Samantha Fish & Jess Dayton + The Commoners @ The Institute, Birmingham – Saturday 28th October 2023


Reviewed by Paul H Birch & Photos by Martin Tierney.

Lights go down as Cajun music plays over the PA, manoeuvring in the dark, not least between two set of drum kits laid out across the stage are tonight’s first event, here for the second time in a year, Canada’s The Commoners.

As the lights go up, they’re into a long instrumental with lead guitarist Ross Citrullo lyrically winding a solo into what will become the main melody to the good time rocking ‘More Than Mistakes’. While the vocals are a little indistinct, Chris Medhust makes sure those at the back know he’s up there with a mighty roar before a final chorus calls time on the tune.

Shorn of his own guitar, Medhurst then proceeds to go through those posing school lessons taught by Chris Robinson, Robert Plant, and guest lecturer Mick Jagger with lots of hand curling amid snake writhing arm gestures, some shaking of the locks and sultry sideways looks to bandmembers. That’s cool, he’s got the voice to carry him through and bass player Ben Spiller is there to add backing on ‘Shake You Off’ and the hook-steady ‘Who Are You?’. But it’s with ‘Devil Teasin’ Me’ that they shift up a gear, with audience clapping along as the song grows incrementally; Citrullo and Medhurst leaning against each-others’ shoulders laying down guitar harmonies, then as the song begins in earnest Medhurst laying down his before putting an end to the lie that there’s no really great classic rock vocalists left, and the vocal harmonies built up around him only add to emphasis his own anguished pleas.

Looking around the audience there’s a large percentage here that are female, with pockets here and there indeed outnumber males. The reason for such demographics I’ll leave to others, but it’s a good sign. It’s also amusing to note how the average lady, regardless of her age, can don instant rock chic presence by the most modest of leather jackets, while the male of our species rarely shakes the look adopted by his daytime occupation. On stage, The Commoners are a Slim Jim hairy bunch, with suitably retro rock attire while issuing a timeless sound on stage. That said the next number sees them slowing things down with some country blues amid slide guitar. A little later we’re given some swaggering Zeppelin style rock with a Southern rock twist and told there’s just two songs to go.

‘Fill My Cup’ continues to stir the magic, Medhurst hits the high notes amid evocative wah-wah guitars and an anthemic conclusion while ‘Find A Better Way’ delivers a heavy groove, some swelling-up on the organ sliced through with strategic chords and an uplifting choral refrain that when it ends and the lights go up there are many here sad to see them go.

Still, the main event has yet to take place. As I once more look about, I consider I’ve now caught Samantha Fish a handful of times and never at the same venue, their sizes varying it’s been hard to get a grasp on just popular she’s becoming here in the West Midlands beyond rock radio airplay and print coverage. That she’s taken a side step, and is touring with one Jesse Dayton, promoting their Death Wish Blues collaboration – A raucous and sometimes racy affair that roars likes a 50s hot rod and has seen too many Tarantino films to know fact from fantasy – is also an unexpected career chess move.

That they open proceedings with The MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’ is something of an indication where we’re heading tonight. It began with them standing about 6 feet apart each at their own microphone stand panting “Da-da-dadah” into it, the drummer belting shit out of his kit and them giving the song such a hefty reboot that it’s only when they get to the chorus that you realise it’s the Detroit punk classic. Chugging on their guitars, playing in unison then swopping lines we get the bad-ass crime noir full-bloodied blues of ‘Deathwish’, Fish handling the majority of the vocals and Dayton defining for us more clearly his guitar stylings. Pulling faces at each other and the audience feigning a lack of being impressed as they trade licks once more, this time Dayton handles a lot of the vocals for the sturdy ‘Feels So Good’ with some particularly fine rocking piano. However, it’s when they keyboard player takes to the organ with the next number that all bets are off.

A soft drum shuffle into which chunky funked-up chords are interspersed sees Fish go over to the mic stage right, shakes her hips and sings “It feels like a mighty long time” on what will be one of several tear-jerking ballad type numbers where the expressions, intonations and passion in her voice is absolutely gorgeous. This here’s ‘Hello Stranger’ and as she asks mid-song “How we doing, Birmingham?” she already knows the answer. She officially introduces Dayton, talks about how excited they are about playing their new album, and much as we accept all that with good grace, we want her to get back to the song, and when she does you wished they’d play it all over again.

But, hey; upstairs Lemmy and Joey Ramone just looked down from their clouds as they heard Dayton call out “1, 2, 3,4” and launch into some dirty surf guitar sounds as the pair pummel the life out of Vince Taylor & The Playboys’ ‘Brand New Cadillac’ rather magnificently. Dayton’s upfront centre stage roaring away on his guitar, Fish laying out more sustained blues as they whip out solos mid-song. ‘Settle For Less’ is a hazy hypnotic mantra up to the point the drummer hits his snare and whole things gets louder and decidedly more aggressive.

Dipping into her own back catalogue, albeit a recent radio hit, she straps on her cigar box guitar and slides into action as the crowd clap along to ‘Bulletproof’ – Interestingly it’s Dayton who takes the main solo, as she sashays behind him across the stage.

There have however been some technical problems on stage tonight. Early on, Fish was making various gestures to those offstage left where they were mixing the sound, it’s presumably only the lighting system being operated by the guys near where I stand. Dayton was also looking at his guitar at one point with concern and they swopped it mid-song. The pair seem to work well together though, sharing the limelight, Dayton afforded much responsibility on the lead work and his own voice worth given a listen – There’s a dry similarity to Tom Jones, and he’s partial to rapping dark beatnik narratives and ‘Down In The Mud’ sees him making good use of both.

Fish herself is delivering some dynamite vocal performances, her second of the evening being ‘No Apology’. With a chilled undertow, something of a bedraggled Stones ballad feel as guitars chink away like crystal wine glasses, her voice expressing pain, rage, confusion, and despair in equal phenomenal measures. If it all ended now, I’d be quite happy. As it is, we get the sexual tension of ‘Trauma’ in a number that merges James Brown, Issac Hayes, Hendrix and something altogether wonderfully unholy before it reaches its climax.

As the band leave and acoustics brought on for the headlining pair, Fish tells us how they like to “take it down” in the middle of the show, and Dayton relates how on making their EP together it was she who suggested they cover a Townes Van Zandt number, and picking out the tune they duet on the sultry ‘I’ll Be Here In The Morning’, lonesome country blues follows with ‘Baby’s Long Gone’. Then Dayton straps an electric back on as the band return and a country rocking shuffle ensues and we get more illicit affair escapades with ‘Lover On The Side’ as they exchange put-downs, double-entendres and mock lust, grinding ever last inch out of the song. Back playing her white Gibson SG the heavy blues of ‘Dangerous People’ keeps the sexual tension going but darker, without the humour. That’s saved for the raved-up, retro-charged screaming funk of ‘Supadupabad’.

‘Flooded Love’ is next. All earnest dirty blues rocking but with some wild guitar runs from both and plenty of feedback from Fish, then her cigar box guitar makes a return for ‘Rippin’ And Runnin’ before a cover of ‘I Put A Spell On You’ sees Miss Fish her third torch ballad of night – While it might not burn quite as brightly as those before, one can hardly complain, and the raging solo puts the song neatly to bed regardless.

As with the opening number, it takes a while to realise the tune, but they’re racing through Love’s ‘7 And 7 Is’ with much punk energy invested, then things slow down a mite as Dayton sings “Good morning, New York City” and the fuzzy funk blues of ‘Riders’ sees them sharing vocal lines on a road song with some lyric imagination before peace signs are waved and off they trot.

Returning to encore, Fish once more bears an acoustic and they ease into ‘You Know My Heart’, Dayton intones deeply, Fish’s voice dancing lightly between his; it’s a warm tale of love that gets caught up in an electric frenzy as Fish switches over to electric, then with another “1,2, 3, 4!” and then in tandem: “I’m goin’ with you babe!” they’re knocking out another mantra-styled heavy blues with a cover of ‘Goin’ Down South’. It’s a long extended workout, Dayton upfront soling at one point while Fish is practically doing a Chucky Berry duck walk across the stage, then up at the mic she’s wearing a tortured face and he with a calm expression as their differing vocal qualities come across, and there are more guitar fireworks before it’s all over.

There’s been a guy who having seen me taking notes kept coming up to question me. For the most part that’s fine, he’s a Samantha Fish fan, but he’d much prefer a solo show he keeps telling me. I get that, and since the lady’s been putting a lot of time in with UK tours in recent times, I’m sure it won’t be long until he gets to hear all his favourite songs by her again soon. Me, I had a real good time. I’m taken with Jesse Dayton, like his voice, how his guitar sound meshes and diverges from Fish’s, and both the cool demeanour whereby he steps back allowing Fish her deserved moments under the spotlight, and smiles warmly at the audience. Good songs, a good show and some particularly stunning vocal deliveries from Samantha Fish.