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Carson McHone, 28 May, Cafe #9

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Cafe #9 in Nether Edge is as appropriate a setting for Carson McHone's alternative Americana as you could find in Sheffield. Wood-panelled, laden with vintage tchotchkes and centred around a woodland landscape painting, it allows MacHone to transplant a sense of roadside tavern authenticity into rainy-day northern England. The catch, unlike in the parasitic dynamic between bar and addict in McHone's 'Dram Shop Girl', is that they serve only coffee or tea. Beers are bring-your-own, no hard sell.

With limbs almost interlocking in the cafe's tiny performance space, McHone's four-piece band nevertheless display excellent musicianship. The cramped space contributes to the sense that they move as one organism. The guitarist-pianist doesn't give a stumble-free performance - there are difficulties with pedals, a few screeches of feedback - but he wins the audience over as his prowess on multiple instruments, including vocal harmonies, is slowly revealed. The barnstorming guitar solo he contributes to a later song feels less like showing off, in this context, than a glorious release of tension. McHone displays instrumental proficiency of her own on guitar and then harmonica, which seems as much like an extension of her soul as her sorrow-racked vocals.

McHone is obliged to play a quadruple encore

After exhausting her usual repertoire, McHone treats the audience to new songs, signalling no end to her winning streak of coming up with striking, poignant imagery.

On 'Fingernail Moon', the waning satellite is likened to a gnawed fingernail, a metaphor for her own fretted spirit and yearning for fulfilment. Elsewhere, the act of denying the full vibrancy of one's character in order to live in a world that demands conformity becomes "trimming the rose / to help it grow", a line so cutting that McHone admits to regularly weeping over it.

Between the rapturous applause and the standing ovations, McHone is obliged to play a quadruple encore. She plays until there's nothing left.

Andrew Trayford

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