Tennessee native Ashley Monroe first came to many country fans’ attention in 2013 with the release of her breakthrough second album, Like A Rose. Since then she’s released a further two solo records, as well as making up one third of the band Pistol Annies alongside Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley. Her latest album, Sparrow, was released last year to critical acclaim, and Monroe is currently in the UK on a short tour to promote the record, including two sold-out shows at London’s Bush Hall.
Monroe arrived on stage around 9.20pm to huge applause from the crowd, carrying her acoustic guitar. She opened her set with Hands On You, the lead single from Sparrow. It’s a departure from her usual sound with its sultry, bittersweet lyrics, but they contrasted beautifully with her sweet, rich vocals and she drew every drop of emotion and regret out of the song.
Throughout her set Monroe mixed tracks from across her three previous records as well as a few covers. One of these formed a highlight early in the set, where she effortlessly blended a stripped-back version of Edith Piaf’s classic La Vie En Rose with her own song Like A Rose. The combination showed off her stunning vocals to perfection and had the audience singing along unprompted (one of many such moments throughout the evening) before bursting into loud cheering. She also came across as very warm and engaging, telling stories about the inspirations behind her songs, sharing her love for performing in the UK and cracking self-deprecating jokes when she flubbed her lyrics.
One thing which particularly struck me throughout Monroe’s performance was her skill as a storyteller. Whether it was the folk-influenced, Dolly Parton-esque Hard On A Heart, the honest Mother’s Daughter with its soaring chorus, or the old-school country sound of Two Weeks Late, she has a great ability to turn a phrase and create vivid, detailed characters. I also liked that she showed off a range of styles during her set, including the atmospheric, bluesy Dixie with its sense of world-weariness and resignation, the sunny and uplifting She Wakes Me Up (a song inspired by her dogs) and Mayflowers, a romantic and wistful tune with an impassioned chorus. One particularly strong example of this was Wild Love, with its funky and rocky touches, sharp melody and passionate lyrics. Monroe could be seen getting lost in the music throughout the song and it was an absolute joy to watch.
For me the high point of the set came around halfway through, when Monroe was joined on stage by Sean McConnell (who’d opened for her earlier in the evening) to perform a cover of the Cranberries’ Linger. Their voices blended together really nicely and perfectly captured the yearning feel of the song. I also loved the piano section, which saw Monroe perform a haunting rendition of Orphan which wrung every bit of anguish and pain out of the lyrics, as well as a spiritual, gospel-influenced take on Keys To The Kingdom. I’m Trying To also provided a particularly moving moment, with its simple arrangement allowing Monroe’s ethereal voice to shine as she balanced composed verses with a powerful chorus.
Monroe closed her set with two of her more upbeat songs, Winning Streak and Weed Instead Of Roses. The former rattled along, highlighting the gravelly edge to her voice as she delivered the quickfire lyrics, whilst the latter had a cheeky, playful quality that I loved. Throughout both songs the audience were singing along and it was nice to see another side of her. She then completely switched things around with her performance of The Blade, the title track from her 2015 album. In another artist’s hands, the emotion of the song could be far too overblown, but Monroe’s subdued approach made it all the more devastating. I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a tear and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one.
After a volley of whoops and cheers from the crowd, Monroe returned to the stage to play a cover of Gram Parsons’ Hickory Wind. She really brought the scenes of the song and its story to life, and perfectly captured the knowingness and nostalgic feel of the track. Her voice rang out through Bush Hall and it was a strong note to end a great show on – as evidenced by the audience who roared their approval as she reached the final notes.
Overall I really enjoyed Monroe’s performance and thought she delivered a packed, well-paced set that lived up to the hype. Her angelic, pure vocals were absolutely gorgeous and she showed off her outstanding songwriting skills throughout as well as plenty of different sounds and influences. There was also a lovely timelessness about her performance which I really enjoyed. It’s clear she’s a fantastic talent and that there’s a lot of love between her and her fans over in the UK. Here’s hoping it’s not too long before she’s back over here soon – and maybe playing even bigger venues…
Set list: 1. Hands On You 2. Hard On A Heart 3. Mother’s Daughter 4. La Vie En Rose (Edith Piaf cover)/Like A Rose 5. Two Weeks Late 6. Dixie 7. Mayflowers 8. She Wakes Me Up 9. Linger (Cranberries cover) (with Sean McConnell) 10. I’m Trying To 11. Orphan 12. Keys To The Kingdom 13. Wild Love 14. Winning Streak 15. Weed Instead Of Roses 16. The Blade 17. Hickory Wind (Gram Parsons cover) Performance date: 29th January 2019