union music store

Blame Sally

The Union Music Store, Lewes – 28th October 2012

To appreciate the exquisite nature of a gig at The Union Music store you need to take in the whole experience. Starting out in London the train journey down has a Harry Potter magic to it, albeit with an indie vibe – dirty old London and its grim southern suburbs gradually bleed into the English countryside until all around is green, then you suddenly plunge into a long dark tunnel and burst out into what feels like a mystical land. Whereas the towns prior to the tunnel have a drab post-war shabbiness about them, Lewes on the other side is all old grand buildings of ancient wood, tile and golden stone. This is the home of a thousand years of English non conformism. Thomas Paine, a freethinker whose ideas formed the basis of the American constitution, used to drink and roister at the White Hart pub on the main street, and every year there is a vast bonfire on 5th November where among other things they burn effigies of the Pope. You expect to see Virginia Wolfe at the station, and walking into town everyone seems to be some hybrid of rustic hippy and tweedy English eccentric.

The Union Music Store is small but perfectly formed and has become a Mecca for a particularly type of folksy rootsy country aficionado. Its size and location belie the importance it holds in the hearts of those that know. It couldn’t be more perfect – a tiny space in an ancient shop with creaking floorboards; an emporium of offbeat vinyl, vintage instruments, and the most wonderful array of bits and pieces that you really want but don’t know what for. Even though it’s only been in existence a few years the Union Music Store feels like it has been there forever.

When I arrive, five minutes late, the door is shut and the little space packed. I am let in by the Union’s founder, Jamie Freeman, one of the prodigiously talented Freeman brothers, and manage to find a place behind the counter with Stevie, Jamie’s wife, who also runs the store. The whole place, including the audience, looks like it’s been constructed for an album cover that is going to great lengths to prove its authenticity, no detail spared. Except no one is trying to prove anything. This is the real deal. Jeans look battered by time because they have been, shoe leather scarred because it’s old. In an age where so many things are engineered it takes a moment to realise that this hasn’t been. It really is like this.

And right in the middle of this today are Blame Sally. Four gutsy girls from San Francisco who have been performing together for a decade but obviously playing for a whole lot longer than that. They are a master class of substance over style, with an effortlessness and ease that tell you they have played a thousand gigs in a thousand towns, with soaring world weary voices that rise and crack like vinyl. They stand four abreast, and share the singing, the playing, and you can tell they have shared a whole lot more beyond. The old van outside hasn’t been brought in for a photoshoot, it has transported them from small venues dotted around the land on a shoestring tour they have financed themselves. I think of all those silly adolescents who appear on reality TV programmes earnestly talking about what they are prepared to do for their art – and wonder how many would even be able to tune a mandolin never mind stomach a month on the road in a van with holes in the floor.

Their music is sparse, their voices carry that mixture of loss and hope that lies at the heart of all great roots music, and they have a beauty that is amplified by allowing themselves to age naturally and gracefully.

If you want gorgeous authentic on-the-road folk music that touches the soul look no further than Blame Sally. If you want to experience all that is glorious about live roots music get yourself The Union Music Store for one of their in-stores. If you want to experience them together though you might have to start a whipround and see if you can entice them back again next year.


Words and pics by Neil Gibb

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