Do you ever come across those things which you are intrigued by and really want to do but at the same time there is some kind of mysterious, illogical or even stigmatic barrier you create to become apprehensive for no reason? I’m not exactly talking about skydiving, bungee jumping or anything like that (For the record I have never nor have any intention of ever trying either) but something you unnecessarily resist without any reason to because you know you will like it. That’s sort of my journey to AmericanaFest!
I’m not an out and out devotee to any specific genre of music, I have written time and time again that I like what I like regardless of what umbrella it finds itself falling under. A lot of that is what we would call country and predominantly on the mainstream side that people may brandish the word “pop” before that. There were things I really liked such as Jason Isbell, Lucie Silvas, Ruston Kelly that I knew was in the same vicinity of country but wasn’t quite what I had typically thought of it as but at the same time I knew it wasn’t really blues or folk as such. I kind of worked out this was the way to understand what Americana is: A melting pot as such that brings together a lot of these “southern” or “roots” elements without being fully attached to one! The AMA UK website (by way of the Americana Music Association in the US) answers the question: “What is Americana Music?” with:
Incorporating elements of various American roots music styles resulting in a distinctive sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.
So almost a bit of everything along these lines that doesn’t have a specific house but still manages to find itself a home! Through an open perspective on music and an intermingling of the genres at times I had really enjoyed things I had come across at Black Deer, The Long Road and Country 2 Country then been to a few events or reviewed a couple of records branded as “Americana” rather than “country” without really having a different mindset. Then like so many people that come across the music of Yola you kind of become intrigued to find out more but it became a slower process to fully embrace it than it should have been and like a small child entering a swimming pool for the first time with some armbands on, I basically had to have my hand held entering the water. However once I entered I was totally at home and that is something you feel very quickly in terms of both the music and the community. A pair of my good friends (one who I shared a very large Pornstar Martini with in Night Tales during the festival and the other who sits on the AMA-UK board) were very persistent through 2019 and gradually I began to look to cover more and more Americana at Think Country to the point where AmericanaFest UK became one of our featured highlights to look forward to for 2020.
Anyway, what is AmericanaFest UK? Well it was a 3 day event taking place in East London at the end of January comprising of a conference, 2 evenings of live music with 75 artists showcasing across 6 venues in Hackney within very close proximity to each other then finally an award show in Limehouse. The Festival also held a charity kickoff event the night before the festival raising funds for the Joe Strummer Foundation and Hackney Winter Night Shelter.
On heading up both Tuesday and Wednesday evening for the showcases, I didn’t really know a lot about the majority of artists playing the showcases and being brutally honest I think Kerri Watt (who is absolutely amazing and really enjoyed her set) was the only artist who I had ever seen live previously at Country 2 Country Festival last year and also opening for Nina Nesbitt at Union Chapel back in 2014. There were a couple of names you are aware of amongst the “country” scene over here based on festivals or events walking the line between the two where there is some overlap or simply people talking about different names or seeing mentions on social media. A few of these I caught for the first time during the showcases like Izzie Walsh and Demi Marriner where I could definitely see why these are 2 names you hear regularly in conversations and will definitely look to invest more time into their music.
What is really nice about how relaxed the event seems to be, is that the multiple venues allow you to see a lot of music (and drink quite a few different pints) in really cool venues then people talk to each other and just follow recommendations of someone they have just met to go and explore some new artists. There is also the chance to find out a bit more about artists you may have come across in name or heard others talk about or through a press release from a PR company then with the multiple venues, if you find something is not your cup of tea you have the freedom to try something else down the road and find something which is more to your taste. I must admit this didn’t happen with me as I was really impressed with the calibre of performers throughout the event.
One of the biggest draws for me of the artists showcasing was Dutch megastar Ilse DeLange who has one of the most incredible voices you will hear anywhere on the planet combined with an illustrious career lasting over 20 years and a multitude of number 1 albums in her native Netherlands. The thing that stood out about Ilse is no matter how much you enjoy her records and how highly regarded she is as a songwriter, vocalist and performer she is, seeing her live just elevates this to something you can’t really put in to words without someone being able to experience it for themselves because you know it’s likely to be special but may not quite be prepared for HOW special!
This was genuinely someone I have wanted to see live for a long time and she is vocally sublime, her personality comes through so well on stage and her craft as a songwriter is so pure. Probably best known here as a member of The Common Linnets and their UK top 10 single in 2014 ‘Calm After the Storm’ which was the Netherlands entry and eventual runner-up in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014 and she performed a beautiful rendition during her showcase appearance at AmericanaFest UK that was definitely one of the highlights of the whole festival.
Amongst other highlights of the showcases were Norwegian duo Darling West who bring this unique blend of what Lucinda Williams called ‘cosmic folk’ which is an infectious sound that incorporates so many fascinating elements. Their new album ‘We’ll Never Know Unless We Try’ came out on February 7th and is something that definitely needs to be heard. There is a lot going on and it comes together so magically, you hear the experimental creativity aspect familiar with artists like Kacey Musgraves or Delta Rae but has a real strong feel of Fleetwood Mac type vibes so ticks a lot of my boxes but on stage it is portrayed in such a captivating way with such powerful and diverse sounds coupled with beautiful harmonies.
On the subject of beautiful harmonies, the evenings in Hackney presented me with a long overdue first opportunity to see UK based Israeli-American duo O&O and I see why a lot of people have so many good things to say about them over here. The story of the duo in itself is obviously highly fascinating in how Colorado in the United States combines with Israel utilising Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts being the initial catalyst and then having chatted to Orian and Obadiah a couple of times during the festival they are really cool people that you want to root for. Now to get into LIPA you have some talent in the first place but their sound is much more than a pair of nice voices that harmonise well together. So many harmony duos or groups when you see them acoustic just give you a feeling of “nice” but not always terribly memorable so to hear a full on harmony sound that has that bit extra is really refreshing and there is that something memorable which is why we are hoping to feature O&O a lot more on the site as I really like what they have going. (We are grateful to Danny Coffill-Brown at DC Brown – UK Country Live for the photos above and below of O&O)
The opportunity to explore all these different bars for music is one of the really cool things about it with how when you know you want to see an artist you can just drop in somewhere else on the way. Night Tales is a really cool club/bar that does great cocktails with a nice sized set off venue that I’m surprised more people don’t explore for booking their own gigs? Oslo is a superb venue with just everything about it to like, we only went in there once but was really glad we caught part of Michaela Anne’s set after recommendation from the Darling West guys and can definitely see why she was an act a lot of people were talking about prior to the event. Awesome voice and great intensity on stage so another artist we really need to learn more about. Paper Dress Vintage is so cool and unique for what it is and again a nice sized venue upstairs then Hackney Church Brew co. is a taproom with some of the best beer in the area (trust me through my day job I have come across a lot of brewery’s) and has a really cool practical layout for casual drinks or having live music. The other venue we spent a lot of time was the Empire Bar adjacent to the Hackney Empire where we saw a number of artists including Sunny Ozell, man that girl can sing and really has a lot of fun doing it.
The festival culminated on Thursday evening with the 5th Americana Music Association UK Awards at the beautiful Troxy, a Grade II-listed Art Deco theatre in Limehouse which is just a few miles south of Hackney where the rest of the weeks events had occurred. The event honoured the finest in the genre from both within and outside the United Kingdom along with a number of special awards which recognised continued or legacy contribution to the genre.
The evening was hosted by the most prominent figure in both the country and Americana scenes on this side of the Atlantic and most recognisable cheerleader: Bob Harris who was deservedly recognised with an Outstanding Contribution Award which came as a surprise to Bob himself. There were performances from the likes of Billy Bragg joining Peter Donegan paying tribute to his late father and Legend Award winner Lonnie Donegan, The Milk Carton Kids who are the hosts of the AMA Americana Honors & Awards in Nashville, winners on the night: Elles Bailey, Ferris & Sylvester and Amy Speace then the show culminated with Noisettes vocalist Shingai performing Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Joan Armatrading’s classic hit ‘Love and Affection’. (Full Winners Below)
UK Song of the Year – ‘Little Piece of Heaven’ by Elles Bailey
International Song of the Year – ‘Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne’ by Amy Speace
UK Album of the Year – ‘Walk Through Fire’ by Yola
International Album of the Year – ‘The Highwomen’ by The Highwomen
UK Artist of the Year – Yola
International Artist of the Year – Brandi Carlile
UK Instrumentalist of the Year – Sian Monaghan
Lifetime Achievement Award – Joan Armatrading
Outstanding Contribution Award – Bob Harris
Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award – Ferris & Sylvester
Legend Award – Lonnie Donegan
Grass Roots Award – Mark Whitfield
Trailblazer Award – Nick Lowe
Best Selling Americana Album – ‘Jade Bird’ by Jade Bird
After the show came the after-party (and a series of night buses back to Croydon) which brought the curtain down on what was a wonderful week that it’s almost difficult to depict to people without actually experiencing it. The stand out thing about AmericanaFest and Americana in the UK generally is the people and the community! It’s receptive, it’s inclusive, highly supportive, has a lot of really passionate people involved, it is organised, it is run to benefit the people they are supporting and above all welcoming! With regard to the showcases, I love the array of venues which are all in close proximity combined with the freedom to transfer between them (Great Escape in Brighton type setting which works really well) and just come across acts by chance almost.
The focus from us here at TC on Americana will definitely continue to grow and from last week will personally become a big focus of what I’m writing. The two genres have a lot of similarities and at times weave in and out of each other however I have learnt to appreciate that this is so much more to share about and hope other music lovers will jump between the two but at the same time I’m still excited to bring the news on the site about: the new Maddie & Tae, Tenille Townes, Kelsea Ballerini and Delta Rae albums that are on the way, Eric Church at C2C, Kalie Shorr and Candi Carpenter bringing the Song Suffragette’s rounds to the UK, going to see Keith Urban in Amsterdam and even reviewing Taylor Swift’s set at Glastonbury but I think the reason that I now get Americana and what makes it so enticing is that it shows you don’t need a house to find a home!
There is a place for everything and that is definitely what we want to be, country and Americana are not too distant cousins so we can definitely try and keep spreading the entire family values further, the beauty of it is at times people probably wouldn’t even see the difference! Well except for you don’t see a lot of guys in baseball hats and skinny jeans that sing about trucks (surely a clincher in itself) and just observe the winners of the 7 voted awards: not a y chromosome in sight, so clearly Americana really does listen to and enjoy female artists both of which are things I definitely approve of! AmericanaFest UK is one of those family parties you actually do want to go to and would regret missing out on, so definitely would recommend coming along next year or checking out what the AMA do at some of our festivals! Black Deer especially is something we are really looking forward to and another event that we have singled out as one of our must see highlights of the year and it really does encompass so much of a wide musical spectrum that you just find everything has so much variety you don’t even place it into a box. I don’t need those armbands anymore so if you are ready to give it a try too, I’ll happily lend them to you and I’ll even hold your hand!