October 7, 2023

Featured image by Amp Music Photography

In only their second UK show ever, Toronto country-soul rockers Bywater Call visited the Bourne Club in Sittingbourne, Kent. Formed in 2017, they have released just two full albums, their eponymous debut in 2019, and last year’s Remain. For a lesser known, full seven-piece band to make the trip across the Atlantic must be heavy on the purse strings, which may be why they played two sets instead of hiring a support act, but whatever the reason, I have no problem with listening to Meghan Parnell’s absolutely astonishing voice all evening. They elected to kick off at full volume with Bring It Back from the latest album, which morphed straight into the slightly slower Ties That Bind, featuring some tasteful slide guitar from Dave Barnes on his beautiful hollow-bodied Gibson, and a nice bit of saxophone/trumpet interplay from their built-in horn section of Julian Nalli and Stephen Dyte.

Keyboard wizard John Kervin featured heavily in the third song, a new number named Sweet Maria, which opened with some old-time jazz-blues piano, before building into full Lynyrd Skynyrd southern rock. The band stopped playing and dropped into an a capella section with massed harmony vocals and an audience clap-along before ending the number on just vocals over that electric piano. For the most part, Meghan carried the vocals on her own for the evening, but on the occasions when the band stepped in with the harmonies, it worked really well.

Bywater Call: Dave Barnes and Meghan Parnell (photo by Simon Green)

A cover version next, of sorts – they played a couple of verses of Stephen Stills’ classic Love The One You’re With, before dropping into a kind of freeform jazz fusion jam, with answer-back soloing between guitar and sax, before seamlessly looping back into the main tune at the end.  The first major highlight for me though, was the rocking gospel of Sign Of Peace, with its jazzy keyboard intro and Mexican trumpet interludes. For the most part, it’s a hands-in-the-air piano boogie number, but with a thumping blues section too, and an excellent piano solo from Kervin, before changing rhythm again into a super-speed stormer at the end. Tremendous!

They ended the first set on the harder-edged Falls Away, which could have been a precursor to a heavier second set all round, but in fact the second instalment began with almost a fade-in, Barnes fingerpicking some tasteful bayou blues before Meghan’s voice came in over the top. It’s these restrained, bluesy numbers where her voice really shines, that raspy edge cutting through the background perfectly. Silver Lining was another highlight for me though, starting with an extended interplay jam between the sax and trumpet, showing some real chemistry between the two horn players. Eventually, it revealed itself as a slow, bluesy number from the first album, with the addition of a few bars of New Orleans horn jazz in the middle, and a tinkling, honky-tonk piano solo.

The up-tempo Arizona is probably my favourite number from the first album, and it came across well live too, but bassist Mike Meusel had a chance to shine in a groovy, up-tempo cover of The Weight by The Band, which opened with a great bass solo. The second set ended with the slow rock of Left Behind, with the horn players amusing themselves by whacking a stand with a drumstick each, to bolster the percussion.

An inevitable encore consisted of an epic version of the up-tempo Talking Backwards, another highlight from the first album, featuring more bluesy guitar noodling, some spectacular vocals in the soulful intro, and groovy bass in the main number. The band specialises in tight subtlety, changing feel, rhythm and tempo with seamless ease, with everyone capable of contributing an excellent solo – but the major selling point is the melodic and soulful power of Meghan Parnell’s voice. Not everyone can get to Canada to hear it, but if Bywater Call are on this side of the pond, it would be rude not to.