Descending into the depths of Thekla’s dark hull, it was a surprise to see so many people already crowding around the cramped stage at the bow (or stern?) of the boat. Leif Vollebekk emerged, settled at the keyboard on the right-hand side of the stage and went straight into his beautiful new single ‘All Night Sedans’. Singing of “rains falling in the streets” and lost time, the Canadian heightened his despairing lyrics with drawn out southern tones of lament.
Strangely, this was followed by an anecdote about watching Bristolian flowers swaying in the breeze before the show. Yet this “observation of the ordinary” is one of his unique selling points, as shown in the poetic lyricism of the popular ‘Elegy’ from his new album Twin Solitude. The song floated through the crowd, as minimalist piano chords left each word exposed to echo around the ship. Painted images of “kicking over trashcans and telling jokes in Atlanta” offered no haughty messages, instead leaving fragmented moments of wonder. The repeated barely-chorus of “take a look at me now” allowed the crowd to gorge on the more powerful, eclectic verses, and thus remain in a state of Americana reverie.
Vollebekk then took centre stage, ditching the keyboard for his guitar whilst maintaining the subtle musicality of the set. The lo-fi tinge of ‘Michigan’ immersed the crowd as the song’s mere two chords created a stripped back sound to illuminate its verses of solitude and hope. It was disappointing to see him finish his set soon afterwards. Yet after Gregory Alan Isakov played a couple of tracks with his band and solo, he introduced his “good friend” Leif back to the stage to play one of Springsteen’s lesser known numbers, ‘Dry Lightning’. I was clearly amongst avid Americana fans, as cheers erupted when they began the relaxed cover. Both artists’ southern styles fused into the ribbon microphone, and it felt as if I was in a cosy gig in Tennessee. Isakov and his band then played a final few songs, including the crowd pleaser ‘Big Black Car’ from 2009’s This Empty Northern Hemisphere. The band came in loud, and the babble of bass, drums and fiddle surprisingly contrasted the subtle constancy of the recorded version. That energy was then absorbed into a single spotlight on Isakov, who faded the song out alone and left the crowd silent.
After being brought back on stage at the end, Vollebekk and the rest of Isakov’s band surrounded the single mic stand at the front of the stage. Through this intimate acoustic scene, Isakov began the uplifting banjo-fuelled ‘All Shades of Blue’. Each band member gave a flourishing solo, and even Leif was given a verse to himself as they all laughed, lighting up the dark hue of Thekla’s space. The gig ended with the whole boat fading out lines with the band, and so, after being wrapped up in a warm breath of delicate Americana, I left the states and docked back into Bristol’s harbour.By Max Haydon