It’s July, and fairy lights cover the stage at Plymouth’s B-Bar. Right, OK. I’m here to listen to an English rose from Dartmoor sing Americana and old-time songs. Kinda weird, but I like it. There’s a few pints of cider on stage because West Country, and I notice none of the instruments are amplified – the sound crew have pointed mics at them instead. This is an evening of properly unplugged music how it should be.
Eliza’s opener, ‘Deep River Blues’, treads a line that I would have thought impossible. Her voice has a lilting sweetness to it that’s pure English, but the guitar work and attitude of the song are straight from a smoky blues bar. ‘Come All You Virginia Girls’ swings that balance a little, Eliza’s voice more soulful than mellow as languorous guitars drip southern heat through the music’s heart. It’s a powerful demonstration of her range of influences and performance styles, and bottles the beguiling mix of English folk, American old-time and blues attitude Eliza mixes perfectly. The crowd, who until now have been getting into some of Devon’s best Thai food, start to sit up and really get into what’s on stage from here on in.
The string that ties Eliza’s set together is the telling of stories. There are no straight-up love songs in there, and she stays away from caricatures of Americans crying into their beer as they play banjo. “This next song is a really old timey one”, she tells the audience, adding “in the Appalachians they would yodel this – but I won’t.” Her dad, clearly a big part of Eliza’s music and a masterful clawhammer guitar and banjo player adds “and I left my yodel at home.” Songs written decades before anyone in the room was born lead into more contemporary ones that tell a different story. A cover of Dirk Powell’s ‘Waterbound’ tells the mournful story of Hurricane Katrina, Eliza’s deft guitar layered with her dad’s more intense, attacking style and the gentle sadness in her vocals.
The duo take songs from anywhere. ‘I Wish My Baby Was Born’ from the soundtrack to the movie Cold Mountain delights the audience, now intent and clapping to each track. “We’ll change things a bit now – this next one was covered by Nirvana”, she announces. It’s only when the first notes of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ play out and some of us recognise the track that we realise she was being serious.
The seamless leaps from set structures of bluegrass and old-time music to more complex styles has clearly influenced her songwriting too. There’s more than a touch of Neil Young or Bob Dylan in what Eliza pens, and sounds that could have come straight from a Simon & Garfunkel dot her own music. “It’s nice to get away from the set keys of old time”, she says, freely acknowledging more recent influences and sounds from the rich seam of acoustic music this side of the Atlantic too. This half English Rose, half Southern Belle throws in a request from a crowd she played last week, and although we’ve all heard it before, ‘Jolene’ goes down a storm. It’s the perfect example of what Eliza’s done all the way through her set – take one style, shake it about, stamp her personality all over it and perform with the heart and skill of someone far more experienced than her. Catch her where you can.
-Words : Joe Morel, Photo : Rob Evans