The Coal Porters formed in Los Angeles; a band centred around Sid Griffin who was once a part of the famous ‘Long Ryders’ band. When they relocated to London, Griffin poured all of his energy into the project, and The Coal Porters became a successful and nationally touring act. The band’s style is distinctly Americana and Bluegrass, with a bit of Jazz mixed in. They use an eclectic mix of instruments to get their sound; double bass, banjo, guitar, fiddle, ukelele, mandolin, and more.
On the 2nd of June, 2017, I went to see them perform live in Sheffield. 9 months previously they had released their latest album, ‘No.6’ with a new fiddle player. Having done my research, I was ready for some uber-bluegrass sounds. In the back of a noisy, famous pub in Sheffield (The Greystones) is ‘The Backroom’ - a music venue that has hosted the folk stars. The room itself is the size of an average-sized pub. It’s all seated, a bit too warm for a humid summer’s day but, overall, pretty comfortable and nice to look at! A huge number of folk legends have played here: Kathryn Tickell, Sam Carter, Martyn Joseph, Nancy Kerr, and more.
The stage is a simple set up - three microphones, a chair, and one guitar. On comes the fiddle player, Kerenza Peacock, in a startlingly pink gown, and four men in suave suits: a giant bass held by Andrew Stafford, Paul Fitzgerald with a banjo, Sid Griffin with a mandolin, and Neil Robert Herd. They launch into an upbeat violin-centric introduction to an energetic country song that likes to play with rhythm. It’s definitely a ‘this is our style, deal with it’ kind of introduction.
Playing on the moment, they joke with the audience before launching into another song. Sid makes a joke out of forgetting the words; you can see the camaraderie with the five on stage. They are up for a laugh and are clearly having a lot of fun. In a whirlwind of short, almost relentlessly joyful songs, they whizz through the set. My favourite song of the set was distinctly different from the others; introduced by Neil, it had a gypsy folk sound that got me tapping my feet.
They end the first half with a calmer, sweeter song than the rest. Possibly my second favourite of them all. Robert Herd has a wonderful, strong voice; the most emotive and interesting to watch on stage, he effortlessly leads this love song. I loved that they included a Bowie cover of ‘Heroes’: a calmer, quieter version, with a simple plucked banjo riff, though I am usually averse to bands playing covers without reason (anniversary, celebration, etc).
In hindsight, I don’t think the microphones were loud enough. The lyrics were rather lost amongst the playful instrumentation, along with the on-stage jokes between the band during song introductions. Sharing one microphone between three men wasn’t enough for the umph required for group singing. However, Sid’s mandolin playing is wicked fast, and Andrew’s bass really fills in the background sound. Despite the project originally being centred around Sid Griffin, the limelight was shared equally throughout the gig, with songs lead by Kerenza, Sid, and Neil, in turn.
For a steadfast bluegrass lover, The Coal Porters would be a dream come true. A powerful sound, and fly-by rhythms, they’re always going from strength to strength.