I had to ask myself at least twice during her performance whether the Courtney Marie Andrews on stage wasn’t in fact some kind of hologram. Between her tremendous voice – the kind that possess a vintage luster on account of its quality alone – and the almost ghostly way she appeared on stage, a spotlight playing around the edges of her all-white get-up like the fuzzy halo of a projected image, it seemed every bit possible that what we were seeing was actually an archive recording. Adding to the illusion was the red background lighting which hung like stage curtains as dust motes imitated film grain in the foreground, giving the whole affair the unmistakable feel of a seventies Scorsese music documentary shot on 35mm film.
Indeed, Celtic Connections missed a trick by programming the Pheonix-born songwriter at the ABC instead of across the river at the Grand Ole Opry, a venue that feels similarly beamed-in from another era. You needn’t have seen her audience, many of whom had twice her twenty-seven years, to have realised that Courtney Marie Andrews is something of a nostalgia act, an artist enthralled by the hallowed sounds and wistful ballads of years gone by. And yet Andrews proved a captivating performer who refused to be overshadowed by her obvious influences (Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris) and hemmed in by the baggage and limitations that come with being labelled a country artist.
Her Celtic Connections set marked a number of firsts: her first show of the current tour, her first time airing several of the tracks from her upcoming album May Your Kindness Remain, and her first time playing piano in public, as she herself pointed out. A mean guitar player, Andrews was also fantastic behind the keys, and her turn on the Nord begat one of the evening’s standout moments in the form of This House. As a reminder that places are what we make of them, it was simple and effective.
Better still was Border, a hit piece against ex-Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio who notoriously ran, in his own words, a desert “concentration camp” that housed a large population of undocumented Latino immigrants. Sporting a guitar line that sizzled like heat haze, it was a timely rebuttal to the attitude of caring for one’s “own” people first that Andrews admitted she’d encountered time and again in her home state, offering instead an extended hand to “our southern neighbours”.
Much of her new material spoke to the current moment in this way, and – while not quite as engaging from purely melodic standpoint as the likes of Rookie Dreaming and Irene from Honest Life – made a convincing argument for a wider appraisal of Andrews’ work outwith the country circuit. In a world where Angel Olsen is indie royalty (and deservedly so), there’s no good reason why Courtney Marie Andrews hasn’t had more of a look-in.
Celtic Connections runs until Sunday 4th February.