Originally from Kentucky, Tyler Childers started writing songs aged 13 and released his first album, Bottles and Bibles, back in 2011. However, it was his 2017 record Purgatory, produced by Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson, which catapulted him to critical acclaim for his bluegrass influences and detailed storytelling. Last year’s follow-up, Country Squire, topped the Billboard Country Albums chart, and now he’s returned to the UK for a sold-out four-date run, finishing last night at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
Accompanied by his five-piece band, Childers kicked off his 90-minute set with a cover of the Charlie Daniels Band classic Trudy. I really liked that they put their own twist on the song, giving it a classic rock and roll feel as well as adding some funky touches and giving each band member a chance to shine early on. The drawl and gravel in Childers’ voice was evident as he delivered the rapid-fire lyrics, and you could feel the restraint and power there too. It was a surprisingly high-energy start to the set and definitely set the template for the rest of the evening, with the raucous crowd bursting into whoops and applause as the song came to an end.
Throughout the performance Childers played a mix of songs from across his three albums, as well as throwing in a couple of covers including a subdued, plaintive version of Bobby Charles’ Tennessee Blues. One thing which particularly stood out to me was how animated he was as a performer during the show. Even though he didn’t move around a tremendous amount on stage, he could regularly be seen jamming with his band and was really throwing himself into the performance, getting up close and personal with the microphone and bugging out his eyes as he went for the big notes. There was something incredibly magnetic about him and it’s not hard to see why he inspires such devotion in his fans.
Of course, Childers’ skill as a lyricist and storyteller is one of the main reasons he’s won over critics and audiences, and that was fully on display last night. Whether it was the playful Bus Route with its portraits of scary school bus drivers, the contrasting rollicking melody and downbeat lyrics of Creeker, the uptempo yet bittersweet Born Again or Whitehouse Road’s gallery of ne’er-do-wells trying to escape from a dark situation, he is a master of creating vivid imagery and making the characters of his songs truly come to life. I also really liked the mix of styles and influences he and the band showcased during the performance, such as on Peace Of Mind which swung between blues and honky-tonk, the bluegrass vibes of I Swear (To God) and Deadman’s Curve which recalled 90s grunge bands like Nirvana.
However, the songs that resonated with me the most were Childers’ love songs. Although they might not be as well-known as some of his other numbers, his ability to put his own quirky spin on them is a real strength of his, and it provided some of my favourite moments in the set. Country Squire was an early standout in that regard, with its hopeful lyrics and lively melody that got the crowd dancing along. Meanwhile, Shake The Frost had a lovely nostalgic feel about it, with its emphasis on Childers’ heartfelt vocals, All Your’n had a gorgeous Motown feel to it along with tons of warmth, and the risqué Feathered Indians was packed with details and had a huge anthemic chorus that got the crowd singing along in full voice.
One of the highlights of the show for me was House Fire. The song opened with a long intro which started off with sparse guitar notes before building up into stomping drums and a 70s classic rock vibe, then dropped down as Childers began to sing. There’s a real sharpness and punch to the track and Childers filled the lyrics with so much conviction as well as raw, distinctive vocals, getting completely lost in the music as he delivered the song. It got the biggest cheer of the night and showed that he’s an incredibly talented and passionate performer.
To close the main portion of the set, Childers and his band performed the autobiographical, self-deprecating Honky Tonk Flame, which balanced rock and country vibes and featured wailing fiddle and a wicked guitar riff, before closing with Universal Sound. The song had a great uplifting feel and I really liked the optimism, as well as the humour in Childers’ lyrics which showed just how clever he is as a writer. It drew huge cheers from the audience as the band left the stage, leaving Childers alone to end the show with a solo acoustic section. After thanking the crowd for coming out, he launched into Nose To The Grindstone, an introspective, world-weary number about following your dreams and staying out of trouble which showed off the belt in his voice. It was a really powerful moment and one that will stay with me for a long time. He followed that with the simple, folk-influenced Lady May, which gave him a chance to show off his guitar playing skills, and a retro cover of Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain that was full of emotion.
For his last song, Childers sang Follow You To Virgie, which for me really summed up his performance. Its light, twangy melody was a great contrast to the wistful, slightly melancholy lyrics and his voice rang out throughout the song, filling the room and drawing the audience in. The crowd sang along at top volume on the huge chorus and rewarded him with a volley of cheers and applause as he finished the song. I really liked the emphasis that stripping the songs back put on his delivery and would love to see him do a full acoustic show sometime.
Overall Tyler Childers delivered a great show that highlighted his talents as a songwriter and performer, as well as his stage presence and the sheer range of styles and influences he draws on in his performance. It’s clear he inspires a lot of love from his fans and given the chatter after his set he certainly seemed to have won over plenty of new ones too. Whilst he might not be the strongest vocally and I would have liked to hear a bit more of the stories behind the songs, the sheer amount of passion and conviction in his delivery meant he’d definitely won me over by the end, as well as the surprise of seeing different sides of him. Before his last song he told the crowd he ‘hope[d] to see you next time’, and it’s safe to say we hope there won’t be too long to wait until then.
Set list: 1. Trudy (Charlie Daniels Band cover) 2. Bus Route 3. Creeker 4. Born Again 5. Peace Of Mind 6. Country Squire 7. I Swear (To God) 8. Deadman’s Curve 9. Tattoos 10. Shake The Frost 11. All Your’n 12. Feathered Indians 13. Whitehouse Road 14. House Fire 15. Tennessee Blues (Bobby Charles cover) 16. Honky Tonk Flame 17. Universal Sound 18. Nose On The Grindstone 19. Lady May 20. Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain 21. Follow You To Virgie Performance date: 21st January 2020