It’s not often that a slice of Nashville finds its way into the backstreets of London. But city dwellers were in luck when a young rising star of the US country scene, Kashena Sampson, paid a visit on a muggy Thursday night.
Softly illuminated by candles and fairy lights, the cosy basement of The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell, EC1, provides solace from the bustling streets outside.
Well travelled South East London boy, singer-songwriter James Riley, the opening solo artist, created a magical and intimate vibe with his skillful and sensitive playing; with clever, tug-on-your-heartstrings storytelling.
He busked around Europe for a few years, and ended up making an album in Nashville. “Awesome… like the Allman Brothers meets the Seeger Sessions”, says music star Laura Marling about James.
Once he’d done his impressive bit tonight, the audience was primed and more than ready by the time the headliner, Las Vegas native and now Nashville resident Kashena Sampson, graced the stage with her band.
The small but appreciative, attentive and respectful crowd was instantly hooked on the jovial beat of “That Don’t Sit Too Well with Me”. Indeed, Kashena’s upbeat, cheeky spirit shone during her whole set, via her music and her affectionate interactions with the audience between songs.
“Greasy Spoon” was a perfect example of this. Kashena introduced the song, describing how she moved to Nashville without a plan, found herself strapped for cash, and interviewed for her first job at a typical “greasy spoon” cafe.
She got disillusioned with music at one stage and admitted she took too many drugs and drank too much, and lost her way a little. But with the intervention of her friends, the determined artist in her won the day, and she came back fighting and cleaned up her act. Recently named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know,” comparing her to Bobbie Gentry and Stevie Nicks.
She was talent spotted by a top Vegas entertainment scout when she was singing in an L.A. Irish bar’s open mike night, and landed a contract to sing covers onboard a luxury cruise ship for what was meant to be seven months. It lasted three years, and she did not even need to audition for the job!
The plan, to save up the cash to go to Music City, Nashville, and make an album of her own songs. But the money ran out and after the sea trip, she went home to Vegas, where she served drinks and sang in a piano bar.
But the hand of fate reached again, and she was contacted by a cast member of the musical Million Dollar Quartet, who invited her to sing lead vocals on a song written by Miss Nevada USA.
The studio band was Olivia Newton-John’s band, who happened to be in Vegas performing, and were all from Nashville. When Miss Nevada told Sampson she was moving to Nashville and needed a roommate, her luck had turned. She got herself to the town in 2015 and has been there ever since.
Tonight, her interplay with the crowd, and the banter with her three band mates on bass, drums and guitar was both refreshing and captivating.
With that said, Kashena really radiated during the more soulful moments of her set. Her cover of “Motherless Children”, was a particular highlight. A blues standard first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson some 91 years ago way back in 1927.
Since covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Lucinda Williams. An ambitious track for sure, being both well-known and lyrically repetitive, but Kashena absolutely nailed it.
Her voice took on a quasi-operatic quality, showing true depth. She painted her feelings effortlessly with all the colours her vocals had to offer. She flitted with ease between a heavy, deep tone, and a lighter, breathier one; every note imbibed with emotion and meaning.
Kashena’s prowess as a songwriter was also brilliantly showcased during the gig. A superb voice, and her treatment of the music belied deft skill. Take “Wild Heart”, for example, where unexpected and interrupted chords lead the listener on a twisting harmonic journey, a perfect musical illustration of the accompanying lyrics: “Ooh, it’s a fragile state I’m in”.
Not only was Kashena herself utterly wonderful, but her band provided excellent accompaniment. Guitarist Ben Reed treated the music sensitively, only stepping into the limelight where it was appropriate. His tone was unmistakably country, with a particularly beautiful delay effect, but it never sounded cheesy, and the same can be said of his melodies.
Bassist Harry Bohay and drummer Mikey Sorbello also did sterling jobs, reading both Kashena and the crowd perfectly and evoking exactly the right atmosphere through their instruments.
An even greater feat considering that these musicians only met Kashena the day before the show, for a run through as they are all UK based musicians and this was a “pick up” band. She travels light!
Kashena Sampson is deservedly earning herself a good name on the country circuit, and rightly so. But she doesn’t consider herself a country singer. She will say’ folk and a little soul’ if you press her on what she does, but she is a big rock and roll fan too.
Her debut album “Wild Heart” came out in August last year, 2017, and won high praise. No stranger to the UK, Kashena appeared at Americana Fest UK 2018 in London in January this year. Back in the States, she was asked to open for country legend Merle Haggard’s sons, Ben & Noel Haggard, at East Nashville’s largest venue, The Basement East.
London was lucky enough to host her again, but just the one night this time. Everyone went home with a twinkle in their eye. The classy sound of Nashville still ringing in their ears. This writer for one, already eagerly awaiting her return!
Words: Helen Walpole
Photos: Alex Asprey