Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
It’s like the valley’s equivalent of a Vegas residency!” jokes Cardinal Black’s subliminal six-stringer Chris Buck ahead of yet another sold out show at Crumlin’s Patriot venue.
A brace of capacity gigs to add to a pair just over a year ago; and a colossal amount of traction has powered through the twelve months in between for this much-loved Welsh blues-rock outfit.
This evening is a coming together of forces at the flux of the year. The last fullness of the moon is beginning to wane whilst the re-balancing of the solstice is just around the corner. The seasonal spirits grow increasingly restless; there’s a Dickensian etherealness in the chill valley air.
The umbra of the valley’s past is ever present. Some are tangible and a present-day reminder whilst others are now but a distant memory ebbing away like the outgoing tide. Lamp blazing atop his safety helmet, as if he had just stepped out of the shaft cage, the spirit beckons us. Cast your eye upon the remains of The Navigation colliery and then look southwards. Nothing at first but as mists clear so the Crumlin Viaduct appears, once the highest in the UK. Neither have seen action since falling into disuse in the 60s but are intrinsically entwined with the pride and culture.
The valley’s heart still beats, even in these troubled times, and at its nucleus is the Patriot. A present-day shining evergreen beacon that draws from near and far. With its warmth of welcome and generosity in the rocking gifts it offers to its loyal patrons there is an assuredness in the larger-than-life soul within.
Brightly lit the Patriot’s environs ward off the encroaching shadows, dusky shrouds dispelled. For here is not a fearful vision of what is ‘yet to come’ but rather a joyous celebration of a mellifluous future. The very essence of the past here this evening to offer a tantalising glimpse of futurity.
It’s a homecoming in every sense of the word, the six components that comprise Cardinal Black clearly have an affinity with this venue and the valleys as a whole. Their 21st century take on the time-honoured blues possesses a silken smooth nucleus with an eminently delicious grittiness. From molten steel to the black gold mined at the rock-face.
Opening proceedings is Aberdare-born songstress Laura Evans, a very welcome surprise for us as her name had been upon our personal music radar since the release of her debut album ‘State Of Mind’ back in the summer. Peaking at the very top of the UK Blues chart it’s looked upon with a clear sense of pride by its creator. Six of the seven tracks in this evening’s half hour long slot are lifted from it. Nestling comfortably amongst this alloying of blues and country is a richly toned rendition of Chris Stapleton’s ‘Arkansas.’
Bang on the hour of eight Evan’s guitarist Joe Coombs delivers the affluent opening tones of ‘Solo.’ With heads nodding and feet tapping along in the crowd the diminutive figure of Evans joins the party. In part Stevie Nicks and a parallel of Elles Bailey her voice is one of angels. Instantly hooked, the Patriot is rammed.
Flowing effortlessly as does the mountain river appears so Evans and Coombs despatch a stripped back acoustic version of the soaring ‘Fire With Fire.’ Ahead of a full-band mini-tour in February this up-close intimate heartfelt performance has whetted my appetite, and many others no doubt, for further.
Stapleton’s country-rocker ‘Arkansas’ outruns the law with its youthful exuberance. Going to take the bottle in hand to neck some bourbon down by the creek. “Thank you, Mister Joe Coombs, on guitar. He’s not bad, is he?” introduces Evans.
Slowing it down a gear or two we are treated to a songbird ‘Fool’; nary a mouse stirs, a pin should it be dropped would be heard. Captivation is complete as Evans’ crystal-clear vocals, as pure as the first melt of spring, wrap about Coombs’ gentle acoustic notes. There’s a husky, smoke vibrancy with the travelling lonesome ‘Gone’, the interstate is calling.
From San Jose to LA ‘State Of Mind’ is a kerosene-fuelled freeway queen. Hood down and cruise-control on 88 this bluesy 12 bar track works so well in the acoustic realms. True to its lyrics ‘I’m Alright’ prowls like the “Lion inside” with a majestic swagger. Armed with an infectious hook this track gallops across the Nebraska plains into South Dakota at a fair old lick to close a sizzling set. Personally, I can’t wait for the February dates.
Watch Laura’s pre-show interview with MPM here –
If the evening had ended at this juncture, I would have been content on so many levels. However, this is the gift that keeps on giving and stretching ahead of all gathered at the Patriot lies a blues-soaked freeway over 100 minutes in duration courtesy of local heroes Cardinal Black. Someone, I forget whom, once said to play the blues you have to have the blues. Well, these guys have the blues by the absolute pallet load; gravelly and gritty yet anointed with a medicinally smooth wrap, exemplary perfection personified in my humblest of opinions.
With a copious expansiveness equivalent to that of The Nine Feet (or Black) Vein that the colliery at Navigation had exploited Cardinal Black are onto a sure-fire winner. With an appropriate bathing of blue so the band take to the boards just after nine. Frontman Tom Hollister, he the possessor of a voice of criminally chocolatey smoothness fused in a hazy, crunchy outer, takes the mic and with an understated “How ya doing?” gets the wagons rolling.
The soulfully deep ‘Rise Up’, like upon the recently released ‘January Came Close’, rears up off the starting line. “I’m a pretender, comatose I write forever” sings Hollister emotively. There’s not a spare square inch, the Patriot is completely packed as the shimmering blues licks of Chris Buck resound stirringly. This is one of those moments where it’s equally about the notes that are not played as those that are. Precision from within a deep, deep soul.
The heart-rendering beauty of ‘Run’ sees the low end from Sam Williams’ Rickenbacker swirlingly entwine with Hollister’s vocals before the vocalist chuckles “I forgot my normal hat so I’m wearing the bottle hat. It keeps rising up, I’m already regretting it. Errant headwear aside the blues-drenched accents of ‘Where I’ve Been’ are affectionally exalted. Hollister, playfully, two-handed holds his frame singing “Worry ‘bout the shape I’m in.”
The vocal talents of Tay Cousins are welcomed up to stage left. Having witnessed Tay perform with CB within the walls of Cardiff Castle back at their first ever live show in 2021 I know we’re in for an absolute treat.
With a high-level resonance of Pink Floyd’s ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ Cousins brings in the deep mined spirit of ‘Jump In’ with a clarity of being so very rarely witnessed. Buck’s searing solo expand the allurement whilst Gregg Hollister’s keys embrace. Take off is complete, the runway is left far below as we break through the tops of the clouds.
‘Ain’t My Time’ is restarted with Tom guffawing in honesty “I could give you a bullshit excuse about the monitors, but I missed my cue!” With a touch of Sean Webster and Seal Tom swiftly regains his composure to the joy of the Patriot crowd. A loud cheer resonates; here being ‘real’ is paramount.
A third non-album track in the form of ‘In My Head’ is despatched in fine order with Tay bringing the number in whilst Gregg’s Bruce Hornsby-esque keys sparkle and glimmer. Spirits swirl around candlelight. The remainder of the set is filled with the eight outstanding tracks from ‘January Came Close.’ An album which, upon its release, I’d avoided like the plague so as to hear its components for the first time in the live arena. I’m not disappointed, but there was never going to be a question of this. A reputation of quality precedes.
The tour-de-force of ‘Half Way’ is a graceful, and strong, as the albatross upon the wing heading over storm-blighted ocean expanses. Buck’s conflagrant blues solo sparks, with a slice of Yes, from his fret, alongside Williams and Roberts rhythms dance as Tom sings “Just remember how it feels.” I’m pretty certain everyone here tonight will do so.
As per the album so the balladic ‘On My Own’ flows next as the gracefully meandering river that CB travel upon reaches its next turn. “We needed light and shade, a ballad. This is for my wife and daughter.” A delightfully rasping Buck riff complements Tom’s gravelly vox perfectly. A highly passionate solo with Gilmour / Rothery precision sees notes dance as luminescing fireflies.
The Pink Floyd inspired ‘Terra Firma’ wrote as Tom explains “For a friend who as going through a shitty time” is as nectarous ballad as there is. With the purity of the first melt of the winter snow in the rays of the early spring sunshine “I’m going home” emotes Tom and Tay in harmony.
The sweet solitude of ‘Warm Love’ coupled with the raw powering blues of ‘Where Do You Go?’ and the cascading of ‘Tell Me How It Feels’ form a fine triumvirate that feature upon both ‘January Came Close’ and 2021’s eponymous EP. Prior to the latter Tom most gratefully accepts a pint of Guiness from the crowd; here’s a talent that simply cannot be taught!
Thanking everyone for their support and wishing all a good Christmas and New Year Tom puts his hands above his head and applauds the Patriot ensemble. “Ok, do we want one more? Two more?” he enquires.
‘I’m Ready’, going out to his family, “This one is about whether I could cope with fatherhood” Tom clarifies before adding “I’ll get back to you!” An expressive ballad it explodes, quite unexpectedly, with a touch of Sam & Dave bound with a rock n’ roll shuffle to outro. Expanded and reworked the band are in full flow with this number – a pounding solo from the percussive forces of Adam Roberts, some good time ‘gospelling’ from Tom. Whooping and hollering “I feel the love in this room!”
The set is very neatly, almost symmetrically, book ended as CB end with their album closer ‘Tied Up In Blue.’ Destined to be a crowd favourite for time immemorial there’s not a dry eye in the house such are the sensitivities laid bare herein. A Gilmour-esque solo from Buck lays waste to the venue. The rafters well and truly lifted. If there was a way I wished from my year to end in musical realms then this is, indeed, it. Utterly transcendent. Spirits of past, present, and future embrace with the unrestrained revelry of Saturnalia.
Watch Cardinal Black’s interview with MPM here –
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM