The showcases hit the ground running on Day Two of AmericanaFest UK. With more breaks between shows, this gave punters more chance to queue at the bar (aka go to their fridge) for refreshment, and mull things over.
We knew there would be some known quantities ‘onstage’, with the Wandering Hearts, Jim Lauderdale and American Aquarium all set to appear. But the real treat was a fabulous bit of musical tourism embedded in the North Carolina Guest Showcase. Jimmy Vipperman brought his country fiddle out into the great wide open, the Hamiltones filmed with a gospel congregation, barefoot Lakota John was surrounded by grassy expanses and Rissi Palmer accompanied her own soulful vocals by literally tapping on the edge of a well.
All the while, everyone in the “bar” (the bustling AMA message-board) was speculating on who might play the Secret Set – and all were stoked to see The Secret Sisters (aptly enough) fill that coveted slot, with their sibling harmonies and stories. It’s always remarkable to hear the lightness and joy in their voices accompanied by such deep darkness in their lyricism, the subject of #metoo just one of the stark and vital narratives the sisters explore.
If there was one common denominator among many of the incredibly diverse acts this year, it was undeniably strings. Lots of cellos and many violins appeared - with each one adding something different to the sets – while it seemed like everyone was on the fiddle. The breakthrough act who took it to another level was Declan O’Rourke - from Ireland (with an imminent Paul Weller-produced album to shout about) - who arrived complete with string quartet. With a lovely speaking and singing voice, he started with the Martin Luther King Jr quote “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then he cracked into ‘Have You Not Heard the War Is Over’, which was transformed into something magical, as he stood stock still in the middle of the floor surrounded by the strings of Deirdre, Rachel, Niamh and Paula. He also nodded to the Great American Songbook, his beautiful song, ‘Galileo’ was given extra gravitas thanks to those shivery strings. But don’t just take my word for it; Danni Nicholls was melting and Baylen Leonard was falling for the string arrangement. My advice to Mr O’Rourke - take this quartet on the road with you.
Usually strutting their stuff to full effect with a band and a pumped-up crowd - powerhouse Nashville duo, The War and Treaty, turn out to be a sweetly bickering husband and wife in real life. Husband Michael Trotter plays keys, and channels Louis Armstrong with his Satchmo scatting, as wife Tanya sits demurely alongside him in their front room, their bluesy vocals entwining as they test out the mics. In mock protest, Michael said he was sending good vibes and love to us in the UK; “But why did you wait until a pandemic to ask us to play for you?”. They break right through in sedate style - but imagine them blowing the house down, hopefully next year this’ll be the case.
Larkin Poe, the sister act from Georgia who are now also based in Nashville, rocked out and delivered the strong, strident ‘Holy Ghost Fire’ from new record Self Made Man. Rebecca and Megan Lovell have been playing together since they were kids, something you can sense as they squeeze every last drop from their combination of soaring voices, bluesy acoustics, sweet harmonies and easy sisterly banter. They weren’t afraid to talk a little trash on their punchy song, ‘Keep Diggin’. “Bangers!!!” declared Elles Bailey. “Can't wait to hear this in real life when they tour it.”
Just after them were the harmony-laden Canadian trio Good Lovelies – the supremely talented trio of Caroline Brooks (guitar), Kerri Ough (keys/banjo) and Sue Passmore (guitar) up front, with backing band of blokes, the “Man Lovelies”. All distanced and separated on stage by plexiglass, they certainly brought their own brand of waggish banter drawn from 14 years together, explaining that they were relying on the spiritual embrace of their music in the absence of real hugs. Soothing and evocative, they made any sense of panic feel like it was subsiding in ‘When the City Settles’ and their uplifting song about resilience, ‘I See Gold’.
If you’re going to namedrop, then casually mentioning that you co-wrote ‘The Lights of San Francisco’ with the great Steve Earle is pretty impressive. Logan Ledger, with his John Lennon/ Denver specs, auburn hair and Elvis, Orbison and Willie Nelson vocal inflections, charmed the distanced crowd as he hovered around the notes and stretched the syllables beautifully. Certainly another to watch is Northern Ireland’s Joshua Burnside, who pulled out of last year’s festival through illness. With compelling phrasing reminiscent of a young Christy Moore, clever lyrics and a strong look, he also had the magic ingredient of cello accompaniment, giving instant warmth and elegance even when singing about being skint or drinking whisky.
It leaves us with Judy Blank from the Netherlands, playing from a Utrecht coffee shop, who once out of her own songs decided to cover ‘Little Movies’ by one of her Americana heroes, Aaron Lee Tasjan, stripped right down to its bare bones. Oh, how we all dream of touring with Tasjan. It’s worth noting that, when it’s possible to get tickets for the seriously soulful outfit Southern Avenue, the opportunity shouldn’t be missed. With Tierinii Jackson on lead vocals, husband Ori Naftaly channeling Carlos Santana on guitar, Jeremy Powell from Stax on keys, Evan Sarver on bass and the superb Tikyra Jackson (Tierinii’s sister) on drums and vocals, they provide some steamy stuff.
Bring on AmericanaFest UK 2022. While we would certainly prefer it to happen physically and with everyone together, this was certainly the next best thing.