So inconspicuous is Phase One, one of Liverpool’s newest music venues, I initially walk right past. When I eventually spot the white neon sign hanging over the door on my way back down Seel Street, I am overcome with a sudden anxiety about the size of the place. But as I look in, over the shoulder of the man in front, my fear is eased. I walk into a fairly spacious room that, on closer observance, is pretty basic too. Aside from the portable loos outside that fill me with a sense of unease, the bar is constructed of plywood, the red brick walls are fully exposed, and the electric cables can be seen openly trailing along the walls. Large white sheets are used to frame the room and stage. Décor is not fancy. But as I sit on a small stool in a corner of the room, there is something about this place that I warm to. The quirkiness perhaps, exemplified by the presence of two garden sheds that stand next to an upright piano acting as ‘vinyl listening booths’. Or maybe it is the makeshift simplicity – the reclamation of a derelict unit for the promotion of music in the city.
Tonight, it is two of Liverpool’s own on show. One, Laura Oakes, is returning to her roots, stopping off as part of her Spring tour. The other, who she has invited as support, is Eleanor Nelly. Nelly still lives in the area and has been regularly gigging around it for a while. Slowly building a reputation as a singer-songwriter, her impressive talents have been noticed by the likes of Bob Harris who, last year, invited Eleanor to open up the Liverpool leg of his ‘Under the Apple Tree’ tour. This is where I first encountered her, and I was struck not only by her sharp sense of storytelling but also by the distinct twang in her vocals. Both remain evident here, particularly in songs ‘Eventually’ and ‘The Best is Yet to Come’, inflecting her music with a certain style that is captured in her choice of wear: a floral dress with black doc martens that conveys beauty laced with a hint of attitude.
When Oakes walks out on stage, she does so in a t-shirted dedication to Elton John, and wearing a pair of sparkly silver trousers that exude sass. She is ever the laid back professional, capable of putting on a first-class show without it ever seeming like an effort. The effect, as is evident here, is a set that is warm and inviting, easy-going and free-flowing, as her and guitarist Pete Darling stroll pleasantly through a list of old favourites and brand-new tracks. The back catalogue that Oakes has compiled over the last few years is impressive. The standard of her new material only adds further credence to her emergence as a major talent on the UK Country scene. We are treated to all the new songs off her forthcoming EP here. These include recent single ‘Welcome to the Family’, whose acoustic rendering is no less infectious than the original, and ‘Old Ghosts’, which sees Oakes wind into a more traditional country sound. She gets excited at the fact that Shania Twain has just added ‘Better in Blue Jeans’ to her Spotify playlist. Given its catchy chorus and crowd-pleasing sound, I am not surprised. She draws on the emotional backstory of ‘Learn to Be Lonely Again’ to provide the most breathtaking moment of the evening. Her solo performance is so soft in its delivery that the song floats into the hearts of the audience. And she provides plenty of opportunity for participation, not that these fans need it. During ‘Nashville Stole Your Girl’, I cannot help but give a wry smile as I scan the crowd and see them singing along, unprompted, to this most glorious of ballads.
She ends her set with a barnstorming rendition of ‘Don’t Let It Hit Ya’. It is a chance to go out all-guns-blazing. But the shouts for more are too many to ignore. She duly obliges, performing a cover and then an audience request which, together, epitomise her musical range. The first is a lovingly light rendition of Stevie Nicks’ ‘Landslide’. The second is the infectious and pop-infused ‘Snakes and Ladders’. This ebb and flow through reflective storytelling and toe-tapping tunes seems to be a hallmark of an evening with Laura Oakes. I leave feeling sprightly and with a deep sense of enjoyment as I make my way back to the train station and head for home.
Click here for more info on Laura, her new EP, and tour dates.
Featured Image (C) Laura Oakes