This Andrew Combs / Barna Howard article was written by Josh Hummerston, a GIGsoup contributor
As quiet murmurs reverberate around the compact and intimate setting of Newcastle’s own Cluny 2, an unassuming and timid man makes his way to the stage through an ever increasing and eager crowd.
Support act Barna Howard, a singer/songwriter straight out of the American Midwest, offers a selection of country infused folk songs that share a remarkable similarity to the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Willie Nelson. Everything about Barna Howard screams Americana, right from his double denim and trucker cap ensemble to his every song epitomizing the nostalgic sentiments of his childhood in the small town of Eureka in Missouri. Howard’s knack for interweaving captivating storytelling amongst tender guitar and heart-warming vocal melodies is unparalleled. Part of Howard’s live appeal resides in his chilled-out and amiable approach to performing, as he reels out a wholly improvised set list stating “I’m just winging it, which is nice.” With each song being carefully selected and played at Howard’s discretion, the gig feels like one of a kind, lending to a truly magical experience.
Despite Howard’s notably nervous and shy interactions with the audience in between songs, he manages to retain an otherwise charming and endearing sense of authenticity that is reflected when he sheds a tear performing third track ‘Hands like Gloves’, a song that refers to domestic abuse directed towards his mother in his formative years. Following Songs ‘Indiana Rose’ and ‘Bitter side of Blue’ offer a more upbeat yet equally captivating experience as Howard ruminates upon simpler and better times, inviting the audience in doing the same.
Looking even more so like the quintessential definition of America incarnate, Andrew Combs and his accompanying band take to the stage to a now crammed venue to deliver a salvo of country/rock‘n’roll/ pop stylings. A mixed bag of new material and content from his previous album, Combs delivers a well-balanced and versatile set that is consistently enthralling throughout.
Newer songs such as ‘Nothing to lose’ and ‘Foolin’ afford the same impact and resonation that older material such as the brooding ‘Please, Please, Please’ and the profound ‘Too Stoned to Cry’, yet at the same time retain a more mainstream and pop sound, as sweet and mesmerising melodies give way to catchy hooks and huge choruses. Much like Barna Howard, the stylization is very much Americana and country orientated, yet more adorned with various nuances and applications of other styles such as Rock or Blues. More confident and engaging than the support, Combs’ performance seems effortless as he glides through song after song, even managing to overcome a persistent and obvious buzz that pestersed the band on their previous show to the Cluny. Although visibly irritated, Combs’ professionalism shines through as he states “Let’s roll with it”.
Despite the incessant buzz, Combs delivers consistently strong performances, most notably on self-professed silly song ‘Strangebird’ in which Combs sounds a likeness to fellow American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. Different from much of Combs repertoire, the song is effortlessly guided by his strong sense of melody and phrasing, making for a mellifluous rendition that sets itself apart from the rest of the set. The fact that Combs appears with a full band means that various aspects not previously possible as a solo musician come to light. One of these aspects, a prominent highlight of the performance, is the masterful harmonies delegated between Comb’s and his bandmates. They add a delicate and sumptuous texturing to the dynamic of the band, making for a well-rounded and comprehensive sound. The band themselves make for wholly proficient and competent players, helping to add to the already formidable sound with their strong sense of musicianship.
The guitar work throughout the set is mesmerising, with increasingly acrobatic and slick lead guitar intermeshing seamlessly with Comb’s fingerpicking and strumming creating a truly awe inspiring spectacle to onlookers below. Basslines and percussion lock together for a meticulously tight conduit for which to carry Comb’s powerful and distinctive vocal capacity as showcased on songs like ‘Long gone lately and ‘Foolin’’ ultimately highlighting Combs’ ability to write well structured, catchy and instrumentally eminent compositions.
Delivering another classic that encapsulates a truly bluesy American sound, ‘Devils Got My Woman’ presents the band at their liveliest as crashing drums and smooth guitar licks take centre hold. The versatility of the band is exceedingly impressive as they back and fro from a range of dynamics and musical styles but never sound anything other than the definitive and distinctive sound of Andrew Combs. The performance comes to an end with none other than crowd favourite ‘Emily,’ in which the band burst into a rambunctious and full throttle country pop tune that deals out one of the most indisputably catchy choruses of Comb’s entire back catalogue. The whole room erupts, singing along in unison, evidently highlighting Comb’s well deserved, devoted and ever growing fan base. After the completion of ‘Emily’ the band leaves the stage only to be called back for the inevitable encore to follow. This time however, instead of having the band present, Combs plays a solo rendition of the beautifully tender ‘Silver flowers’, in which he comfortably demonstrates his impressive credentials as an individual performer and musician.
Considering that Newcastle is not a city renowned for its country and folk , Combs does a marvellous job in drawing such a diverse and eager crowd that display such a willingness to engage with a genre that seems so unfamiliar in this day and age. Combs has proven himself to be a burning beacon for the contemporary singer-songwriter, displaying unprecedented prowess, legitimacy and skill that many would do well to take note from. With such glistening potential it’s only a matter of time before Combs’ blend of country and folk erupt from the underground and into the mainstream. Like many of the greats before him, Combs’ authentic song writing and integrity make him stand out amongst masses of manufactured and artificial artists of today. A much needed breath of fresh air in today’s musical climate, Andrew Combs indisputably proves himself one of the unsung heroes of modern music. It’s only a matter of time before the world realises.