By Helen Jerome
From showcases and speeches to celebrity appearances and dazzling awards, here are our highlights from Americana UK Week 2023.
For the 10th Anniversary of the UK Americana Music Week, the AMA-UK wanted to celebrate being back in person with a bang.
After two frustrating years of purely online activity, it was high time to reunite with old friends from across the genre and the globe, discover new favourite artists, immerse yourself in the business and get reacquainted with the venues of Hackney, from the tiny showcase spots to the stunning Hackney Empire for the glittering awards ceremony.
Here are 10 of our favourite moments from the 2023 festival.
Cosily crushed against the door at Hackney Church Brew Company with driving rain outside, we hit the ground running with this fine 2023 showcase gig, and Caleb Caudle didn’t disappoint. His acoustic, solo set was quality throughout, with ‘I Don’t Fit In’ the standout.
Having watched Kirsten Adamson virtually when the Americana UK showcases went online during the pandemic, it was exciting to see her with her band in person.
She stepped up at the last minute and clearly loved playing the Oslo venue. Of course, the number that stopped the show was ‘My Father’s Songs’ which she wrote about her late dad Stuart, of Big Country and Skids fame.
The insider parts of the Americana Conference are always engrossing, giving insight into how specific parts of the business work. Seven of the UK’s top music supervisors and label folk (with sync credits including Heartstopper, Sex Education, The Essex Serpent) gathered to discuss how they select the right songs and instrumentals for films, TV and streamers.
The second part of the session saw the magnificent panellists listen to extracts of selected Americana tracks, with many described as “perfect for montage sequences”. In fact, Miko Marks' 'Feel Like Going Home' impressed one of them so much that it was going to be pitched for a specific project that same night.
Back at the heaving Hackney Church Brew Co. we savoured Emily Scott Robinson’s entire set up close. The whole thing was superb, but definitely hit a high when Violet Bell joined her to give their witchy, spooky joint homage to Macbeth, with bubbling cauldron, toil and trouble, harvest moon and bodies buried. Immensely haunting and affecting as their voices intertwine, this has been echoing through our minds ever since.
The AMA-UK engage in outreach through their continuing series of songwriting workshops across the local community.
This one involved five students from East London Arts & Music College, who we first saw in a short documentary of their evolving collaborations with Americana artists, followed by live performances for the Hackney audience.
Each student was paired off and mentored by an established singer-songwriter or duo – “pushed in at the deep end” – to compose something new and personal, and the results surprised even them.
The students’ tastes mainly lean towards R&B, hip-hop, soul and grime, but they concluded that music shouldn’t be defined by genres. In fact, they admitted that although they’d had reservations about “genre clash”, they were keen to try something different and found it was good to get “outside our comfort zone”, giving heartfelt, acoustic renditions of their work.
With Bob Harris chatting to an 80% Canadian Songwriter Circle of Allison Russell, William Prince and Whitehorse, plus token Brit Elles Bailey, this session was a treat. The whole event went deep - emotional anecdotes and shaggy dog stories abounded, and the songs performed were sublime.
Whitehorse couple Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet revealed how they split their roles (he immersed in the depths of each song, she pulling back and sequencing the whole album) and of their appreciation of the Canadian government valuing the arts. Six Shooter Records labelmate William Prince spoke of his pride at being a First Nations man, finding a purpose in music that continues to give him hope.
Allison Russell explained her belief that music increases empathy and how arts connect us, with a neat story of how coming across Oscar Peterson playing in the park shifted her perception and her life. Then she sang a Birds of Chicago song, ‘Barley’, a capella, accompanied by her own clapping and foot stomping.
Elles Bailey compared her albums to her favourite food, tapas, with a little bit of everything, before singing the bluesy ‘Walk Away’.
Right down the front at the more cavernous Hackney venue, Night Tales, we were next to gently swaying fans of Hannah White. With husband Kieron Marshall on guitar, the ubiquitous Michele Stodart on bass and award-winning (UK Instrumentalist of the Year) Holly Carter on pedal steel, this band was tight.
Bruisingly and unashamedly autobiographical, White’s catalogue draws you in immediately, but the tune that really punches you in the gut is ‘Car Crash’, which deservedly won UK Song of the Year the following night.
Being at the intersection of art, activism and aspiration is what drives Allison Russell. Russell started her keynote speech as a fluid performance, poetically speaking of floods, planets, regeneration, love indivisible. “We are interlinked. We are multitudes in all dimensions. There is power in our circle. Unbreakable eternal magic.” Her conclusion is that songs and stories saved her life.
Breaking away from her speech, Russell became emotional when declaring that she believes the Americana community is doing something radical and transformative – “there is zeitgeist in our community”. She credits Yola with helping her through lockdown, and Brandi Carlile for pushing her album Outside Child so that it found the right home.
She spoke of the importance of mental-health, of harm reduction and inclusion being guiding principles. She described Americana as transcendent of all genres, as “music that isn’t chasing hits; it’s chasing songs.”
The bluegrass outfit performed three dynamite, sneak-preview tracks from their upcoming reunion album, Celebrants, and were interviewed by the genial Northern Irish DJ and presenter Ralph McLean (himself the Grassroots Award winner).
In the process, the trio of brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins, plus childhood chum Chris Thile, showed why they fully deserve their Trailblazer Award. They’ve been together for 34 years, starting out when Sean was 12 years old and the others just eight, and pushing each other as children, vying with one another to keep getting better.
They all agreed that now was the right time to reunite, and found a lot of their conversations went straight into songs. On the Americana genre, they said, “It’s a beautiful, rich culture where mentors and students participate as equals”, with “so many incredible artists”.
There were treats after treats at the grand finale of the week.
Everyone was surprised by the sudden appearance of Robert Plant to accept International Album of the Year award on behalf of himself and Alison Krauss (then sneak off again).
Musically, the evening spanned the grungy, rocking and harmonious extremes of Americana, from Heavy Heavy, Ferris and Sylvester (UK Album of the Year winners) and the Hanging Stars, to the pristine bluegrass of Nickel Creek.
Throughout the night the all-female house band backed up almost everyone – with one highlight being ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ behind Mike Scott of the Waterboys, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award. The other stand-out was ‘Coalminer’s Daughter’ to celebrate the late Loretta Lynn and her legacy, with Elles Bailey and Allison Russell (who won two awards each), plus Miko Marks swapping lines.
Wittily hosted by Baylen Leonard, occasionally joined by Bob Harris, the awards night drew towards its tremendous climax when Judy Collins followed up her classic version of ‘Both Sides Now’ by leading everyone in a rousing rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’. A we-were-there moment to cap off a we-were-there week!