Gigs at small venues always have a certain charm, and this performance was no exception; Durham’s quaintest venue, the Old Cinema Launderette, has only 10 seats. The room is small, and dominated by washing machines and tumble dryers taller than your average human. The walls are decorated with vintage posters of musicals and films alike which point to the building’s history: from 1928-1958 it housed a tiny cinema. Now combining a tongue-in-cheek-ly kitsch laundry service with fresh coffee to order, no-one would expect anything less extraordinary from the music.
The intimacy of the venue meant Ries was instantly recognisable as I walked through the door; tall and unassuming, it is her unselfconscious laughter that drew all eyes to her as she chatted with her most ardent fans. Far more people than seats crammed into the room – from time to time, someone would glance awkwardly at the parade of fancy bras dangling in the window as they blew on their steaming coffee.
The support artist was Rick Dobbing of Dressed Like Wolves. A Middlesbrough lad equipped with left-handed guitar, chord organ and banjolele, he surprised us with a series of sweet songs, mostly nautical in nature. Given the size of the Launderette, most of his music was delivered as he knelt on the floor, whispering huskily as he strummed. Easily the best was ‘Depth Charge’, with more bass-y, punchy guitar, which allowed him to show off his sometimes sinister lyrics. With a quality of voice that sounded at times like James Blunt, and at times more like Passenger, what he lacked in vocal range was more than made up for in terms of character.
Clutching a bottle of sparkling elderflower, Rachel Ries performed from the corner of the Launderette she had carefully decorated with posters of her beautiful LP cover, flowers, her albums past and present, and jams that she had preserved herself during her time touring. Her Durham date comes towards the end of the tour; since February, when her new album, Ghost of a Gardener, was released, she has been touring constantly, and she’ll be heading home after her tour finishes on the 30th.
It may seem surprising that such a talented up-and-coming singer should perform such a small venue; as it is, this is not her first time in the Launderette, she tells us, correcting herself from her native ‘laundromat’. Hailing from South Dakota, it is clear from her music that her heritage is the glasses through which she sees the world. With a beautiful orangey-red Hamer guitar, she started the evening with the incredible ‘Adrian’.
The first thing you notice when she starts to sing is the delicious warmth of her voice. Accompanied by her acoustic-style playing on her electric guitar, the roundedness and the depth of the sound instantly envelops you. It’s the sinking-into-a-hot-bubble-bath of the musical world and the audience close their eyes, as she does, while she plays. Lyrically, she’s all innovation. With her clear vocals, it’s not surprising that she’s been compared to Regina Spektor, that God among women. The first lyric she offers us is: “Well I wanna smoke/A cigarette/To remind me that I’m close to death.”
If that doesn’t arrest your sense of poetry, I’m not sure what will.
It is much in this style that she continues; the mundane and the day-to-day provide a lyrical backdrop against which she gently dances her impressive vocals. Few singers flit so easily between the rooftops and the basements of their vocal range, but Ries sings with complete purity and true playfulness across the board. There is a real sense that the music is utterly effortless, flowing out of her mouth and from her fingertips, and in the song ‘Words’, which we hear towards the end of her set, she acknowledges this idea: in songwriting, at least, she sees creativity as an independent force.
Her audience are clearly important to her; her set list is chosen in part by a fan’s requests. She messes up the start of one track, stops, and points to this fan: “It’s his fault!” she smiles, “I’ve not played this one in forever and he asked for it!” As she resumes her song, she is laughing, and it is telling that laughing as she sings doesn’t sound in any way out of place. As she sings, her eyes close and her left leg dances up and down. Often, she smiles a half smile that turns her song, no matter which, into a love song. There is a real sense that she is enjoying her own music, and the audience feeds off it.
Normally, she tells us, she plays with a band. As she introduces certain songs, she tells us which instruments she’ll miss the sound of, and on one track, the light touch of her fingers on the keyboard turns into a true bass drum. At the start of ‘Words’, she sings the trumpet and we don’t miss the presence of the actual instrument.
Heavily influenced by storytelling traditions, her lyrics set the scene to moments in her past or give us tiny insights into the world within her head. Her introductions to the pieces, which are light-hearted and lovely, are truly touching as she tells us about her family; her mother and grandmother each have a song dedicated to them. However, there is no mistake: although tinged with love and sometimes sadness, these are not sentimental pieces. ‘Willow’, dedicated to her grandmother, Doris, is full of fire. The lyrics are earthy and evoke the farms Ries knew so well growing up.
She finishes the set with ‘Ghost’, the title track from the new album. It is much darker and more experimental-feeling, but we do not lose out; what it lacks in simplicity and the everyday profound, it makes up for in richness. After an encore of ‘Grace the Day’, – a throwback to her Country EP which lacks the gravel and twang of the album version but is nonetheless a beautiful way to finish – Ries thanks her tiny but enthusiastic audience and downs her guitar. The room is warm with well-wishers as she sells her rhubarb and ginger jam.