Review by Amy McGill with Photos by Anna Poole

Flame-haired country singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson is one of those rare things: nostalgic yet modern, passionate yet unsentimental. It is perhaps a curious kind of venue, then, that he finds himself in tonight.

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Based on the grounds of Wadham College at Oxford University, the Holywell Music Room is thought to be Europe’s first purpose-built concert hall. Its stage – all sweeping white balustrades, pretty wooden benches and ancient pipe organs – is about as antique and baroque as they come: a chamber orchestra space not quite befitting an Americana musician. But credit where credit’s due, the organisers made a shrewd choice for those craving an up-close and deeply personal experience of this evening’s showcase.

First up for bat is Sophronie, a charming young talent from Stroud who takes to the stage like a generous bouquet of shrinking violets. Don’t be fooled, however, because at the right moments, this mouse can roar. Deftly plucking on an acoustic guitar, the 20-year-old Sophronie Edwards croons her way through material from her sophomore album ‘Remember Home’, offering a lyrical smorgasbord covering everything from bucolic landscapes glimpsed during intercontinental travel to the twin horrors of mortality and loss. Strikingly though, it is in the numbers where she tickles the ivories and ramps up the vocals that she truly bares her soul, recalling a Blue-era Joni Mitchell, or Regina Spektor. ‘I Lost the Music’, a brilliant and witty piece of songcraft, ponders on the ordeal of writer’s block. But hey – spoiler alert – the music finds her in the end. A good thing too, as the world needs to hear much more.

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And it’s onto Teddy Thompson. For those not in the know, this singer belongs to an impressive dynasty: as the son of 1970s folk-rock stars Richard and Linda Thompson and brother of vocalist Kami Thompson, he’s a key part of a musical clan widely considered to be Britain’s answer to the Wainwrights. And like their American-Canadian counterparts, the Thompsons have collaborated with one another extensively, culminating in 2014’s aptly-titled album ‘Family’.

Thompson, however, flies entirely solo tonight. It’s just one man and an acoustic guitar, breezing through tracks from a considerable back catalogue of seven albums plus a peppering of material from an as yet unreleased record. His 20-song set is a stark reminder that the London-born Thompson owes far more to the US than the UK when it comes to his influences. Here he combines all the romantic naivety of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll with the lovelorn fervour of American folk (think Buddy Holly meets The Everly Brothers via Dolly Parton), arriving with several helpings of upbeat, foot-stomping country-rock before switching gear with the fragile poetics of his bluesier musings.

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From the Nick Drake steeped ‘Over and Over’, an ethereal song beyond the time and place of contemporary guitar music, to the animated toe-tapper of ‘The One I Can’t Have’, there are plenty of contrasts, even if the arrangements are as naked as they come. ‘Can’t Sing Straight’ adds whisky-drenched Johnny Cash stylings, while ‘Don’t Know What I Was Thinking’ shimmers with sunny guitar-pop of a George Harrison bent. Sure, it may be easy to miss the more densely layered productions of Thompson’s records during a gig like this, but in their rawest form, these acoustic versions shine a spotlight on Thompson’s effortlessly beautiful belter of a voice and its velveteen falsetto.

Following a rapturous response from his predominantly boomer generation audience, Thompson returns for a fittingly nostalgic encore to mark the anniversary of his hero Buddy Holly’s death. He plays two covers – Holly’s ‘True Love Ways’ and ‘Think it Over’ – before bowing out with the self-penned ‘In My Arms’. It’s a wonderful tribute to America’s musical heritage, and one that forces us to forget the incongruously English surroundings of this Oxford music hall.

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