Oh Susanna at Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room (13 September ’19)

For my first gig in over two months, and (somewhat surprisingly) only my second ever at the Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room (with the previous one being The Chills back in June 2016, as reviewed here), I went to see Canadian singer-songwriter Oh Susanna, the stage name of Suzie Ungerleider.

My ticket

This show was part of a tour in honour of the twentieth anniversary of her full-length debut Johnstown, possibly still her best release.

She’s kind of a less bluegrassy Gillian Welch meets a rougher Iris DeMent. But more generally, at the upper echelons of the alt.country phenomenon.

I’d actually seen Oh Susanna six times before, with five of those coming in a nineteen-month period in 2002-3, being accompanied by my old university mate Phil each time, as well as our former housemate John on three of these occasions. They were both present at a previous date on this tour as well, attending a house show in High Wycombe, but sadly not with me in Liverpool.

I’d bought my first Oh Susanna album in March 2002, when I acquired Johnstown ahead of seeing her supporting The Handsome Family at the Lyric in Hammersmith the following month.

Oh Susanna

I next saw her at the Borderline in May 2003, by which time I had acquired two different Oh Susanna’s – the debut 1997 ep and the brand new third album (actually bought at this gig and signed by the woman herself after the show) – as well as second album Sleepy Little Sailor.

Phil and I returned to the Borderline just nine days later to see her again, this time with John, and the three of us saw her again at Bush Hall in August 2003.

Phil and I saw Oh Susanna for the fourth time in 2003 when we returned to the Lyric Theatre, with Martha Wainwright also supporting headliner Mary Gauthier.

The next album wasn’t released until 2007, with the three of us going to see her supporting Short Stories at the now-closed Luminaire in Kilburn, and I picked up that album then (as we probably all did), together with another signature.

I remember that, for some reason, she found it amusing (and memorable from the previous time) to be asked for autographs in quick succession from a Will and a Phil!

My signed CDs

Since then, I’ve kept up with her new albums, with three more being issued this decade, two of which I paid for up front via Kickstarter.

The most recent of these was 2017’s A Girl In Teen City (probably my favourite record of hers since Johnstown), whose lead track Tickets On The Weekend featured my gigmate Phil in the video at 2:56 in a Velvet Underground t-shirt:

I had to stop off at the main building of the Phil pre-gig, to pick up another ticket (for Isobel Campbell next February – stay tuned…)

When I got in, I found that the venue was set up with tables and chairs, unlike when I’d been before. There were only four rows of around six tables each, and about three seats per table. I’d estimate a total crowd of around fifty, which is rather disappointing.

My ticket was only £12, but I could have paid an extra £3 to get so-called ‘premium’ seating. All this meant was being sat in the front two rows, with standard tickets in the rear two, so not really worth bothering with, in my opinion.

Before the main event, support came from the impressively-bearded Matt The Electrician, an (of course!) former electrician now based in Austin.

Matt The Electrician

He’s managed to amass twelve albums to date, although I’d never heard of him before this gig. He was a charming presence, with a wry sense of humour, and a very pleasant (baritone?) voice.

His songs were enjoyable, without quite swaying me into buying his The Doubles from 2017 from the merch stall afterwards, especially for £15, although as a double album, it was still decent value.

The guileless Thank You featured the line “I wouldn’t have gotten very far on my own” as he paid tribute to those who have helped him on his way.

There was some good whistling during Got Your Back, with the whole set being only five songs long, so he certainly didn’t outstay his welcome.

Listening back to Johnstown ahead of the gig reminded me of what a really good album it is, with an extremely strong opening quartet of songs, including the dark title track (about the murder of a prostitute) that kicks things off, and the lovely Alabaster.

She was accompanied by Dutch guitarist BJ Baartmans, who’s recorded a load of Dutch-language blues and folk records, as well as playing with a series of bands over the years.

He contributed some gorgeous electric guitar throughout proceedings, with Alabaster being an early example of this.

The album was played through from start to finish, in order, with proceedings occasionally interrupted by various reminiscences from Suzie, including an early one about listening to music on a reel-to-reel tape recorder with her elder sister.

BJ Baartmans with Oh Susanna

Old Kate featured a Beatles guitar reference from Baartmans, apparently, although I didn’t notice it at the time.

Interestingly, he left the stage to leave Suzie to sing Walking on her own, and in fact a capella, which was a nice change.

The closing track from the album and its one slim ray of hope in the darkness, Tangled & Wild, brought Matt The Electrician back on stage to sing along.

“Run away with me, won’t you? It don’t matter where we go”

The encore began with the opening two tracks from Sleepy Little Sailor, the title cut and River Blue, two of the highlights from that record.

These were followed by a new song, seemingly called Mount Royal, which was inspired by her time at university in Montreal, as well as that of Jim Bryson, the singer/songwriter who produced both of her last two LPs.

BJ Baartmans, Matt The Electrician, Oh Susanna

The night closed with Tickets On The Weekend from her most recent album, a real highlight from that record.

It was really good to hear all of Johnstown live, but slightly disappointing for there to be only four other, more recent songs played due to time restraints.

Tonight’s t-shirt

I decided to honour Oh Susanna’s cover of I’ll Keep It With Mine on the 2003 eponymous album by wearing my olive green Bob Dylan tee. This was a song he wrote in 1964 but didn’t see release by him until the 1985 Biograph box set, first being released by Judy Collins, with the version I heard it via being from Nico. There didn’t seem to be another band tee in evidence.

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Here is a most of the music from the show on Spotify:

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