The Rainbow is one of my favourite venues in Birmingham, a quirky pub has a discreet back door towards the toilets that opens into what appears to be a disused warehouse. The exposed beams (and wires) and brickwork providing a backdrop to a corner stage. Despite the shabby appearance, the sound is always good in the Rainbow. And even better, tonight, it was hosting for the Louisianan country-folk-blues sound of Hurray for the Riff Raff. It seemed somehow appropriate that the blues with a prickly social message would tonight be sounding around the almost deserted industrial heart of this run-down part of the city.
Taking a stage decorated with Puerto Rican and Rainbow flags, the band launch into the blues stomp that is the live version of “End Of the Line”, but the set really takes flight in “John The Orphan”, Alynda Segarra’s voice tearing over and through the band’s solid backing and bringing real urgency. The tour material was a mix, mostly from 2014’s Small Town Heroes album, with some older material, and a few new songs. The first being the sinister yet empowering, “New Life To Save” – or as Segarra describes it “When you’re about to give up, and you just can’t fuckin’ do that.”.
A few tracks in, slowing the pace for “Daniella” provided one of my highlights for the night, Segarra prowling the stage, alternating between staring into space, and staring the audience down, while giving an electric vocal performance. I felt she could be channelling Patti Smith, it’s the same blend of aggression, attitude, and soul. “Body Electric” is emotional for other reasons, this track is Segarra’s take on gun violence, with its “Shoot me down, put my body in the river” refrain, she seemed visibly moved that it appeared everyone in this room knew all the words. “Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand /Gonna do for a world that’s so sick and sad” sounds, but never feels, cynical – there’s still optimism that we aren’t yet set down this route. Making it sound so traditional and timeless is an inspired reversal of the murder ballad; on first listen it almost seems a Louvin Brothers era country song, and then you realise the switch, and that’s when you realise we need Hurray for the Riff Raff to reinvent these tropes. You could almost call it a new folk tradition for the 21st century.
Second new song Reeking (maybe Wrekin? I wasn’t sure – I did think naming it after the Shropshire town was unlikely) Beach shows that the next album may well have more touches of funk and soul. “I was grumpy in Germany, and probably hungry.” introduces “Crash on the Highway”, taking a more bar-room blues feel here than on record. There’s still time for a pretty straight up cover of Lucinda Williams’s “People Talkin'”, and my favourite of the new songs “Living in the City” – seemingly an apology to New York for leaving, or maybe for living there in the first place – probably a bit of both. Then “Blue Ridge Mountain”, which we find is hugely uplifting when played live – Segarra’s ability to throw emotion into her words doesn’t ebb at all, even for the lighter and more positive moments.
The best is saved for last – the epic “St Roch Blues” closes the evening, a song that sounds it could have been written at any period in the last 100 years. Gospel, blues, folk and country coming together for the people in a dimly lit warehouse in Digbeth. Hurray indeed.