Tonight I am off to a concert at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge. I have often walked past this tiny unobtrusive place on the tail end of Piccadilly’s High Street without giving it a second glance. A slightly grimy looking venue, and usually papered in ‘Manc Club Night’ posters, it is customarily home to rock and roll/indie acts. I was therefore surprised somewhat to find a forthcoming billing for two country music artists, which is how I find myself here, on this evening, queuing excitedly for the doors to open.We wait impatiently in the cold and the shutters eventually come up and let us in a little after 7:30. Literally an underground venue, the front entrance sends us immediately down a steep flight of stairs into a basement underbelly. It’s low lit, and to my left is a vintage lounge area with buttery-soft leather seats for sinking into, and a gilded mirror that has lost some of its lustre adorning one wall. It’s slightly reminiscent of a shabby looking 1960’s America hotel (think Mad Men) and the curved wooden bar is straight ahead of me with polished brass pumps. There’s no fancy cocktails to be had however, and it’s beers on tap and bottled goods all decanted into plastic glasses lest we smash them whilst watching.
We head over to the small stage area where the spotlights illuminate a solitary bar stool, and beautiful gleaming guitars sit on stands ready to be played. The stage is back dropped with thick velvet curtains of the deepest, you guessed it, ruby red, and it looks rather like a funeral parlour might, or the depths of Dracula’s castle.
We wait patiently for the first act to come on and I sneak a peek at my fellow concert go-ers . We are quite the Motley Crew. An eclectic mix of leather-clad bikers, older couples in button downs and rugby shirts, and a younger crowd in tight jeans and high tops. There’s not that many people here given the space available, and it’s certainly going to be a very intimate performance. I have a front-and-centre unrestricted view of the stage, and I’m thrilled as it’s something that my petite 5, 2” frame rarely gets (ok, ok, so I’m 5, 1” and a half…).
8:15, and the first act strides slowly but purposefully across the stage, decked in head-to-toe denim. His name is David Ramirez, and I must confess I bought the tickets on a whim, after hearing only a single track of his on Bob Harris’ ‘Country Hour’. After listening to more of his stuff though, I’m completely hooked, and pretty darn excited to see him sing live.
The crowd falls into a hush and he begins. Whether it’s the cavernous, windowless setting, or something set up with the microphone equipment, he sings with a silky haunting echo that captivates me from the word go. The acoustics are ridiculous, and I am blown away by depth of sound coming from one man and his lone guitar. His songs are full of melancholy, and a grittiness that is straight out of Texas. His faces is screwed up with a raw emotion as he sings, and his lyrics lick at my soul; re-igniting the fire within me. He is Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan all rolled into one, with a touch of Dire Straits humour thrown in for good measure. His wailing, folky top notes are grizzly and pure, and would receive a standing ovation from Mumford and Sons I’m certain.
David is insanely talented, and I let it all wash over me, waves from a healing, holy water. I’m transported straight back to the states, to a balmy night I spent watching music outdoors in his home state, and I’m lost in the layers of beauty. This guy even manages to make singing about a plumber in Arkansas one of the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard, and when he gets out his harmonica, his unbounded talent is taken to another level altogether.
He remarks to us that this is his first gig abroad, and the crowd are much more subdued than he expected, as we gaze open mouthed at him. what he doesn’t realise is that we are all truly in a state of awe, that something monumental and life changing just left his lips. That this doesn’t happen too often round here these days.
All too soon his set comes to an end and we whoop and holler appreciatively at this cowboy roaming far from home.
There’s a quick break, where we are snapped briefly out of our trance, and a few more crowd member slink in to join us. The headline act is Angaleena Presley. A solo artist in her own right, this cowgirl is also part of the super-group ‘The Pistol Annies’. She comes on wearing a traditional Rodeo Queen shirt, and a sweet southern smile, but minus the trademark boots.
She talks to us like old friends catching up as she re-tunes her strings, and moves her capo up and down the frets between numbers. She tells us about her family, her culture, her history. Her terrible memory. She’s one of us; she’s driving through the bluegrass state and we are all invited along for the ride.
Her lyrics are equally as poignant as David’s, but move from her in a subtle, breathy, dream-like manner, not unlike Eva Cassidy. Angaleena has a unique ability to capture pain and resilience single-handedly. Her words sing about husbands (and ex-husbands!), love, small town living, abuse and deceit; all themes which resonate somewhere along the way with every one of us here. As she plays on, a solitary gentleman taps his hand over his heart as she sings, shining eyes and beaming smile, and I know he things this song was written just for him. That’s the beauty of country music, It’s gentle stories will intoxicate you; and as she croons mournfully, I see every character playing their part from verse to chorus and back again.
She moves through her repertoire, getting the crowd singing along in parts, sweetly blessing our hearts, then casually threatening violence with a devilish smile. Curse words roll off her tongue as easily as lullabies, and then paint a bitter-sweet picture of lost happy endings. I think to myself how these artists brains work so differently. They are highly evolved and soulful creatures, whose poetry falls out their imaginations by the bucketful, connecting with chords to produce something magical. I make a note to add learning to strum guitar to my ever-growing list of things to do this year.
Angaleena ends her set and walks off to roars of appreciation. No sooner has she left before she returns, an encore absolutely needed, and so we get to revel in her dulcet tones for a few more moments at least. When she does finally leave I’m heartbroken. It’s been a wonderful evening at The Ruby Lounge, and it has made me wistful of the time I was lucky enough to spend in the south soaking up this powerful music. Hitting the pavements of The Northern Quarter post-gig, and the thumping baselines and raucous laughter spilling out of the bars reminds me that I’m no longer in the states, however, and still firmly in rainy Manchester. I’m a million miles away from Austin and Kentucky, but just for tonight, I’ve been there and then some…