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Cotton Fields – The Leadbelly Story

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I suspect more people would know Huddie Ledbetter’s songs than would be familiar with the man himself.  Well-known standards such as “House of the Rising Sun”, “Black Betty”, “Midnight Special”, “Goodnight Irene”, “The Circle” and many more were written by the man known as “Leadbelly” – a name he acquired while in jail for murder.

The Hushes did an excellent job of presenting the great man’s work, thankfully as devoted interpretation, rather than attempted impersonation.  This allowed the vocal talents and engaging personality of Emily Davis to shine and lead the way, along with her excellent  compadres: Cal Williams Jnr on guitar and convincing vocals, and Kory Horwood, superb on double bass and vocals.

Delicious harmonies from all three brought a fresh approach to these timeless songs.  There was assistance from audio-visual intros to both sets, and movie footage of Ledbetter being granted his freedom by a smug slaver who liked his singing.

All this was particularly evident after the intermission, by which time the sound problems had been sorted out.  The choice of St Barts in Norwood was an excellent one, but the big natural echo and reverb of church buildings and inadequate sound systems don’t mix well.

Whereas during the first half, the music and voices were indistinct and distorted at times, and patter between the songs unintelligible, the second half was a revelation.  Ditching the sound system altogether, the three musicians moved forward to engage the audience in a totally acoustic performance, notable for its warmth and intimacy.

Highlights were a breathtaking version of “House of the Rising Sun” by Davis, with only Horwood’s tasteful double bass as accompaniment – the natural acoustics perfectly supporting the performance.  “Midnight Special” featured a walk through the audience – try that while playing double bass and not missing a note!

A rousing audience-involving version of “Black Betty” was pulled out of the hat as an encore; such was the audience’s appreciation of these fine musicians and calm acceptance of the sound problems earlier.  The fact that these quality players were able to emerge winners is a testament to their skill and engaging personalities.   Better organisation next time and this is a terrific show.

There will be a final performance of Cotton Fields – The Leadbelly Story at St Barts, 77 Beulah Road, Norwood, on February 26.

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