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Wednesday 27 December 2023

A View From The Back Of The Room: Cardinal Black (Live Review By Paul Hutchings)

Cardinal Black & Tom Jenkins – Newbridge Memo, Newbridge 22/12/23

You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to be aware of Cardiff outfit Cardinal Black. The band formed by lifelong friends Chris Buck, Tom Hollister, and Adam Roberts in 2020 may have received numerous accolades in the past year, but they’ve worked damn hard to ensure that their rise has been fully deserved. 

A year after debut album January Came Close, the band, completed by bassist Sam Williams, have toured the world, taking their brand of beautiful classic blues/rock to the likes of Scandinavia, Germany, and the Netherlands. The photos on social media are evidence, if evidence was needed, that the band are likely to be huge with the right guidance.

This was a special show in a year of special shows. Their headline set at Chepstow Castle back in August was incredible for those who made it to that special setting but there was a far more poignant reason for tonight’s show. Back in September, Buck’s father Dory passed away at the age of 67. Rather than a wake, Buck felt that a gig in his father’s memory was a more fitting tribute to the man who introduced him to the guitar, and who was described as his best mate for 32 years. It’s no wonder that the show sold out quickly.

The queue winds its way through the entrance area to the Memo and down the street. 446 seats in the venue’s gorgeous auditorium are up for grabs and the fans, many clad in Cardinal Black shirts are eager to get the best vantage points. It’s a civilised way to spend Black Friday, and probably one of the last opportunities to see this band in such an intimate venue.

First up is Tom Jenkins (8), sheep farmer / musician whose honest set has the audience entranced. His songs have an edge of Dylan about them, stories of his life captured with a gritty realism that resonates with the crowd. He’s got a wit about him which keeps people engaged, his story telling complementing his solo work. He talks about the making of album Meadow, how he realised he could do it “on the cheap” for a fraction of the price. He tells about the song When The Coal Dust Settled, how it always gets at least one member of the audience in tears, and he’s not wrong. He’s in the heart of the South Wales mining communities after all, and his melancholic delivery merely adds to the song.

He sprinkles his set with chat, jovial enough for laughter, serious enough for attention to be paid. Be There for You tells of his time in another part of the world and how difficult it was to communicate via landline, whilst his dream of doing karaoke with Tom Jones raises much mirth before he launches into the song of the same name. He’s gracious, thanking Cardinal Black for the opportunity to play support on most of their shows. The ovation at the end of his set is well deserved, and evidence of why you should always get to a show in time to catch the support. This was an unexpected bonus.

A short interval follows, before the lights drop. The words Cardinal Black (9) illuminate the stage, a simple yet efficient approach. The band enter with no fanfare in the darkness, before launching into Terra Firma. It’s a strong opening song, allow Buck’s Gilmour-esque playing space and opportunity. It’s slightly marred by a mix that sees Buck’s guitar too loud and Hollister’s vocals low in the mix. It takes a while for Hollister to speak to the crowd and check how it sounds, but the message gets through and by Rise Up the mix is much improved. It’s evident that there are some nerves even for a band as seasoned as Cardinal Black, for this is an important night. Buck gets to grips with any nerves quickly, settling into his fluid and natural style of soloing quickly, allowing his instrument to sing and soar above the audience. Alongside Hollister’s delightfully rich vocals, this is mesmerising stuff.

Last year I saw Cardinal Black play back-to-back sold out shows at The Patriot – Home of Rock in nearby Crumlin. Vocalist Tay Cousins had joined the band in 2021 to guest for a few shows. A year later and she’s an integral part of the band, her backing vocals giving the songs an extra dimension. She and keyboardist Gregg Hollister bring a richer sound to the band, giving Buck more freedom to express himself through his stunning guitar work, whilst Roberts and Williams keep everything locked down with a calm assuredness which only comes from playing together.

It's a set that contains just about everything you’d expect. Tom isn’t feeling his best, explaining that his three-year-old daughter has been bringing home bug after bug from school in recent times. He’s a trooper though, soldiering through til the end. His voice is a little strained, but his quality is such that he makes it look a lot easier than I’m sure it was. They draw deep from January Came Close, the intoxication of Jump In comes early, with Buck’s playing sending chills down the spine. Halfway and On My Own are delightful, whilst Tell Me How It Feels sees the capacity crowd up for a dance and singalong. 

Many don’t sit back down, for despite the melancholic vibe, Cardinal Black manage that thing that few do; they stir the soul. Warm Love sees the audience help again, before Buck unleashes another classy solo that demonstrates why his Best New Guitarist in the World Award was so richly deserved. He’s technically excellent but it’s the feel with which plays which stands him apart from his peers. Unassuming in style, he’s softly spoken on the rare occasions he comes to the mic between songs. But you can’t really take your eyes off his hands as he makes his instrument sing with a joy you don’t often get.

The evening finishes with the delicate and bluesy Tied Up In Blue. The audience is on their feet, as the band bring their 2023 touring to an end. It’s been an emotional evening, with smiles plus a little sadness around the venue. It’s a fitting tribute to Dory Buck, and a celebration of the band that he no doubt had a hand in shaping. A beautiful show, and with 2024 already looking busy, it’s unthinkable that Cardinal Black won’t be playing much bigger venues in a year’s time.

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