Americana Music Fest 29th January, Hackney, London

Organised by the Americana Music Association UK (AMAUK), the showcase runs at five Hackney Central venues over two nights, culminating in the awards ceremony at hackney Empire on the third evening. It’s a fairly massive undertaking, with almost 60 bands or artists performing half hour sets over the two showcase nights. It links in with the AMAUK music conference, an opportunity for all those involved in this area of the music business to come together and discuss how to promote a genre which it’s fair to say no-one can definitely describe. Variations on a theme of “European, and particularly British, folk music recrafted in a new nation and changed with new instruments like the banjo” are common touchstones – but the influence of Woody Guthrie on Lonnie Donegan and the fact that all the great British bands of the sixties owe a debt to skiffle and how they went on in their turn to reshape the music is also picked up on by this years’ Lifetime Achievement award winner Graham Nash. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back to Tuesday night and Harrow Fair leading the charge at the Canadian Blast event in the Hackney Empire Bar. It has to be said that the whole night could have been spent in the Hackney Empire Bar-an incredible array of artists graced the stage there – Leroy Stagger, Kaia Kater, Madison Violet, Oh Susanna and Pretty Archie. But Harrow Fair were one band that could not be missed – even with a slot timetabled surprisingly early on in the events at 6PM.

Harrow Fair are Miranda Mulholland (also of Great Lake Swimmers) on fiddle and vocals and Andrew Penner (Sunparlour Players) “on everything else” – which includes vocals, drums, tambourine, and guitar.  As Harrow Fair they released a stunning debut album ‘Call To Arms‘ in 2017.

They opened their set with the spooky blues of ‘Told A Lie To My Heart‘ which defines the tone for the set – booming kick drum, soaring fiddle and the interplay of Mulholland’s soaring vocal cut through by Penner’s growling baritone on a tale of wilful spite and long term regret. First song, first set and Americana fest was already a success. Harrow Fair played around with darker themes involving love and jealousy and planning to murder ll your friends with several great versions of songs from their debut album ‘Hangnail‘, but they also threw in some excellent covers. ‘When The Levee Breaks‘ is introduced as a Memphis Minnie song, and for the first verse it is a mournful blues taken slow and stately – and then all hell breaks loose as Harrow Fair switch to full Led Zeppelin mode. This is music to shake the bones – wild and abandoned fiddle, the vocals screaming and intense and thrillingly amazing that it should come from just two players. What a joy. As was a beautifully sculpted ‘Wicked Game‘, and the languid and sweat dripping take on John Hartford’s ‘Long Hot Summer’s Day‘. Harrow Fair will have a new album out this year and are back in the UK in May and the autumn – can’t wait.

Harrow Fair Set List: Told A Lie To My Heart, I Will Be Your Man, Call To Arms, Bite The Way, The Hunt / Long Hot Summer’s Day, Hangnail, Wicked Game, When The Levee Breaks, Been There Ways

The showcase format makes for an entertaining evening of music, but it does need some thought – of course one can drift from venue to venue, but even the few minutes it takes to get from one to the other will eat into the short set time. On the other hand, if the wrong choice has been made then it’s easy enough to duck out and catch the last fifteen or twenty minutes at an alternative venue. And when the bands are good then the sets are really good – if there’s only time for six or seven songs then they will embody the “all killer – no filler” ethos. The showcase format also goes a long way towards answering that nagging “what is Americana?” question by proposing a very broad church. Down at Oslo, The Luck veered towards the slick rock-country end, with between song banter revolving around where tunes were written (often in London) and recorded (often in LA). The feeling though is of a band in the Ward Thomas or The Shires territory – so for all their enthusiasm and energy the sister-brother led The Luck were not overly electrifying – but there was time to duck out and head for the new venue this year – Night Tales.

This is a great cavernous space in a run of railway arches which has something of a turps and white spirit aroma about it, and was bitterly cold for Caroline Spence – there was snow in the air after all. Caroline Spence’s frail songs about love and about being drunk alone in a hotel in Amarillo could easily be characterised as pure folk were it not for her telecaster sporting sideman Sam Wilcock adding a country lick and a rumblin’ twang. A nice set which grew in strength as the room filled and the temperature rose a little.

Canada strongly contributes to the Americana scene, and one of the rising stars is Kaia Kater who played The Empire Bar. Something of a protegee of Rhiannon Giddens, with whom she has toured the UK previously as a solo artist.  Here Kaia Kater was showing off her talents in a three piece band with upright bass and electric guitar accompanying her frailing banjo playing. From the first notes of the traditional ‘Little Pink‘ her set riveted the attention. ‘Saint Elizabeth‘ shivers with desperation “Can’t you hear me calling from beneath ? With black and rotten teeth / White roses all around / Can’t you hear me calling from beneath ? With black and frozen feet“.  It’s a chiller made even more effective by Chris Bartos’ subtle guitar. Other songs had all three singing into one microphone, with just bass accompaniment; there were tracks from the new album ‘Grenades‘ as well, which draws on the journey of Kater’s father from Grenada to Canada. The close attention of the audience drew the compliment “You’re so quiet and well behaved“, though it sounded like a criticism – we were encouraged to whoop like an American audience, and did our best.  Kaia Kater is an incredibly poised performer, and her songs are complicated and subtle, profound and sophisticated – what levels her music will achieve in ten years time is something to contemplate. Here in a bar in Hackney really was the future of Americana – if that’s what she wants. She could also be the future of jazz. Or she might just be one of those artists that transcends genre. Whichever it is, this set was a privilege to hear. She returns to London on the 9th of May to play Servants Jazz Quarters and will be touring the UK at the same time.

Carson McHone has a new album – ‘Carousel‘ – out and her set at Oslo drew heavily on this. She was playing solo, with just an acoustic guitar to accompany her oft-times tough songs. ‘How ‘Bout It‘ plays cleverly with opposites “How ’bout being young ? How ’bout being old ? / How bout’wanting something warm just to hold you when you’re cold ?” whilst ‘Spider Song‘ is an affecting song of regret and the seeking of a reopening of relations with forgiveness giving a future with some hope in it. And if this sounds a little serious then Carson McHone deflates this with tales of getting into music after dropping out of college – what else can you do when you’re parents open a honkey-tonk the moment you leave home?  ‘Drugs‘ is a great song about using and abusing a partner, of need and selfishness “your lullabies are not enough / I can’t sleep hungry / I need drugs“.  As McHone said by way of introduction “parents, it’s never too early to teach your children about metaphor“.

Back at Night Tales and the cool had certainly been taken off the space with the packed out crowd for Birds of Chicago who gave a truly barnstorming performance with song after beautiful song, and waves of love emanating from the stage. ‘Super Lover‘ was a powerhouse of a performance, with Allison Russell’s vocal at turns as gentle as a whisper and as powerful as a forest shaking hurricane. With an ache come the words “Believe what you will believe, they’re going to tell you it’s naive to be a super lover, are you a super lover ?” but this rallies to declare “there’s no god of fire and blood / and if there’s a god then god is love / we need a super love, we need a super lover“.

JT Nero acknowledges the applause and says how thankful the duo are to have been celebrated in Americana circles, and that by “slipping through the cracks we’ve found a home“. Found a home? No! This is unarguably the real sound of Americana. Birds of Chicago’s music is profoundly important, it has depth, it has a keenness for community and it celebrates diversity and inclusion. It also, by the by, sounds amazing. The sputtering guitar of ‘Try‘ leads into a song that stomps, that growls on electric guitar and which moves with soul in the near darkness – with just a few disco lights flashing behind the band. ‘Baton Rouge‘ also gyrates with a slow groove – and if the banjo is only to be expected then how sweet is Allison Russell’s clarinet solo?  The set closer – ‘American Flowers‘ – was inspired by attending the Woody Guthrie Convention and in its deceptively simple sing-a-long way encourages greater empathy, the ability to see the good in our fellow human beings, or, as JT Nero puts it “Good people are the rule not the exception“. Birds of Chicago are back in the summer for festival appearances and will tour in the autumn – get your tickets early.

Birds of Chicago set list : Nobody Wants to Be Alone Nobody Wants to Die, Super Lover, Try, Baton Rouge, Barley, American Flowers

There was just time, before the last train home beckoned, to catch the last half of the set by Oh Susanna, and then the first half of the set by Caleb Caudle. Suzie Ungerleider’s set drew mostly from her recent album ‘A Girl In Teen City‘ which recounts the misadventures of a girl called Suzie who lives in Vancouver and was inspired by Punk Rock in her teenage years.

From the introductions there’s clearly barely a sliver between the songs and Suzie Ungerleider’s own life. There’s the embarrassment and frustration of watching her boyfriend try to be the singer in a punk band – when he can’t sing and she can carry a tune just fine. There’s the embarrassment and frustration of your oldest looking friend buying beer under age on the
way to be the big rock concert only to get busted by the police – and banned from further gigs by your parents. These are songs that dwell on the dreams and despair of youth, a time of seeming endless frustrations that on reflection might have been the best times of your life if you could have just got on and enjoyed them without the angst. Upstairs in Paper Dress Vintage Caleb Caudle was trying out new songs from his forthcoming album, and was similarly to be heard reflecting on ageing, and the cruel trick life plays on you by letting you know that you’re just passing through.

Deep songs, as deep as Caudle’s baritone and a half set which made for an enjoyable swift nightcap. Leaving the party early is always a downer, but here at least there was the reassurance that the next party was just eighteen hours away.


About Jonathan Aird 2695 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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