It was in the intimate, low-key surroundings of Leytonstone’s Sheepwalk pub that around a hundred or so people took their places to witness a little slice of Americana . Indiana’s very own Otis Gibbs performed protest songs such as ‘People’s Day’ (included in the Wall Street Journal’s Billy Bragg-compiled ‘Top Five Songs with Something to Say’). Mr Gibbs is clearly on a mission to fan the flames of discontent, and if this evening was anything to go by, he might just succeed. The little room above an unassuming pub in East London was brought to life not only by his raw, thoughtful sound, but also by a personable and laidback kind of humour.
The wandering soul that is Mr Gibbs may hail from America’s Midwest, but whilst the subjects of many of his songs – dirt and dustbowls, boxcars and greyhound buses – may not have been familiar to many here, the themes behind his music are universal, and truly took flight in this low-key setting. With the aforementioned ‘People’s Day’, the audience was encouraged to sing along, and sing along they certainly did – the lyric “one day our whispers will be louder than your screams” clearly striking an emotional chord.
Between songs, this natural storyteller flitted effortlessly from homey stories of his uncle babysitting him at the local saloon (where the young Otis would sit on the piano and the barflies would pay him to sing… and his ex-con uncle would use the money to buy yet more booze), to more sombre themes of death and loss of close friends, which he then sang of in the form of the melancholic ‘Something More’. He ended the show with an off-PA number, prowling the room like a friendly bear; but perhaps it was in the rowdy, jocular ‘Prayin’ That The Van Don’t Break’ that Otis, and the room, seemed most alive.
Towards the end of the show, telling the assembled crowd of his disappointment at how blues had moved away from its roots, Otis exhorted his audience to ‘fuck Eric Clapton’ – or at least shout it out. Having witnessed what we had witnessed, there weren’t many who didn’t.
Words: Rob Hewson
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