When I arrive at Andrew Combs' changing room half an hour before he’s about to go on stage at the Union Chapel in Islington in London, he is relaxed and receptive.

The changing room is an epitome of rock and roll - the church vestry. His belongings and attire are minimal, sparse, a suitcase, guitar, jacket over a chair. He is very much a musician on the road. This is his last evening gig before he’s homeward bound to Nashville. Combs has been supporting Justin Townes Earle on a wide ranging European tour throughout January and February.

The tour, a promotion of his new album 'All These Dreams' released by Loose Records on January 26th 2015, has been greeted with positive reviews by his fans and all sections of the music press. I reviewed the album (February edition of Pennyblackmusic Magazine). I ask him if he’s seen the review. “Yeah, you're the guy who said I had outrageously mature lyrics for a 28 year old. Right?" he checks. "That’s me," I tell him and we both break into an easy laugh.

Combs looks and sounds casual, at ease with the world, but gauged by his troubled lyrics you would beg to differ. From his well worn boots to his Texan drawl, this guy has one speed, which is cruise.

He tells me the tour has been great, how he's looking forward to tonight's gig with what should have two certainties: Those fantastic Union Chapel acoustics and a sold-out auditorium.

“I'm glad this is a big gig in terms of folks who have turned out. It’s nice to close off here, ‘cause, man, I’m ready for home,” he says, using a hand to comb back his sweeping locks. Waiting back home are his girlfriend, dogs and newly acquired Jon boat. The boat was bought by his girlfriend as a Christmas present, so he can indulge in his hobby of fishing.

I ask if his lyrics are drawn from experiences, and either self-fulfilling prophecies or stories? “Well it can be a little of each. Most times I get an idea and run with it. Write it down, throw it away, write it down until it sounds right. That’s about it really. No doubt some of the songs are about me and people who have passed through my life," he says openly.

We discuss what I believe to be are some outstanding lyrics on the track 'Pearl' with “A pearl in the rubble/A rainbow from a puddle,” encapsulating the down and out characters whose lives haven’t gone to plan. “More than anything it’s observational. It is about those people we see every day, their situations and the way they make me feel. Sometimes I manage to get it down on paper, and make it work," he explains.

I offer an opinion: "I think for some people your music and style are a slow burn." With that comment he’s upright in his chair. “Man, that’s right. My whole life has been a slow burn. Everything I’ve ever done has had to have a timescale, a duration for it to be completed. Nothing comes quickly for me.” He’s smiling as if someone has just unlocked his DNA code.

It’s show time. When Combs arrives on stage, the Chapel has an audience of around 750. He opens with 'Month of Bad Habits', a track from the new album about someone finding solace in easy drinking wine and strangers in a motel blanking out a love gone wrong.

It only takes his second song 'Please, Please, Please' to hear the huge differential between studio and live performance being played out here.

These aren’t Americana, folk or country styled arrangements. There aren’t any stringed sections, slide guitars or pedal drums in support. This is one man drinking whiskey from a coffee cup, solo with his guitar. Here we have a singer-songwriter, a storyteller. Gauging from the audience reaction, they love it.

“Man, I love this place,” he says looking up at the Chapel’s ceiling. “With these acoustics anyone can sound good.” The audience laugh at his self-deprecation.

The Chapel has somewhat of an iconic status in and around London amongst the music fraternity. The building as it stands today was opened in 1877. It survived, but was badly damaged due to V1 bombings during the latter part of WW2. It survived a demolition order in 1981 after local residents campaigned to save it. In 2011 The Chapel became a Grade 1 listed building, meaning it is protected by law from demolition. Since 2002, it has won the title of London’s Best Music Venue on numerous occasions.

Combs doesn’t have to fight with people talking or the clinking of glasses. This is a gathering of listeners. The atmosphere is respectful to performer and its reverential surroundings.

He brings stories and humour to his songs' introductions.

“This is my Mom’s least favourite song, 'Too Stoned to Cry'. 'Why don’t you write happy songs?' she asks me. 'One day Mom, one day,' I tell her." There's an audience age differential, some laugh with him, others side with the concerned parent.

“This is a song I wrote recently, first time out. Hope you like it. It's called 'Silk Flowers'."

Sure enough, it’s not on any of his albums, or released as a single. He has a knack, style, ability, skill (whatever) to catch a line and the song is fully understood. Here again we know it’s about a wronged relationship. “My love is like these roses/Dying to be true.” Plastic roses wanting to be real, a wonderful metaphor.

Combs closes with 'Foolin’', again from his latest album. A song on how people (himself included he tells the audience) make their world sound so much better when conversing on social media. Hence “Who do I think I’m foolin’”

An hour after his set is finished, autographs have been signed and his merchandise sold and we are back in his “dressing room.”

He’s still in cruise control. He says he’s very happy with the crowd’s reaction to his songs. The venue sound was better than he could have anticipated. I tell him I thought the 45 minute set was very good, and the audience were on his side from the first song. “Thanks, the guys (audience) are here to see Justin.” Self-deprecation strikes again.

On arriving back home his time in Nashville will be limited. Combs has a week or so before he’s back on the touring circuit again during February and March. Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama and a home gig in Nashville will be just some of the stops on his tour schedule.

“What's lined up for later in the year? Any plans for another UK tour or festivals?” I ask.

He surprises me. “No plans at present. If they (venues/promoters) ask, I’ll play,” he says with a shrug of the shoulders.

I press a little deeper noting his new album has had great reviews along with his gigs. Is there any reason why a schedule isn’t set up?

“I’m sure people are working on it, I just don’t know at present,” he says somewhat diplomatically.

His songs touch on finding Jesus, a solace and need for alcohol, loneliness, insecurity, broken promises and failed relationships. As the friend asks in 'Rainy Day Song', ” Boy you sound so lonely/All these cheating, leavin’ done me wrong songs/Ever heard of a happy song…”

During our time together, he dips in and out of being someone who knows what he wants, in terms of his musical direction. At other times he feels a long way from home. A musician on the road, only the strong survive.

On the evidence of his Union Chapel gig and new album you’d be pushed to hear a better singer songwriter at this moment in time.

I would suggest that if Andrew Combs hits this year’s UK Festival circuit the tag slow burn would be condemned to the past.

Oh ,and as I’ve said before, “Check this boy’s birth certificate.”


Photos: Robin Pope
www.robinpope.co.uk









Related Links:

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