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Crooked Still, The Borderline, London, March 23rd 2010

March 27, 2010

I’m not a fan of makeovers, so I approached this evening with some trepidation, as The Suit and I were going to be exposed to not one, not two, but three makeovers. First, some fool decided that Greek Street’s inestimable boozer The Pillars of Hercules – always good for a pint or three before a show at The Borderline – needed a fresh start. Second, The Borderline itself – a wonderfully ramshackle basement venue showing its roots as part of 80s Tex-Mex restaurant Break For The Border – was shut for a while to undergo a ‘refurbishment’.

And finally, young Boston bluegrass band Crooked Still have undergone a makeover since I last saw them – which, in truth, was two-and-a-half years ago, but even so… They’ve lost a phenomenal bluegrass cellist (yes, really) Rushad Eggleston, but gained the services of another, Tristan Clarridge, plus fiddle-player Brittany Haas.

Anyway, first stop was The Pillars of Hercules, which still smelled of paint, though actually they haven’t done a lot to the place – smaller and smarter tables, poshed-up menu and so on – but putting a skylight into the ceiling above the back area is a big mistake. Sometimes people want to escape to the gloom and maybe not want to see each other clearly – or indeed be seen by others. So, the first makeover gets a thumb neither up nor down: they haven’t ruined it, but what they have done is pointless.

And now to The Borderline…. there’s a tiny extra bar been added next to the bottom of the stairs, which have lost their historic gig posters – I only hope they’re going to put them back. And the cloakroom has been moved right over to the far side next to the merch table, which isn’t actually horrible, but the stage’s backdrop most certainly is. Here’s a picture of how the stage has always looked (from a Dar Williams gig last year):

Distinctive, yes? Well they’ve put a stupid burgundy velvet curtain behind the stage, so it looks like any old venue now. Grrrr…. so thumbs down to The Borderline’s makeover.

And Crooked Still? A thumbs up, happily. Tristan Claridge’s cello is a worthy successor to that of the phenomenal Rushad, and Brittany Haas plays a mean fiddle. Add to that the briliant banjo-playing of Greg Liszt (you may have seen him play in Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band) and the fine voice of Aoife O’Donovan and they’re onto a winner.

I failed to make any notes during the gig, as The Suit and I were enjoying the Newcastle Brown at the tarted-up main bar, but highlights were a cracking version of Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen and a fierce, funky Ain’t No Grave. Undone In Sorrow was cool and wistful, while  The Lovesick Red Stick Blues raised a smile.

Crooked Still are young, ambitious and very talented, and perhaps there’s a wee bit too much polish in some of the rougher bluegrass numbers, but they certainly deliver a great toe-tapping night out. Here’s the lovely Orphan Girl from RTE’s Late, Late Show a few days ago:

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