Sam Outlaw @Newcastle Gosforth Civic Theatre, March 28 2022
Outlaw by name, outlier by nature: when one of ‘country’ music’s most complicated and charismatic characters comes to town it’s a must-see live event.
In an exclusive interview with Rushonrock the previous week, Nashville-based, SoCal native Sam Outlaw made no attempt at couching his increasingly uncomfortable relationship with country and Americana.
And the multi-talented musical chameleon is mightily proud of latest long player Popular Mechanics — an unapologetic middle finger to those expecting a lifelong commitment to career-limiting genres.
A poppier diversion from his previous two records, replete with a glossy 80s-style production, Outlaw’s third album drew delight and derision in equal measure when it dropped last year.
In fact, the more blinkered members of the country community quickly dubbed an ambitious masterwork ‘Unpopular’ Mechanics as they turned their backs on a bold set of brilliantly conceived songs.
Outlaw insisted he’d stay true to his instincts and make the music he loves.
And he promised to push the boundaries of his own, unique and unpredictable brand during a bullish 30-minute chat.
Popular Mechanics Rewound
But there was a sense that Sam doth protest too much.
And that impression was only reinforced by the ‘back to country’ set that thrilled a packed Gosforth Civic Theatre crowd.
Of course, a stripped-down acoustic approach didn’t necessarily suit the bigger, braver pop rock anthems packing the first half of Popular Mechanics.
This might have been the time — but it certainly wasn’t the place — for Outlaw to test the true power of his new music.
And a first trip to Tyneside since October 2019 represented more of a nostalgic throwback than a nod to the future.
Not that anyone present was complaining.
Flanked by special guest Ruthie Collins and Popular Mechanics producer Cheyenne Medders (who opened the show), Outlaw delivered a masterclass in chilled out entertainment.
As comfortable connecting with his audience as he was cajoling beautiful tunes out of his trusty guitar, the classy singer songwriter treated his fans like kings (and queens).
An endearing mix of self-effacing goofiness and graceful musicianship paced the magical final night of an acclaimed UK headline tour.
And there was no need to quibble about genres, rile against restrictive labelling or prove a point by eschewing the past.
Sun Ain’t Set Yet On Outlaw Country
In the moment — and under his bright white hat — Outlaw looked and sounded every inch the face of modern country. Perhaps he is.
Of the ‘new’ tunes here, the Mark Knopfler-influenced For The Rest Of Our Lives and the dreamy Sun Ain’t Set best showcased an artist for whom evolution (even revolution) is everything.
Both songs sit slap bang in the middle of Popular Mechanics and even two astute acoustic takes nudged — if not pushed — the envelope.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bob Harris’ favourite song of 2017 (and the winner of the UK Americana Awards’ International Song Of The Year in 2018) drew some of the warmest applause.
Tenderheart, the affecting title track of Outlaw’s second album, is adorned with delicate melodic touches and the heartfelt lyrics to match.
Five years down the line it’s quite obvious why a wonderfully nuanced tune earned ‘Whispering’ Bob’s nod of approval.
And the understated yet invaluable contribution of Collins and Medders took a special song to the next level.
It was the former who took centre stage during a dynamic cover of the Roxette classic It Must Have Been Love.
And it must have been fun for Outlaw to perform the kind of super smooth power ballad his country music critics would run a mile from.
An up close and personal encore — featuring the band weaving their way in between tables, chairs and wide-eyed audience members — set the seal on a heavenly headline set.
Ruthie Collins Can Talk…
But Outlaw’s opening acts had set the bar impossibly high earlier in the evening.
Medders was never meant to have his own slot on this tour but his wry humour, snazzy shirt and flawless fretwork was a joy to behold.
Collins is on course to become a huge country star but it’s her hilarious chat — as much as her musical talent — that’s so charming.
New song Old Keys unlocked a snapshot of the future but 2020 album Cold Comfort (available now as an expanded edition) is still the primary focus.
And current single Hypocrite is set to catapult Collins into the country big leagues on the back of some serious airplay and a bittersweet video soaked in irony.
On reflection, the grape farmer’s daughter could have squeezed out a few more songs given less time storytelling.
But when the stories are this good…