‘‘What’s it been, nine years?” asks Dan Penn as he ponders on the last time southern soul’s most celebrated songwriting duo performed in the UK. In the near decade since Penn and Oldham were here both men have visibly aged – Penn is comfortably plump and jowly, Oldham very thin, gaunt even – yet their ability to make beautiful music remains undimmed.
Penn and Oldham were both born in Alabama and would, separately, cut their teeth playing on soul sessions at Muscle Shoals studios in the early 1960s. Penn scored his first hit as a songwriter while still a teenager when country singer Conway Twitty recorded Is A Bluebird Blue.
Penn relates what it felt like to be a hit-making teen and how his then-girlfriend – now wife – kept his feet on the ground. He then sings Is A Bluebird Blue, a simple tune, and chuckles at the memories. Throughout the performance Penn draws on obscure songs from his own vast back catalogue, often referencing the series of reissues London’s Ace Records have carried out in recent years of recordings he made or was associated with for Rick Hall’s Fame Records in Muscle Shoals. Penn even admits that he had actually forgotten many of the songs he had on the Ace compilation albums as “they were never hits so I never gave them much thought again.”
The hits that he and Oldham were involved in get played – a jaw-dropping Dark End Of The Street, a soulful Do Right Woman, a rocking Cry Like A Baby, a gorgeous I’m Your Puppet. The duo wrote for and played on several sessions for Percy Sledge so they pay tribute to the recently deceased Alabama country-soul legend and perform beautiful interpretations of Out Of Left Field and It Tears Me Up. Oldham, whose keyboard skills have seen everyone from Bob Dylan to Neil Young employ him, gets exquisite sounds out of the small, portable instrument he has on stage while Penn’s acoustic guitar playing perfectly compliments his singing.
Oldham makes no mention of his recently reissued sole solo album, Pot Luck, but he does handle a couple of vocals and tells an entertaining story of producer Paul Rothchild approaching him as to whether he and Penn had any songs that might suit Janis Joplin. They then play a striking version of A Woman Left Lonely, which proves how potent these two songwriting session men are.