To the initiate, bluegrass music comes close to being a religion. It has transcended its beginnings in the hills of American Appalachia and it speaks to an unlikely impulse in our modern lives – one that hearkens back to earlier, simpler times.

And what better place is there in which to have a spiritual experience than a working chapel? That’s what brings us to Islington’s Union Chapel on an unusually fair-weathered Sunday afternoon in the middle of a rainy, flooded February. The draw is the Coal Porters, a modern bluegrass act led by the legendary country man Sid Griffin, late of the Long Ryders and latterly to be found as BBC Radio’s go-to bluegrass enthusiast.

The band take the stage, sharply dressed in grey suits, and with Sid jauntily sporting a tartan tie and carrying a mandolin. They may not look like hillbillies – double-bass player Tali Trow has long hair and a bushy beard while banjo man John Breese is clipped of hair and beard, and fiddler Carly Frey wears a businesslike grey dress – but they can certainly play the music, and like all good country acts they’re having fun on stage.

For the first three songs, Sid, Tali and Carly take turns on lead vocals, giving the packed hall what it wants – good, honest folk music, but not stuck in the past. As with the Long Ryders, the Coal Porters are resolutely modern in their outlook, and sound like a wonderful synergy of a 1950s sensibility with 21st century music and lyrics.

That’s borne out – albeit via the 1970s – by the fourth number, which Sid introduces amid much shuffling within the band (he explains that because they’re temporarily a foursome there’s some rearranging to do between songs) that this was “the single” from the band’s most recent record. It turns out to be a lovely acoustic arrangement of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, in which Tali takes the first verse and Carly the second, with all the while Sid standing at the back, throwing his head back to howl backing vocals. The effect, which would be powerfully arresting in the night, is considerably more jarring at a bright 4 p.m., though it loses none of its potency for being robbed of its cover of darkness.

‘Betsey Trotwood’, dedicated to the tiny subterranean London venue, is an old-fashioned and beautiful acoustic breakdown written by Breese which somehow evokes Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ in its cadences.

So having introduced the Coal Porters as a bluegrass band, I find that description somehow lacking. True, live they are more down-homey than they are on record – especially as they all sing harmonies leaning into the single old RCA-style microphone on the small wooden stage – but still the band display a grasp of songwriting and musicianship for which most ‘rock’ acts would sell their drummer’s arms.

The show ends with the whole band off the stage and in the audience and, finally, Sid standing on a table and taking the whole crowd with him. The Coal Porters – based in London, which somehow befits the Americana rather than clashing with it – are on tour at the moment and are thoroughly, whole-heartedly recommended.









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