Given main Rails man James Walbourne’s full-blooded commitment to musical tradition – at one point in the show he recounts how his Dad would bring him to the 100 Club to hear already ancient blues legends play when he was just six years old – it’s not a surprise to find his folk-rock combo, formed with his wife Kami Thompson some five years ago, playing this stage on their current ‘Late Surrender’ UK tour. What I wasn’t prepared for was the way the band – sharp and bright as a tack - and Walbourne' in particular, channelled the energy of a thousand rock, blues and punk bands who have played under the club’s hallowed basement ceiling.

The Rails on their albums and EPs create the kind of sound you might naturally associate with the rather reductive label ‘folk rock’. Without checking the liner notes, it can be difficult to figure out which of the tracks are their arrangements of traditional folk songs and which are their own compositions. The studio recordings are intricate, layered and imaginatively produced. But let loose on stage, the Rails are a different proposition altogether.

They open with ‘The Cally’, a tribute to a pub on London’s Caledonian Road; it is populated by character sketches inspired by stories that Walbourne’s grandfather Sidney would regale him with. It’s a tender song taken at a measured pace, but you can tell from the muzzled roar of James’s Telecaster that he’s already itching to shift up through the gears. By the time they hit ‘Late Surrender’, another cut from their recent ‘Other People’ LP, the tone for the evening has been emphatically established: this is a rock’n’roll show; always beautifully melodic but full pelt and LOUD. The only concession to the folk fans is a two song acoustic interlude comprising a couple of traditional songs, the gorgeous ‘I Wish, I Wish’ and doom-laden ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’. Thanks to an attentive and responsive soundman, James and Kami’s beautifully woven harmonies always cut through the wall of sound that the band conjures, but it is here – two voices and two acoustic guitars - that the vocal blend really shines. Tonight, we are also treated to a double bill of two of the Rails’ most stunning compositions – ‘Send Her to Holloway’ and ‘Dark Times’, the latter a shattering tale of a couple falling apart in acts of mutual and self-destruction.

At the centre of the Rails’ unique sound, I think, is the tension in James between two genres; by the songs he writes and the traditional tunes he and Kami dig up from hundreds of years past. You can tell how powerful the folk strains are in the musical DNA. But Walbourne is at heart a rock’n’roller: his 50's/60's band, Mother’s Little Helper, regularly bounces off the walls of the Boogaloo in Highgate when he is not Railing or holding down his other job as lead guitarist for the Pretenders. Nowhere is this more evident tonight than on the traditional ballad ‘Australia’ that starts tenderly but closes with Walbourne seemingly in a world of his own, riffing furiously; not for the first time, it feels like everyone on stage and off just has to take a step back and let him exorcise the demon.

On stage, he can be a bewildering figure: the fierce intensity of the performances contrasts with his good-natured banter, as he picks up on crowd requests, tilts at Spurs, Royal Weddings and property developers, and ribs his bandmates.Kami meanwhile, somehow exuding a Zen-like calm at the eye of the storm, breaks hearts with the title track of their debut album, ‘Fair Warning’, and the energy level never drops even in those rare moments when the band briefly takes their foot off the gas. The evening ends with an angry, impassioned ‘Brick and Mortar’, a lament for the death of ‘old Soho’ preceded by an appeal for the preservation of venues like the 100 Club, and as the band plays out with a final encore, the rollicking ‘Borstal’, you begin to fear for the brick and mortar around the stage.

Buy all means go and buy the albums – I’d recommend them without reservation. But don’t miss them live. The Rails are doing something extraordinary out under the lights every night, and they don’t tour often enough. Experience it while you can.










Related Links:

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