Sean Hannam recalls the night which started his love affair with Americana.
2000 was a big year for me, but it wasn’t anything to do with ushering in the 21st century – it was the year I truly fell in love with americana. I’ve written about this pivotal time in my life for AUK before – once when I chose one of my favourite classic Americana albums, Chris Mills’ Kiss It Goodbye, which came out that year, and again when I selected my Top 10 Americana albums of all time – number 4 on that list was the Mills record, while in at number 2 was ‘Heartbreaker’ by Ryan Adams, another release from 2000.
Up until then, I’d been dabbling with americana – thanks to the 1998 Uncut magazine compilation CD, ‘Sounds of the New West’ I’d discovered acts like The Pernice Brothers and The Flying Burrito Brothers, but it wasn’t until two years later, when Uncut published a review of ‘Heartbreaker’ and gave away a collection of new music called ‘Unconditionally Guaranteed 2000.7’, which featured as its last song Mills’ astonishing ‘Signal/Noise’, that I started to really get into the genre in a big way.
In 2000, I was a 26-year-old, emotionally unstable single bloke, living in a shared flat in Brighton. Mills and Adams were also in their mid-twenties and having a tough time of it, so I could relate to their sad, self-destructive songs – ‘Kiss It Goodbye’ and ‘Heartbreaker’ were hardly off my cheap Sony stereo that year.
I’ve always been an avid gig-goer, but around about this time, I started attending alt-country/americana shows that were taking place in Brighton and were put on by notable local promoters including The Gilded Palace of Sin and Melting Vinyl.
In summer 2001, while reading the latest issue of ‘Uncut’, I saw an advert for a local Mills show – he was starting his tour of the UK, which was billed as “Solo. Acoustic. With teeth.”, with a gig at the Sanctuary in Brighton on June 17. I got some tickets and persuaded a couple of friends who were also into alt-country to come along with me.
The seated venue – tables and chairs – was a small, intimate and dingy basement bar underneath a vegetarian café. I was really excited about seeing Mills for the first time, but it was the support act that initially made a great impression on me – UK singer-songwriter, Matt Hill – aka Quiet Loner.
I loved his dark and witty country songs that were in the vein of Elvis Costello – so much so that I spoke to him after his set and got a copy of his EP, My Dark Places. We exchanged details and stayed in touch. I now have to declare an interest. Ever since that night, I’ve followed Hill’s career, and 20 years later, he remains one of my best friends. He even played two songs in the church at my wedding – one of which we’d written together. Like Mills’ ‘Kiss It Goodbye’, Hill’s 2010 record, ‘Spectrology’, also found its way into my AMUK Top 10 Americana albums of all time.
Now back to that gig… In all honesty, for an article called ‘A Night To Remember’, I can’t actually recall that much about the show itself. I know, I know – but give me a break, it was 20 years ago. I can remember that Hill was great and so was Mills – he played several stripped-down versions of songs from ‘Kiss It Goodbye’, as well as a few from his raw 1998 debut album, ‘Every Night Fight For Your Life. One song does stick in my mind, though – Mills’ brilliant, aching acoustic cover version of The Flaming Lips’ ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’, which is from 1999’s ‘The Soft Bulletin’, an album I was heavily into at the time. You can listen to Mills’ take on it on Bandcamp here. He recorded it for a covers EP called ‘Tell It Like It Isn’t’, which he put out in 2003.
So why did I choose this gig as my ‘A Night To Remember’? Well, since that night in the summer of 2001, I’ve been to hundreds of americana gigs – good and bad – and listened to hundreds of americana albums – good and bad – but this concert will always have a special place in my heart, as it’s the first time I saw two artists who both went on to become two of my favourite alt.country singer-songwriters and who opened my eyes – and ears – to so much great americana music. I’ve been to see Mills and Hill many times since – sometimes on the same bill – and they’ve never let me down.
On ‘Brand New Day’, the first song on ‘Kiss It Goodbye’, Mills sings: “I’m still fucking up… I’ve made up my mind – it’s gonna be a brand new day.” This night was where it all started for me.