Americana Fest UK was staged over three days in Hackney, London. Kicking off on Tuesday 29thJanuary, the festival included two nights of live showcases from a range of acts both local and international and closed with the Awards Show at The Hackney Empire on the final night.
Lonesome Highway descended on a cold, wintery Hackney via Stansted Airport mid-morning Tuesday and spent two action packed days, meeting old and new friends and listening to some quality music courtesy of quite a range of acts, all wedged into that increasingly populated Americana pigeon hole. As has been the case in The States, the Americana brand in the U.K. has given many artists, previously difficult to categorise, a musical community and an outlet to have their music exposed to a wider audience. The various sets at this year’s festival were staged across five venues, all within walking distance and presenting six acts each evening, all allocated thirty-five-minute slots.
Our first port of call was Night Tales to collect wrist bands and catch some live music. The venue is located beneath railway arches and describes itself as a Bohemia Palace, which is fairly spot on. It’s a mixture of an outdoor garden area, with covered and uncovered sections and a comfortable music room. With the air temperature barely above freezing in the outdoor area and indeed also in the music room, the most impressive Rachel Baiman and her two-piece band warmed the crowd up with a set mostly taken from her excellent 2017 album Shame. Rachel had performed a memorable set at Kilkenny Roots last year when she was touring with Molly Tuttle and it was a pleasure to catch up again with the bubbly and engaging young Chicago born multi-instrumentalist. Her show had not originally been listed in the programme, nor had Grammy Winner and former Old Crow Medicine Show dignitary Chance McCoy, who took the stage next. We had intended moving venues at that time but McCoy had us rooted to the spot with his rootsy mix of folk and indie. He’s scheduled to release his debut solo album later this year which will be very much on the Lonesome Highway radar.
With two overseas acts under our belts it was time for a change of scenery and an artist from closer to home. Well, Glasgow to be exact, where Martha L. Healy hails from. She has turned quite a lot of heads with her current release Keep The Flame Alight, with comparisons to Gretchen Peters and Nanci Griffith. Recorded in Nashville the album continues to garner very positive reviews and her set at Paper Dress Vintage was well attended. A really quirky and interesting venue, the shop doubles as a vintage clothing boutique during the day and bar/music venue in the evening. Forty-five minutes later after a quick dash through the driving rain and sleet and we were back at Night Tales for the appearance of Caroline Spence. Another young artist that has impressed us in recent years she performed with an accompanying guitarist and played a particularly impressive set, despite the distraction of the many "talkers" in the room, an annoying feature that in fairness, rarely raised its head at other showcases we attended over the few days.
Previous winners of The Glastonbury Festival Emerging Talent Competition,London band TheTreetop Flyers, were the attraction across the road at Oslo, another impressive venue on the circuit. Their self-titled third album hit the Lonesome Highway spot last year and their set certainly did it justice. Kicking in somewhere between folk and indie the material sounds as impressive from stage as it does on album from a razor-sharp live band. One of the most eagerly anticipated artists playing in Hackney was Carson McHone. The young lady from Austin Texas has been signed by the Loose label and had the European release of her brilliant album Carousel a few weeks previously. The album had been out in The States since the autumn and featured highly in our Best of 2018 listings. Playing solo and to a large crowd, the diminutive McHone silenced the crowd at Oslo to pin drop levels one song into her set and proceeded to complete one of the festival performance highlights with standout tracks from the album,including Sad, Drugs and Maybe They’re Just Really Good Friends. Quick dash back to Night Tales to catch another of our favourites, Birds of Chicago, for the second half of their set. Performing as a three-piece Alison and J.T. are joined on stage by their partner in crime, the multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson and bring the house down with their signature mix of roots and gospel delights. Such is the party atmosphere at Night Tales that plans to venture to some of the other venues dissipate and the decision is made to stay put for the final two acts scheduled. First up for the ten thirty slot are fiddle driven and, in your face, Noble Jacks, who have been building up a head of steam in recent years with their energetic shows. Tonight’s no exception and if the temperature was at zero a few hours previously, it’s risen noticeably by the energy and feet shuffling that they manage to generate. Often outspoken about many of the sub genres muscling in under the ‘country’ heading, it was more out of curiosity than burning desire that had me up front for the final act of the evening, Gangstagrass. A bluegrass and hip-hop fusion who claim to aim for the lovers of both Ralph Stanley and Jay- Z, they certainly know how to throw a party with bursts of raging fiddle followed by frontman Producer Ranch’s machine gun vocals. They don’t manage to win me over entirely but to their credit they are electric in the live setting.
An interview with Carson McHone commenced day two’s musical adventures. Facilitated by Tom Bridgewater of the Loose Record Label, thirty minutes passed in a flash chatting to the engaging and articulate McHone, hearing of her career to date and her ambitions and hopes for the future. Her enthusiasm was admirable and I’ve no doubt she has the skillset to firmly establish herself as a leading light in Americana music going forward. A pit stop for food meant missing The Blue Highways set but feedback on them was very positive. With so much music on offer hard choices had to be made and it was decided to hang out for the rest of the evening at Oslo and take in the five acts programmed for the night. Michaela Anne, an artist well known to Lonesome Highway, was the first of the night. We have been well impressed by her appearances at Americana Fest in Nashville over the years and also seeing her play guitar and backing vocals with both Sam Outlaw and J.P. Harris. On this occasion, she played with a pick-up band and included material from her debut album, together with a recent co-write with Sam Outlaw. After a few sound problems at first, she got firmly into her stride doing what she does best, belting out traditional country. Sam Morrow has been making a lot of waves over the past six months and he’s currently on a U.K. tour with his band. His first two albums had him earmarked as a potential breakthrough Americana artist but his more recent album, Concrete And Mud, and his performance in Hackney gave the vibe of an artist heading down a more southern rock sideroad, with a lot of thumbs up to 70’s bands Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Marshall Tucker Band. Looking and sounding the part, it was good, old fashioned rock and roll.
Ethan Johns is rightly hailed as musical royalty in the U.K. given his production work with everyone from Ryan Adams to Paul Mc Cartney, but he’s also an exceptionally good musician, writer and gatherer of crack musicians to share a stage with him. His band The Black-Eyed Dogs varies in personnel, dependant on peoples work commitments. I had not seen him perform live before and his thirty-five minutes on stage was the highlight of the festival for me. More a jam session than a structured set, the final twelve minutes was a blistering Crazy Horse like rendition of Gillian Welch’s Revelator, with John’s and Chris Hillman’s guitar onslaughts and Jeremy’s Stacey’s drumming a joy to behold!
Ethan Johns has produced the new William The Conqueror album, Bleeding On The Track, to be released later in the month, so it was fitting that the three piece should follow Johns’ set with a triumphant one of their own. The band, fronted by Ruarri Joseph, often find shelter under the Americana umbrella but their sound travels far beyond such a simple description. Blues, traditional rock and 70’s New York punk sounds all combined to create another festival highlight. They play Kilkenny Roots in May, another opportunity to see a band that improve every time I see them play. With only one set left before the shutters came down at Oslo, who better to bring the curtain down but Bennett Wilson Poole. What started as weekend jams for these gents last year has elevated them to one of the most enjoyed live acts on the U.K. and Ireland circuit and their debut album was far from shabby too! Sweet harmonies, jangling guitars, thumping drums and pulsing bass guitar, but most of all the biggest smiling faces treated us to another celebration of what we all love about live music. Ask Me Anything, Wilson’s General Store, That Thing Called Love etc, etc never sounded better and a spectacular end to a couple of fun filled days that reallybrought the house down.
There were so many other acts that we would have loved to catch in addition to the Awards Show the following evening, which we missed. Such a pleasure to meet with so many of our festival-going friends from U.K., Germany, Spain, Ireland and The States together with the many musicians, PR folk, record label and radio people and indeed musicians,which continue to make this musical merry go round such an endless and thrilling journey. A great introduction to an exceptionally well organised festival that most certainly will be in our diary for next year and hopefully many years to follow.
Review and photos by Declan Culiton