South Carolina native Ruston Kelly was first taught to play the guitar by his father, pedal steel player Tim Kelly. He moved to Nashville aged 17, where he secured a publishing deal and wrote songs for several major artists, before releasing his EP Halloween in 2017 to critical acclaim. Earlier this month he released his debut album, Dying Star, and last night UK fans had the opportunity to hear him live at his sold-out first London show.
Kelly came in stage to huge cheers and kicked off his acoustic set with Cover My Tracks, the opening song on Dying Star. It showed off the depth and drawl in his voice really well, and I liked the contrast between the song’s downbeat lyrics and soaring melody. He then performed the folky, bittersweet Mockingbird, which gave him a chance to highlight his guitar playing skills. Both songs were full of raw emotion and set the tone for an incredibly powerful performance.
Throughout the show Kelly frequently chatted to the crowd, joking with hecklers and asking for requests, as well as telling the stories behind his songs. One particular highlight was his tale of getting a country superstar (who shall remain nameless) to cut the heartfelt Trying To Let Her and failing, which drew cheers from the crowd at his delivery. He’s got a wicked sense of humour, but was also warm and friendly, particularly when speaking to an emotional fan who requested 1000 Graves. It was nice to see a side of him that’s not necessarily on show in his songs and he came across as incredibly likeable as a result.
Whilst the performance mainly focused on songs from Dying Star, Kelly also performed a couple of new songs. The piano-led Morphine was a dark yet open and humorous song about his substance abuse issues, touching on issues like masculinity and perseverance, whilst The Closest Thing was a lush, romantic ballad full of great imagery. There were a number of cuts from his EP too, particularly the atmospheric, gravelly Poison and the subdued Hollywood, which was packed full of vivid details.
That imagery and storytelling formed a core plank of Kelly’s show, and was one of the things I loved most about it. Whether it was the stark Big Brown Bus, the rocky, singalong Faceplant (which got the biggest cheer of the night) or the heavy Paratrooper’s Battlecry, it’s clear he has a great ear for a turn of phrase and a real mastery of balancing lightness and shade in his songs. Even the tongue-in-cheek Asshole showed his skill as a narrator, with its devil-may-care character being dragged into a police station ‘like a prize’ before an emotional drive home with his wife. Kelly’s husky, world-weary tone adds another layer to the songs and really helps bring their stories and characters to life.
Kelly closed the set with the title track from his album, Dying Star. The lonesome, defiant yet oddly hopeful song showed off his powerful vocals as well as his harmonica-playing skills in the long outro. After demands from the audience for another song, he performed Just For The Record, which he wrote with Lucie Silvas. It was a lilting version full of anguish, with Kelly’s voice alternating between a growl and a yell at times, and I found it utterly heartbreaking. The crowd sang along to every word and roared their approval as it came to a close.
Overall Kelly delivered an excellent performance which showed off all the different facets of his music and why he’s one of the most well-regarded songwriters around. It was a passionate, brutally honest set filled with great musicianship, raw yet soulful vocals and incredible lyrics. Midway through the set he asked if we wanted him to come back to the UK and based on this show it’s safe to say this will be the first of many times we see him here.
Set list: 1. Cover My Tracks 2. Mockingbird 3. Hollywood 4. Trying To Let Her 5. Poison 6. Big Brown Bus 7. Morphine 8. Faceplant 9. Paratrooper’s Battlecry 10. The Closest Thing 11. Anchor 12. Asshole 13. 1000 Graves 14. Dying Star 15. Just For The Record Performance date: 17th September 2018