminded me, once again, that there really is nothing like hearing the writer sing their own songs as they intended them At this point, Barry Walsh came out to join her onstage, adding brilliant piano accompaniment to a great version of Steve Earle’s I Ain’t Ever Satisfied. Firing up the screen, images were projected of her childhood, and her family. This led to one of her father and his comrades; he was an RAF pilot and the subject of ‘The Aviator’s Song.’ Preceeded by the funny story that had gone with the request for this song, Gretchen pointed out which on the picture was her father and told us a little about him. Just a couple of years ago, Gretchen ‘sent him on his way’ on that very stage, with that very song, the day after he had passed away. I found it incredibly emotive, to now be hearing that song, on that same stage, whilst looking at his picture above. Sunday Morning, Up and Down My Street,followed a set of images of their neighbourhood in Nashville, and their dog,Nigel, who is back home. Somehow talk of their English breed dog, led to talk of the recent elections; ‘What’s up with that?’ before she moved on to talk about Nashville and the recent devastating floods. Credit to her that she wanted people to see what has happened, and the damaged caused to so much of ‘the home of country music.’ (To that end, they had a top hat on the merchandise table and over the course of the tour raised over £800 to take back for the Nashville flood relief fund.) Dedicating it to her ‘hometown’ (anyone who read her recent website entry will understand), a stunning version of Revival followed, with an almost haunting image of the backstage door of The Grand Ole Opry underwater, on the screen. Even more haunting was the beautiful addition of a chorus and verse of Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927, about the New Orleans flood, ‘...the streets of Evangeline,’ seeming an equally apt description of the city of music. The Secret of Life, of course, recorded by Faith Hill, came next, which she admitted she wrote to prove that she could write a song about men, though it didn’t quite end up what it had started out as! Starting in the wrong key, she joked, ‘Well, now you know what we mean when we say without a net!’ Showing us some old photographs of her early days in music out in Boulder, Colorado, including her ‘rock phase and kiss phase,’ she explained that this song from the ‘Circus Girl’ bonus disc was never actually meant to see the light of day. That song was the gorgeous Black Eyed Susan. Moving onto more recent works, she talked of her recent CD project with Tom Russell, "One To The Heart, One To The Head", she talked about how a cowboy project maybe wasn’t the most obvious choice for her. She then brought up some pictures which proved that she really does have an inner cowgirl, before showing us a childhood picture of Barry in cowboy attire. This of course, led to Guadalupe, during which you could have heard a pin drop. I have to agree with her that this is the best song Tom Russell has ever written, and as for interpretation of it, well, it could have been written for or by her. Next came the song which first brought her name into the spotlight, really; Independence Day, of course made a hit by Martina McBride. Gretchen’s delivery is slightly different, but equally passionate. A Wine, Women and Song flashback ensued (for anyone who doesn’t know, this is the name used when Gretchen plays with Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg – not to be missed!) and she mentioned that Suzy would be touring here soon, ash cloud not withstanding! Speaking of Suzy, she then explained that the next song, Waiting For The Light to Turn Green, was written with Suzy when their ‘clocks’ were talking to them; having hit 30 this year, this song has taken on a whole new meaning for me, and I am sure I am not alone! Something they have realized on this tour, it seems, is that some songs have never been played live and they have no idea why that is the case, it is no longer the case for Summer People, which got its first live outing at The Sage. Halfway through we were all laughing with her as she sang, ‘...and I can’t remember the words...’ Following some good humoured jokes about whether we were in Gateshead or Newcastle, it was Barry’s turn to wow us, with an offering from his CD of piano music, The Crossing; his love song to the Northeast, "Leaving Newcastle". Quite simply, breathtaking. This theme was continued ‘as it is about here,’ with England Blues, which of course mentions the River Tyne so is very popular at The Sage! Showing us some pictures from UK tours of old, including a couple I had taken at that first local show at The Ropery, all those years ago, Gretchen moved into the song most loved by radio 2’s Terry Wogan and Bob Harris, ‘the song which started it all’ in terms of radio play; When You Are Old. On the subject of radio play, she then thanked local Radio presenter, Brian Clough, who was in the audience and has long supported Gretchen’s work. Another song which hadn’t been played in a while was "Like Water Into Wine", recorded by Patty Loveless, although, as Gretchen reminded us, she omitted the third verse, finding it too controversial. Gretchen, however, sang it in all its glory, ‘the un-expedited version’ as she put it, and it was all the better for it. Moving back to Barry for a while, Gretchen told us of the huge list of people with whom he has worked, from Waylon Jennings to The Boxtops. As a tribute to the latter’s Alex Chilton, who passed away recently, they had, following someone’s ‘brilliant idea,’ reworked a beautiful version of "The Letter". Barry himself said later that he had never heard a woman sing it, but Gretchen really made it her own. Alex Chilton would be proud. Talking about the whole concept of undertaking such a daredevil feat as ‘Without a Net,’ she said it seemed time to play the most requested song of the whole tour ; "Circus Girl". It seemed fitting this should be so, since this was the name of the whole project. Gretchen also spoke about how this song was originally written after taking her daughter to the circus, but over the years it has felt increasingly that it is about her life on the road. Next came "On A Bus To St Cloud", which is always especially poignant as Gretchen has always felt this song took on a life of its own here, after she was disappointed by its reception in the USA following Trisha Yearwood’s fabulous version. This song, without a doubt, is one of Gretchen’s most beautiful pieces of writing and there was an almost reverent silence around Hall 2, as everyone listened, obviously moved by the lyrics. Showing pictures of places they have visited, from Paris, to Route 66, and talking of how, even though they miss Nigel and home, she confided that she knows how blessed she is in this life to get to see these places. Firing up a final image, she told us that despite it all, that is her favourite place in the world. The picture? Her back to us, looking out from the stage. In that moment, I was never in less doubt as to her reasons for coming back time and time again; simply, she loves what she does as much as we love what she does. Thanking us, clearly from a very deep place, she and Barry launched into "To Say Goodbye"; absolutely fitting as not one of us in that room was ready to do just that. Not yet, despite the duo leaving the stage to rapturous applause. Returning to the stage, Gretchen told us that despite it being a joy to look back and rework old songs, she could not be in this place without looking forward just a little; thus we were treated to a stunning new song; "Woman on the Wheel". Certainly a good omen for the next CD. The final flourish of the evening came in a totally rocking version of "Over Africa", which is somewhat ironic as that was my request way back at that first gig of Gretchen’s 14 years ago. All too soon, the night was over, and I don’t know who was more disappointed; us in the audience, or them onstage. Gretchen thanked us once again, and left the stage to a thoroughly deserved standing ovation. Somehow, she just gets better and better and I suspect this is just the beginning of something, though what I have no idea. I was reminded during the course of the evening, of something a lady said to me on a Greyhound bus in North Carolina; that during our lifetime, as we cross paths with people, whether we meet again or not, we become a part of each others stories and therefore a part of each others lives. Whilst Gretchen’s music has long been a part of many people’s lives, without a doubt, in Hall 2, Gretchen and her audience became a part of each others stories in a very special way. Suffice to say that it was a magical night and we all have taken away some very special memories of having spent an evening in a ‘room with a view’ of musicianship at its finest. I know there is already talk of Gretchen and Barry and of Wine Women and Song returning, but for now all I can say is a huge thank you to Gretchen and Barry and wish them safe travels and a speedy return. The Sage and your audience are ready when you are... Helen Mitchell

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