Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Charlie Parr at the Slaughtered Lamb

Charlie Parr just became the lead member of an exclusive club: visitors to Britain who go home eulogising about the quality of our rail system. But then this is a man who has spent a large part of his life as a hobo troubador, riding the railroads across Minnesota. With these credentials I was prepared to be persuaded that the seats on an Intercity 125 really are more comfortable than a freight train flatbed.

I don't think I was alone, however, in drawing the line at accepting his assertion of the gourmet quality of Midland Mainline's sandwiches. But an enthusiastic audience at the Slaughtered Lamb lapped up everything else about Charlie Parr's idiosyncratic blues performance last night.

Forty-eight hours earlier, at a gig in Coventry, he had been warned off this Clerkenwell Venue as the home of devil worshippers! But I hope he came away agreeing that the Lamb is actually everything a music venue should be – underground, a bit dingy (even Mr Parr sat in the shadows last night), and of a size that allows the audience to be close enough to the performers to feel part of the show themselves.

Nevertheless, the unassuming Parr ambled in so surreptitiously that he was a few bars in by the time we realised the DJ had stopped and he had started. He then proceeded to rattle through three of four numbers before pausing for breath in the manner of a 2-minute-song punk band.

Playing solo, Charlie maintained a frenetic pace throughout (belying the grim-humoured slogan of his web-site: 'One man, one guitar, one foot in the grave'), to the extent that I wondered how a single, battered guitar and a bit of foot stomping could produce such a combination of pounding bass and complex, finger-picking melody. As someone who picked up a guitar for the first time in his thirties and has yet to progress past three chord strumming, I looked to my friend for advice – one half of the fantastic London band Swallow and the Wolf – only to find that even proper musicians think this stuff is impressive.

Alongside extraordinary guitar playing (learned from copying a series of heroes I now have to look up – especially Doc Boggs, whom Parr told us died from drinking 'rubbing alcohol'), Charlie likes to spin a yarn. As the night went on we learned a lot about his mother (Depression era grit), his love of a good tombstone (although apparently there's not much left of Pretty Boy Floyd's because visiting pilgrims keep chipping off flakes), native Americans, and a whole host of his old-time blues pickers.

His songs are equally replete with wonderful narrative, which I couldn't begin to summarise, so instead excuse me for simply giving you this verse of the song that introduced me to Charlie Parr, his '1922 Blues':

Well I slept all night on the bar room floor
And woke up this morning my head was sore
Pockets empty but I want some more
The bar man's got my car though
Tales worth more by far though
As I leave her down at the bar now
Ain't that the way it is
Ain't that the way it is.

Charlie Parr played the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell on 5 June, 2013, supported by Mel Parsons.


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