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Reviews / ‘Fantastic’ songwriter Peters shines at Mareel

Gretchen Peters, accompanied by husband and musical partner Barry Walsh, at a busy Mareel on Tuesday night. Photo: Kelly Nicolson Riddell

MAREEL provided the setting for another superb evening of music with a performance from American singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters on Tuesday night, writes Louise Thomason.

The Grammy-nominated folk/country/Americana star was accompanied by partner Barry Walsh on piano and accordion for a set of beautifully vivid songs.

Together they created a very warm stage presence, helped no end by Mareel’s simple yet cosy lighting setup. It was an evening of rich storytelling, with material from her most recent album Blackbird – the title track, a powerful murder ballad co-written with Irish songwriter Ben Glover – as well as songs from a back catalogue that spans some 20 years. 

Struggling with a throat infection, she joked that the audience had “paid for Gretchen Peters, but you’re gonna get a bit of Willie Nelson”. She needn’t have worried too much, however – her vocals seemed to me to stand up remarkably well.

Peters is renowned as a fantastic songwriter, having penned hits for the likes of Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Etta James and Trisha Yearwood. And oh, did the songwriting shine.

Sheila Duncan, who was joined by the trio of Jenny Napier Keldie, Freda Leask and Ivor 'Fred' Polson for a harmony-laden set. Photo: Kelly Nicolson Riddell

Her ballads conjured up images of an America now lost; of working class families, love and loss, heartbreak, and everything in between.

If Heaven, from 2004 album Halcyon, was a nostalgic nod to happy times with loved ones – “supper’s on the stove and mama’s laughin’ and everybody’s working day is done”, while When All You Got Is a Hammer describes the life of the broken war veteran, struggling to cope and readjust when he returns to everyday life.

Black Ribbons tells the tale of a Louisiana family whose life is destroyed by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and Five Minutes is an ode to all the waitresses Peters’ has known, their heartaches and regrets laid bare.

These are gritty and real subject matters, but handled sensitively and with a masterful command of words, the music never felt sombre, but instead insightful and thoughtful.

There was some serious muscle in the form of accompanying musician Walsh, who easily switched between accordion and piano to accompany Peters.

He also gave a taste of his own composition skills with Belgian Afternoon, a restrained and classy offering from his album of piano pieces, Silencio.

Peters' guitar work and fantastic songcraft were on display alongside expert piano playing from Walsh. Photo: Kelly Nicolson Riddell

The pair have been playing music together for over 25 years and have been married for the last six, so their take on John Prine’s In Spite of Ourselves to end the set came off as natural and fun and was received with great amusement and applause from the audience.

The night was opened with a fitting set by Sheila Duncan, joined onstage by friends Jenny Napier Keldie, Freda Leask and Ivor ‘Fred’ Polson.

The group are no strangers to the Shetland music scene but the music felt fresh nonetheless. Standout tracks included the Wailin’ Jennys’ song One Voice, the female trio’s harmonies blending beautifully, and country classic Fool Such as I.

They ended their set with a jazzy take on Tom Waits’ Come On Up To the House, doing a great job to whet my appetite for the main act.

I hadn’t actually heard much of Gretchen Peters’ music prior to the gig, but feel greatly privileged to have had the chance to hear her. It’s pretty much standard now: local promoters Ragged Wood are a safe bet for a good night out.

Louise Thomason