You’d be forgiven for the name ‘Sam Outlaw’ conjuring a specific image in your mind. But if you’re picturing a whiskey-necking, hard-boiled Roland Deschain type with confederate flag tattoos, you’re sadly mistaken. True he plays country music, and has a fondness for badlands headwear. But despite his bandito moniker, Sam Outlaw (his mother’s totally-legal maiden name) is more Glenn Frey than Waylon Jennings. A slickly-produced and desperately singable song-writer who’s earned salutes from Ry Cooder, Ryan Adams, and Bob Harris. Outlaw is currently on a trailblazing tour for his self-produced sophomore record ‘Tenderheart’. On 2nd November he hitched his horse up at Camden’s Dingwalls, and did his level best to turn it into a chandelier-swinging saloon.
Outlaw and his six-piece instrumental posse kicked off with the classics. ‘Kind to Me’ from deep in his back catalogue opened the night, followed by the old-school ‘I’m Not Jealous’ and the south-of-the-border heart-throbber ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. Some of Outlaws briskest, breeziest material, these were the toes in the water before the plunge.
Said plunge came with the material from ‘Tenderheart’. A louder, prouder and rowdier beast than debut ‘Angeleno’, the step-up hit harder than a bucking mustang. ‘Two Broken Hearts’ was the first of several anthems, seeing more than a few folks raising voice alongside Outlaw’s dusty baritone. ‘Diamond Ring’ did much the same, before ‘Say It To Me’ rolled into town in a triumphant plume of golden guitars.
The backing band, freshly assembled, were as solid a gang as Outlaw could hope for, the perfect locomotive for his sun-kissed nostalgia-drenched song writing. Though each played their part with whip-crack slickness, special praise has to go to backing vocalist Molly Jenson. Her soaring harmonies, more prominent than any on the album recordings, interlocked rawhide-tight with Outlaw’s country croon and elevated the tracks from rousing to positively canyon-spanning. In the words of keyboardist/third vocalist Michaela Anne, ‘Every day I thank God for Molly Jenson.’
Wise trail-hand that he is, Outlaw stripped the band down to just himself and Jenson for two acoustic tracks, ‘Love Her For A While’ and ‘She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Of)’ to let those dream-tingling harmonies take centre spotlight. With the band rushing back to base right after, Outlaw ran into the final stretch of his set with a troubadour’s twinkle in his eye.
‘Tenderheart’ standout ‘Bottomless Mimosas’ led the charge, with more than a little of The Eagles ‘Tequila Sunrise’ in the air. Zippos-in-the-Air title track ‘Tenderheart’ came next, followed by its quietly Mexican older brother, first album title track ‘Angeleno’. Outlaw proved truest to his name when the lights turned red and he came over all Mercy Seat for the minor key shuffler ‘Keep It Interesting’, given a vicious amplified makeover for the live setting. Finally, he wrapped the main set with devilishly catchy country rocker ‘Trouble’.
The encore (a breathless, high-energy affair) saw Jenson take the lead with a smoky back-bar rendition of Johnny Horton’s classic ‘Honky Tonk Man’ first up. Then, with Outlaw back at the head of his troupe, he put the lid on the night with a breakneck-speed, Ramones-style cover of Michaela Anne’s solo record ‘Luisa’. Or ‘Sacramento’, as Outlaw insisted it should be called.
You might say that when it comes to live performance, Sam Outlaw has cherry picked the highlights of his many influences. Like the Guy Clarks and Johnny Cashes before him, he’s an acoustic-totting balladeer and never loses that narrative earnestness. His vocals call to mind the relaxed, sitting-on-a-saddle oakiness of Dwight Yoakam or Zac Brown, backed by some of the finest harmonies this side of the Mason Dixon Line. But far more so than his crisp recordings, his live shows have got knuckles. Full of gunshot snares and blistering electric guitars, his music makes you want to kick over tables, swing your partner by the ear and ride off carefree into the sunset. He may not be an outlaw, but Sam’s sure a desperado