Let’s say you’re the daughter of the guy who might be both the greatest rock songwriter and the greatest rock guitarist of alltime. And your mother is generally considered to be the greatest British folksinger of the past century. And you decide not to go into, say, architecture or film or visual art. Instead, you go into music. And marry one of the greatest lead guitarists of your own generation. Career suicide waiting to happen, right?
Hardly. Kami Thompson has her dad Richard’s withering sense of humor, her mom’s looks and a voice which, while it would be ridiculously unfair to compare to Linda Thompson’s shattering, poignant instrument, is every bit as haunting in its own right. Wednesday night at the Mercury, she and her guitarslinger husband James Walbourne – the core of British folk-rock duo the Rails – spun a shimmering, rippling web of vocals and guitar that transcended that spare format.
Playing lead and sharing vocals, Walbourne waited until four songs into the set before he really cut loose and went for the jugular with spiraling volleys of notes, infused with equal parts blues, Britfolk and the Byrds. Throughout the show, it was as if there was a guitar orchestra onstage: the way the two interweave and fill out each others’ melodies creates a lush thicket of sound that sounds like a lot more than just two acoustic guitars.
The best song of the set was hardly a surprise. The duo couldn’t have played a more appropriate song for the Lower East Side of New York in 2018 than title track of the duo’s latest album There Are Other People In This World, Not Just You. Kami sang that with a mix of battle fatigue, resilience and seething anger, amplified by her husband’s low harmonies as he flung icepick riffs against the melody. Earlier in the set, Walbourne had lamented the closure of longtime neighborhood watering hole Max Fish (which has since reopened a few blocks away with completely different ambience and clientele). And underscored that exasperation with the blitzkrieg of speculator-fueled destruction with a snarling take of The Cally, a desperate, embittered reminiscence of Caledonian Road British dive bar revelry in the age of luxury condos that aren’t even built for habitation.
With the plaintively lilting Willow Tree, a mutatingly bucolic instrumental and then a rather grim take of the old exile tale Australia, the duo gave a musically purist if sardonic nod to the “songs that were passed down to us,” as Kami said with almost a grimace. Much as their roots encompass centuries worth of traditional sounds, they’re most at home doing their own songs. She finally took her voice to the rafters as the angst-fueled Late Surrender peaked out. Walbourne offered his own take of relationship hell with Dark Times, a harmony-fueled tale of an affair that was doomed from the start.
While Walbourne is obviously influenced by Richard Thompson – who was in the crowd, watching closely and approvingly – he doesn’t mimic any of the master’s familiar wild bends, Middle Eastern allusions or long, volcanic crescendos. Walbourne’s lead guitar work with the Pretenders is more conventional, but his role in this project is as much orchestrator as fretburner. And his wife is no slouch on the guitar, either, although she didn’t launch into any of her husband’s sidewinding spirals, leaping Celtic phrases or any of his starkly sparkly open-tuned blues, her fingerpicking was nimble and nuanced. A good crowd for a weekday night roared for a second encore following the duo’s stately, rainy-day closing number, but time was up.
This was the last stop on the Rails’ American tour, but they’re likely to be back; watch this space.