Striking Matches first came to our attention back at the CMA Songwriters Series show on the eve of 2014’s Country to Country festival. An amazing evening and, whilst sharing the stage with hugely experienced & talented artists, duo Justin Davis & Sarah Zimmerman stole the show. Their appearance on the pop-up stages at C2C that year created a buzz on a scale not seen before, or indeed since. The pair performed a sold-out show at London’s Borderline last year, during which they promised that they would come back to the UK and do so often. Far from being crowd-pleasing spin, Striking Matches have more than kept to their word. Not only did they appear at C2C 2015, they have returned for a 5 show tour this month, during which they have announced a return to these shores in November.
As the UK takes the duo further to their hearts, the venues at which they are performing their astonishing guitar-slinging continue to improve and their London date this time around took place in the gorgeous setting of Union Chapel. A venue where charmingly the chocolate kiosk is as popular as the bar and where, not altogether surprisingly, the audience are seated on pews. The architecture and stained-glass windows are stunning, whilst the acoustics are fabulous. Opening act on the tour is UK artist Lucy May, who combines her love of 60’s pop and Country music in both her music & wonderful retro-look.
Accompanied by guitarist Paul Morhen, Lucy proved that UK Country fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about the release of her upcoming ‘Whirlwind’ album on May 17th. Armed with a charming personality, faultless voice & a batch of songs steeped in personal meaning, the young singer warmed the Chapel crowd up marvellously. Highlights of the set were the moving ‘Hole In My Heart’, the wonderfully feisty ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Man’ and set closer ‘Whirlwind‘, a perfect pop-Country track. (For more details check out www.lucymayofficial.com)
Since last catching them live Striking Matches have released their debut album ‘Nothing But the Silence’, a record which is easily one of the finest genre offerings of the year so far. Those familiar with the live performances from Justin & Sarah did notice that it took a slight adjustment to your musical ear to get used to hearing the duo accompanied by a full studio band. A similar adjustment was required at Union Chapel, the pair not only expanded their own use of instruments to feature some fuller-sounding, electric pieces but also added a drummer & bassist. Very occasionally the bigger sound overpowered some of the picking or a vocal flourish, but in replicating the deeper sound of their album and filling the large space in which they were performing it worked a treat.
Tracks such as ‘Nothing But The Silence’, ‘Never Gonna Love Again’ or ‘Missing You Tonight’ have a dangerously moody & atmospheric sound on the duo’s album, therefore benefited greatly from a larger stage presence. The driving drumbeat, only rarely being obtrusive, also helped to add a further momentum to the show and get the pews rocking! Despite this I must confess to hugely enjoying the middle section of the show where Justin & Sarah were left alone onstage, just the two of them & their guitars (and I hesitate to use the word ‘just’ when discussing the force of musical nature that is Striking Matches in these terms!) and an enthralled London crowd.
It is at this point that I should comment that this show was the first ‘triple goosebumper’ I can recall in many a year. The first of these moments came during the acoustic section when Justin took the lead and we got to hear a rare live outing for the sublime ‘God And You’. A startlingly powerful song, adhering to the less is more theory. Lyrically deceptively simple but each line honed to perfection, tenderly played and an opportunity for one of the finest guitarists I have seen to prove that he has a glorious vocal delivery to boot. The second arrived not altogether surprisingly (as it seems to be the song that always makes Sarah shed a tear) when Sarah put down her guitar and sang the beautiful ‘When The Right One Comes Along’. One of the eight tracks that the duo have had featured in US TV’s ‘Nashville’ and one that will be a signature cut for them for quite some time. The sweetness of Sarah’s vocal delivery, with gentle harmonies from Justin, coupled with the sheer warmth of the uplifting lyrics move even the hardest of hearts.
The night was not without its surprises, firstly Jon Green from UK’s The Bonfires was welcomed to the stage to accompany the headliners on ‘Like Lovers’, the melancholic ballad featured on their album, which Green co-wrote. Further excitement ensued when our very own Country duo The Shires joined Striking Matches to form what many were calling a ‘supergroup’ to perform the relentlessly catchy ‘I Ain’t Leaving Without Your Love’, another Nashville cut. It was wonderful to see Ben & Crissie sharing the stage with their US peers, it was also clear to see that they were as much in awe of what they were seeing as the rest of us!
Hard to choose favourites amongst the Striking Matches catalogue of songs but one of mine is the fantastic ‘Make A Liar Out Of Me’, so it was pleasing to see the duo close the show on such a high. One of the finest examples of what their music is about (which I have seen gloriously described as being ‘at that sweet spot at the intersection of Country, rock & blues‘) the song is a sheer joy, climaxing in the sizzling slide-guitar playing from Sarah. A musical moment that leaves me shaking my head in disbelief each & every time, the lady is amazing. That third case of goosebumps to complete the triple? Those came during the encore, returning to the stage with their faithful acoustic guitars the pair performed an utterly exquisite version of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’. The evening had gone by in a flash and the Union Chapel crowd were on their feet for a hugely deserved standing ovation.
A phrase commonly used after every Striking Matches gig appears to ‘believe the hype‘. Earning rave reviews wherever they go it may be difficult for some to buy into that, but trust me…they are that good. Each time I have seen the duo perform live they have shown an endearing combination of boundless enthusiasm for their music and touching humility. The passion for playing is understandable, why they are so humble clearly comes from them being genuinely grounded people, but is totally unfounded. As previously mentioned their album is a lovingly-crafted work of Country music art, they are both terrific singers and simply sensational guitarists. I cannot recall ever seeing anything quite like them, which is why I already have tickets to see them again in November & urge you to do the same. They were outstanding at Union Chapel, keep coming ‘home’ guys.
(All photos copyright Helen Parish – used courtesy of Hels Bels Photography)