Nikki Lane is the self-proclaimed Queen of Outlaw Country. At least from this side of the pond, it seems a deserved title. Apt too, if you’re a fan of her retro, swaggering sound. Lane’s current tour follows the release of her slickest album yet, Highway Queen. Sadly, I missed special guest Ruby Boots’ entire set, although I did get the chance to hear from her later.
The most significance change in Lane’s music is the incorporation of a three-piece band. The Tennessee Dirtbags brought a rock and roll flare to the show. Songs like the titular Highway Queen and 700,00 Red Necks are classic Outlaw, with a funk vibe in the latter. Tonight, they became showcases for classic power solos. Others, like honky-tonk flavoured Jackpot and Big Mouth, remained a kind of amped-up, energised Country. On the other hand, songs such as lush waltz Companion, or the lilting Send the Sun, remained sweet and nuanced.
Nikki Lane’s slip on the very first song of the night – akwardly blanking on a couple of lines – did not bode well. Yet she proved to be in good form too, with a voice just as polished live as on record. Lane is also a natural showwoman, telling anecdotes and jokes between songs, and brought a truly intimate, even familial vibe. On the next misstep, she got an affable laugh out of everyone instead.
I was pleasantly suprised by the set list, wherein the material from Highway Queen was in the minority. Almost as much time was devoted to Lane’s earlier material, particularly from All or Nothing. Man Up greatly benefitted from the spit and polish treatment, and could have been from the new album. The rest preserved the eclectic sound of the original recording. Pop duet Love’s on Fire wasn’t lacking from Dan Auerbach’s (necessary) replacement. The titular track got a thrilling, psychedelic interpretation. You Can’t Talk to Me Like That, mournful Blue-eyed Soul, shines brightly in live performance.
Lane’s debut album, represented by just two songs, didn’t fare quite so well. Blue Star in the Sky, thanks to Ruby Boots’s vocal accompaniment, was a beautiful oddity – a lullaby at a rodeo. Even in the encore, Walk of Shame almost sounded muddy relative to everything else. It was performed well, but the song itself demonstrates how far Lane has come.
Yet for me, having listened to Highway Queen for the past few weeks, the best part of the night was the cover material. One of my favourites was Jessie Coulter’s Why You Been Gone So Long. True to the soulful spirit of the original, I simply prefer Lane’s crooning voice for it. Another was a singalong You Ain’t Going Nowhere, attributed to Bob Dylan but performed closer to The Byrds’s rollicking rendition.
All-in-all, this was a very fun performance. One which, in most circumstances, would send the crowd wild and bring the house down.
Of course this is England: the land of the phlegmatic, prim and proper concert-goer. Far be it from me to dictate how anyone should enjoy music; no doubt I looked absurd wiggling around all on my lonesome. Yet it seems odd to crowd into a concert hall, for this kind of music, and just stand around. Broadly, I saw a split between women making some attempt, and a large number of stern-looking men. The latter stood unmoved, arms crossed, staring at the stage as if evaluating a piece of machinery. Only the enthusiastic clapping, accompanying songs and summoning the band for an encore, betrayed the crowd’s feelings.
Yet quite a few people did get into the swing of things. Many more stayed behind after the show, both for the merchandise and to meet the musicians. Lane was especially game, happily chatting and snapping selfies with everyone who dawdled. Much like her music, she captures the spirit of the time-burnished yesteryear in a effortless, contemporary sort of way. Out of all the modern Country I listen to – admittedly very little – this is my go-to recommendation.