Jo Harman & Company with Steve Simpson, Coolham Village Hall, April 19
As I walk into Coolham Village Hall, rising blues star Jo Harman is onstage with her band helping the technical team sort out the sound.
She’s dressed plainly, wearing a grey hoody (with the hood up), but the voice that comes out of the unassuming figure is anything but ordinary.
After a few seconds of a warm-up song it becomes clear that the audience is in for a special night of music.
Before the show, Jo talks to the County Times about playing in such an intimate venue.
“It’s great,” she says. “We do quite intimate venues quite a lot, you know, intimate ones and larger ones so it’s lovely.”
I ask what kind of atmosphere she aims to create during a live gig.
“I like to take people on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster,” says Jo. “I really enjoy the intimate atmospheres where people can hear each breath of each song and I like to play gigs where people are sitting down because it means they’re really listening.”
The gig begins with support act Steve Simpson and his delightful solo set. The accomplished blues musician really knows his way around a guitar, offering complex yet catchy numbers with an expressive style that involves masterful finger-picking and even hitting his instrument to get the right sound. Steve’s capable of playing at blistering speed too, but always stays in control of the melody, while layering his growling vocals on top.
It all has the potential to be a bit too highbrow, but Steve delivers his songs with a nudge and a wink, claiming that he’s “borrowed” a lot of his tunes. “Most of ’em from dead blokes,” he claims, getting a laugh.
After a break and some good quality fish and chips, it’s time for the main act.
It’s a gentle start as Jo – now wearing a stylish black dress and silver high heels – walks out onstage to perform the tender and transcendent number I Shall Not Be Moved. Things liven up, though, with the high energy groove of Heartstring.
Most of the evening’s songs are from Jo’s debut album, Dirt On My Tongue. Tunes like Underneath The River offer joyous explosions of music, while more sensitive numbers like Sweet Man Moses display a powerful emotional depth and maturity.
Not all the music is from Jo’s debut album, though. One highlight, No Regrets, only exists as a live recording at the moment, while The Dancer is a fun cover of a Leo Sayer single.
The music sounds fantastic but Jo doesn’t purely rely on her sassy and soulful vocals for self-expression. Like all good performers she gets caught up in the rhythm, dancing and gesturing as the superior musicians in her band keep the hall rocking.
Steve Watts makes playing the keyboard look easy, providing some thrilling organ music with the occasional mind-blowing flourish. Terry Lewis keeps things funky with his bass playing while Martin Johnson’s awesome drumming offers some explosive moments without drowning out the other instruments.
Dave Ital on lead guitar is excellent, at one point taking the audience on an astonishing musical voyage with a great guitar solo.
The band members have a good chemistry too, cracking jokes between songs and teasing each other with the occasional witty aside.
At the end of the evening, organiser Graeme Tame thanks all the musicians for performing in Coolham.
“I don’t know about you, but I think that was world-class,” he says.
I’m inclined to agree.