Today’s foray into the Hampshire music scene took me to the Tramstop Bar & Kitchen, Portswood, Southampton to see a couple of first rate guitarists, Steve Picken and TheRealRaj, play an afternoon gig.
The Tramstop opened last autumn in a former doctors’ surgery on Portswood Road, and follows the micropub ethos that is becoming pretty big in the city. It can’t really be called micro, though, having a couple of large rooms and a kitchen, as well as a well-stocked bar with decent beer. The pub is located on a corner and the stage was set against the corner windows, the constant flow of people gazing in at the musicians as they passed.
Steve Picken is a chap I first encountered some years back as guitarist with Celtic rock band, Coast, who I blogged about on the 28th January. When he left Coast, I saw him live a couple of times, then he dropped off my radar for a few years.
I was introduced to TheRealRaj at the Maple Leaf Lounge Sessions at the Talking Heads on the 21st January. He said at the time that he did this thing with Steve, and I made a mental note to check them out.
So here I was. Pint in hand, melodious guitar in ear. Steve was first, and it was clear he was every bit as talented as I remember from the last time I saw him, if not better. Steve is a master of finger picking. He’s got a technique that borrows a lot from flamenco, fretting the strings with lightning speed, picking and strumming in a polished but down to earth ‘real’ style that is his own.
Steve (unusually, if I remember correctly) sang, a cover of a cover – Bob Dylan’s Girl From The North Country as performed by folk stalwarts, Show of Hands. Steve has a smooth, powerful voice that fitted the song perfectly. Then a cover of Tall Fiddler by Tommy Emmanuel showcased that lightning finger picking to its full extent, reminiscent of the days when the Coast guys used to let him go off on his own for a couple of tracks in the middle of a set.
Three quarters of an hour later, it was the turn of TheRealRaj. Having washed and dried his harmonica, Raj settled comfortably into his set. Like the pleasant feeling of putting on an old comfortable jacket, Raj’s strong yet heartfelt vocals, backed by a relaxed guitar style really spoke to the audience. Throughout his set, he plied his trade as master of the partial capo, often two of the things clamping various strings on his guitars in odd positions. The results were very effective.
The tenor ukulele was brought out and with the (now dry) harmonica, Raj serenaded the audience with a love song, with percussion from a foot-operated tambourine. A small child, enchanted by the music, began dancing in circles before the dizziness took over and he had to sit down. He was a regular feature from this point on, with his parents taking it in turns to marshal him to and from his chosen dance floor and stop him banging his head on the corners of the tables.
I’ve used this before in this blog, but Raj’s set was perfect summer Sunday afternoon music. I should be laying on the grass on a warm summer’s day listening to the bluesy folk-tinged melody. At one point, the folky side of things was boosted with a song played on mandolin. The end of this set was rapidly approaching, with the penultimate song having the chorus line ‘I hope you never love someone like you’, set to a driving blues backing.
The idea was that after a short break, they would both take to the stage as a duo. Steve had decided to drop his car at home and return for the last bit so he could have a few beers, but there seemed to be some kind of breakdown in communication and Raj seemed to be unaware of the plan. When Steve did return, though, the duo was something to experience.
The sound was something reminiscent of the guitar style of Steve Knightley (from the aforementioned Show of Hands) infused with Dire Straits. The smooth guitar rhythm from Raj with the cutting, almost piercing, lead from Steve gave a real feel-good sound, with something of a South American gypsy jazz fusion going on.
With Raj on vocals and Steve playing some interesting harmonics up and down the neck, some great tunes followed. With the introduction of a few effects, the set turned rather funky, although Steve’s flamenco influence shone through to the end.
These guys are great musicians in their own right, but to see them together in such an intimate setting was something quite special.