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Arts & Books: Pop: On country roads

Grand Drive Improv Theatre London
THE LIST of British country-inflected performers able to stand tall and proud alongside their American counterparts has hitherto been virtually non-existent. Hardly surprising, then, that critics have rained down fairly breathless praise on Road Music, the recently released debut CD from Grand Drive.

The brothers Danny and Julian Wilson, based in London's Raynes Park, take their evocative name from a mundane local thoroughfare, but their outfit plies a rich vein of Americana. Drawing on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan, Gram Parsons, latter-day alt.country exponents such as The Jayhawks, and a healthy measure of confessional, deep soul stylings, they eschew hoary Yankophile romanticism or Midwest myth in favour of defiantly small- scale dramas of regret, redemption and resilient optimism.

Sounds too good to be true? Not really; though their stagecraft and repertoire are still limited, their spirited performance before an enthusiastic hometown crowd showed several more reasons why Grand Drive are both a rather special and wholly unaffected proposition.

Flanked by a bassist, a drummer and the Hammond organ-playing, harmonising brother Julian, the irrepressibly cheery guitarist and lead vocalist Danny takes centre stage, striking an immediate keynote with the anguished testifying opener, "Tell It Like It Is". The lyrics recall a bitter tale of emotional defeat, but the song itself is as far from being an exercise in maudlin self-pity as is possible to imagine. The resolute sibling chemistry comes into play on vocals - Julian's sonorous harmonies wrapped tight round his brother's weathered pleas - and the melody gradually takes flight, building to an exuberant and cathartic pay-off.

However the song also introduces a trait which began to wear over the next few numbers, namely Danny's penchant for ending on an extended coda of clangorous and ungainly guitar. This did little to bolster a weaker composition such as "Fifth Letter", actively undercut the tender subtleties of "My Best Side" and threatened to mock the pliant reconciliation hungered for in "The Natural". The frontman appeared to acknowledge the failing when, after strapping on his umpteenth guitar of the evening he announces: "You might think we've got a lot of fancy guitars but it'll soon become clear they're all shit."

Thankfully this effacing banter proved more of a wind-up rather than a case of true words spoken in jest as he immediately launched into the gorgeously uplifting anthem-out-of-despair "Undone". Here and on the ensuing "Jukebox", the Wilson brother's aspirations to give their vignettes of missed opportunity and deep longing an infectious communal input came good.

Finally getting his swaggering Crazy Horse guitar patterns to tie with the mood, Danny rocked out in unashamedly flamboyant style while diehard fans roared back choruses in hearty approval.

For the lullaby finale, "Wrong Notes", the stage was bathed in a starry backdrop and the bassist plucked the sound of broken heart- strings while the now vindicated and placated Danny got up close and intimate. Thus the burgeoning impression of Grand Drive as parallel-universe stadium fillers seemed confirmed - though they are probably blessed with too much humanity to ever make it there for real.

Gavin Martin