Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – bewitching sister act goes from goosebumps to grunge

City Halls, Glasgow
The Alabama songwriters’ exquisite close harmonies elevate everything they sing in this eclectic covers set

It took more than two decades – and a shared output of 23 solo albums – before Alabama-born singer-songwriters and sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer resolved to make a record together. But once they made the decision, it all came together rather quickly. That is why, Moorer explains almost apologetically to a rapt Celtic Connections audience, that the 2017 album Not Dark Yet is comprised almost entirely of covers rather than box-fresh Lynne/Moorer originals. The suggestion is that a more creative collaboration may yet come with time.

Lynne, the elder by four years, has some experience when it comes to cover albums. After winning a best new artist Grammy in 2001 for her defiant, crossover pop-country smash I Am Shelby Lynne (belated recognition, considering it was her sixth album), one of her more unexpected but delightful follow-up moves was to record an album of Dusty Springfield classics.

There’s no Dusty on Not Dark Yet – named after a late-period Bob Dylan song – but it is an eclectic selection box of unearthed country, left-field rock and even grunge, streamlined into a warm, cohesive whole by Lynne and Moorer’s empathic singing. It is an excellent fit for Glasgow’s annual January roots jamboree, where musical cross-pollination is encouraged. (This is Moorer’s fourth Celtic Connections appearance, and Lynne’s first.)

They begin with exquisite close harmonies, turning Every Time You Leave by 1960s crooners the Louvin Brothers into an a cappella masterclass in heartsick honky-tonk. That Lynne and Moorer’s voices fit together so naturally shouldn’t be a surprise – “I’ve been singing with my sissy since she was this tall,” confesses Lynne, her hand dropping to her knee – but it certainly elevates some of their more overlooked choices. Even hardcore Killers fans might not return to their unloved second album, Sam’s Town, expecting gold, but here Lynne and Moorer refashioned My List into a goosebump-inducing lament to lost love.

Watch a video for The Colour of a Cloudy Day on YouTube

Hefting acoustic guitars and backed by a polished but low-key three-piece band, the sisters mostly let their song choices speak for themselves. After an impressively dolorous version of Townes Van Zandt’s ragged Lungs, things brighten with a swaying rendition of The Colour of a Cloudy Day, a relatively recent song by fellow Alabamans turned ascendant Nashville power couple Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. In an otherwise poised, understated masterclass of musicianship, the only real misstep is a gung-ho but seemingly under-rehearsed cover of Nirvana’s Lithium, which lacks the original’s switchblade menace and doesn’t conjure up anything to replace it.

After playing all of Not Dark Yet with only the slightest of tracklist reshuffles, Lynne and Moorer dip into their own respective back catalogues. Alabama Song, the title track on Moorer’s 1998 debut, inspires an impromptu debate about which US states have the deepest traditional music culture. While eager to count their beloved Alabama among the best, the sisters need to be encouraged to suggest the worst. (“Delaware?” offers Lynne. “Rhode Island!” counters Moorer.)

They close with Lynne’s resilient hymn I’ll Hold Your Head, which finds glints of optimism in hardscrabble sketches of childhood and ends, appropriately, with a big hug. It’s quite a sister act.

• At Cadogan Hall, London, on 30 January. Box office: 020-7730 4500.


Graeme Virtue

The GuardianTramp

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