Live Review: Little Green Cars with John Mark Nelson at Club Congress, Tucson, AZ – 9th April 2016

By on Tuesday, 19th April 2016 at 2:00 pm
 

In the midst of our massive ongoing coverage of SXSW 2016, it’s often easy to forget that there’s plenty of music going on outside the scope of the annual Austin festival. I arrived back home after SXSW to discover that my own local clubs were just getting started with their busy spring concert season, and once again I found myself spoilt for choice of good local gigs to attend. It’s been nearly 2 weeks ago now that I caught Irish band Little Green Cars at downtown Tucson’s Club Congress, but the show is still fresh in my mind. With all the SXSW business going on at TGTF, I hadn’t had a chance to get properly acquainted with Little Green Cars or with opening act, singer/songwriter John Mark Nelson, and in the end I was pleasantly surprised by both.

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Folk-rock artist Nelson hails from Minneapolis, and I discovered after the fact that he had also showcased at SXSW in March, though I wasn’t lucky enough to catch him while I was there. Despite his relative youth (he’s only 24 years old), he released his fourth studio album ‘I’m Not Afraid’ on Gndwire Records last autumn. He played several songs from the new album at this show, notably including ‘After All I’ve Done’ and ‘Broken’. Just ahead of his SXSW appearance, Nelson unveiled the video for ‘Control’, which features on ‘I’m Not Afraid’ and which made a strong impression in live performance here.

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Nelson at one point shared with us that his keyboardist and backing vocalist Kara Laudon is a songwriter in her own right, and he graciously allowed her a moment to shine during his set, though I found it odd in the context that she chose to do a cover rather than one of her own songs. A little post-gig research tells me that Nelson sang backing vocals on Laudon’s 2015 album ‘I Wasn’t Made’, and that guitarist Steve Bosmans and bassist Benjamin Kelly also played on both ‘I Wasn’t Made’ and ‘I’m Not Afraid’. The tight-knit nature of the group was evident in their relaxed confidence and spontaneous energy onstage at Club Congress on the night.

I had a fair idea of what to expect from headline act Little Green Cars after this review of their recent single ‘The Song They Play Every Night’ and a quick listen to their sophomore album ‘Ephemera’, which was released back in March. My first impression of ‘Ephemera’ was that its name seemed like a fair title for the record. It was pleasant enough, but nothing on the studio recording particularly struck me. In live performance, however, the songs took on a completely different tone, with the band’s strong vocal foundation lending a vibrant energy that was somehow missing in the album’s production.

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Having toured America with blues rock superstar Hozier last autumn, Little Green Cars have gained a reputation that apparently preceded them here, as Club Congress was filled to capacity by the time they took the stage. They opened with slow-building ‘Ephemera’ track ‘The Party’, and co-frontman Stevie Appleby’s whispered lyrics “it doesn’t matter / she’ll believe him / once you’ve seen it / I don’t think you’ve got a choice”, underlaid by a sinister guitar riff, captivated the audience, including myself, in very short order. Appleby then switched spots with the band’s frontwoman Faye O’Rourke for a song showcasing her lead vocals, ‘Good Women Do’. The pair continued to switch at intervals throughout the set, but their transitions were seamless, with the rest of the band providing equally seamless vocal harmonies in almost every song.

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The Dublin quintet’s set was, to no one’s surprise, heavy on songs from their new album, but what did come as a bit of a novelty was Appleby’s reading of a poem, also titled ‘Ephemera’. His reading might have been more effective if not for an overly enthusiastic male fan in the front row, who took the quiet moment as an opportunity to shout out his undying affection for the band. This would unfortunately continue through the remainder of the set, as Appleby made the mistake of acknowledging the fan’s adoration with a reply. But the band soldiered through and seemed to genuinely enjoy the rapt attention they earned from the rest of their audience.

Of their older tracks, Little Green Cars naturally played fan favourites ‘Harper Lee’ and ‘The John Wayne’, the latter of which Appleby prefaced with a story about meeting a fan actually named—“I shit you not”—John Wayne. The energy level reached a high point with that upbeat tune, ahead of O’Rourke’s spellbinding vocals in the dramatic ‘My Love Took Me Down to the River to Silence Me’ and slow-burning set closer ‘Easier Day’.

As I’ve noted before, the backstage area at Club Congress is all but non-existent, and Little Green Cars didn’t even fully get out of view before coming back onstage for their encore. They chose one more track from each album (‘I Don’t Even Know Who’ from ‘Ephemera’ and ‘The Consequences of Not Sleeping’ from ‘Absolute Zero’) before descending into the crowd for a flawless group acoustic performance of gospel-tinged new album closer ‘The Factory’. Its spiritual chorus lines “Jesus, Mary, Mother of God / I’m alive again” was most effective for its beautiful vocal harmonies, which fairly resonated through the small venue and echoed in my ears long after the show finished. Seeing great bands in such intimate settings is always a treat, and though I’d had my fill in March at SXSW, this show at Club Congress was a nice reminder that I can have the same pleasure closer to home.

Little Green Cars and John Mark Nelson will be on tour in North America through the beginning of May. Little Green Cars will play both festival and headline dates in the UK and Ireland this summer; you can find details on their official Facebook.

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