Americana Music Fest 30th January, Hackney, London

Previous showcases at the AMAUK conference had run for just a single night – expanding to two nights had more than doubled the excitement. And if the previous evening had offered some hard choices then this second night of the AMAUK showcase upped the ante by bringing in Moth Club as a venue, which meant that most time slots now offered a chance of three bands or artists. This cold wet evening started once again at Hackney Empire Bar with the superb sound of The Hanging Stars. Leading off with the perfect psychedelic jangle of ‘On A Sweet Summer’s Day‘ which showcases the band’s layered vocal harmonies whilst making a heavy nod to The Byrds along the way, The Hanging Stars made an immediate impact. As a five piece they could, of course, be a powerhouse but live they show the same elegant restraint that is shown on their albums. ‘Golden Vanity‘ took this electric sound and mixed in a folk-rock feel – still a heavy groove but with even higher soaring vocals, whilst ‘For You (My Blue Eyed Son)‘ adds a touch of country to the mix, with the pedal steel more prominent. The Hanging Stars are adding a great new chapter to the book of jingle-jangle rock.

Hanging Stars Setlist : On A Sweet Summer’s Day, How I Got This Way, Heavy Blue, For You (My Blue Eyed Son), Find My Way, I Will Please You, Golden Vanity, A New Kind Of Sky

The Hanging Stars had slightly overrun their time which meant that there was plenty of time to get down the street to The Moth Club for one of the biggest names of the two nights: John Oates. Yeah, that John Oates. The prospect was not ‘blue eyed soul‘. John Oates has recently put out an album, ‘Arkansas‘, which pays some dues to his long-time admiration of Mississippi John Hurt. However, as it transpired, his slot had been switched with John Smith who was originally down to follow him on. John Smith is a Devonian via Essex folk singer who now resides in deepest Somerset. His knack with the guitar is undeniable – it attracted praise from John Renbourn which is all the recommendation anyone needs. On traditional songs like ‘Hares On The Mountain‘ his strong vocal is gently moving, sensually carrying lines like “If young girls could sing like blackbirds and thrushes / how many young men would go beating the bushes ?“. Some of his own songs have a tendency to go a little too far into the tongue-in-cheek – ‘Axe Mountain‘ is a murder ballad with a modern slasher horror movie vibe to it and with a body count that rises and rises as Lester Joseph Kale wields his axe.

By the time that John Oates took to the stage Moth Club was at capacity and any thoughts of the bleak January night outside were forgotten as the temperature rose to somewhere around balmy. It was a set that had enticed some of the other musicians in Hackney into the room – conference keynote speaker Rhiannon Giddens was certainly drifting around at one point, and Emily Barker was there to introduce John Oates from the stage. Although it must be a far smaller venue than he’s used to John Oates looked genuinely happy to be at Moth Club, playing to a room that hung on his every note and utterance. And here is the thing – whatever your view might be of his better known material, John Oates does have a fine blues vocal and his guitar playing is no small thing either. John Oates eased us in with a countryish number that he co-wrote with Jim Lauderdale ‘Let Him Come To You‘, a love song which lilts along in that distinctive Lauderdale way. Then we were into the meat of the set, songs from the new album ‘Arkansas‘ – and straight off a couple of Mississippi John Hurt songs, a very fine ‘Stack-o-lee‘ which emphasises what a bad man he is, and an equally good ‘Spike Driver Blues‘, neither sung with false reverence, but both sung with a deep affection for the music. It’s a truly deep affection – John Oates saw John Hurt play in the sixties and although he didn’t have it with him in Hackney, John Hurt’s guitar from his Newport Festival “rediscovery” is now proudly in John Oates’ own collection.  This is no whim – it’s a long time thing.

There’s some lovely finger-picking on Blind Blake’s ‘That’ll Never Happen No More‘, one of those great songs from the melting pot of blues and ragtime and a sweet vocalled version of Jimmie Rodger’s ‘Miss The Mississippi And You” which sounds great with just guitar accompaniment rather than a big band. Interestingly John Oates informs us that Mississippi John Hurt loved this song too. The ‘Arkansas‘ album does include some new songs that seemed to fit along side these hundred year old classics – the title track is the strongest of these, which steers strongly into a more traditional country feel as it invokes images of the eponymous state. This is followed up with the slightly older ‘Lose It In Lousiana‘ which shows off Oates’ deep blues growl as well as his contrasting high-flying soul sound. John Oates commented that “I don’t know what thirty minutes is, have we got time for a couple more?“. He wasn’t really requesting – there was no way that this set was going to get cut short. Yet heading towards the end of the set brought Fraser & DeBolt’s song ‘Dance Hall Girls‘, a real folk-country cut from the late sixties. The closer was the first song that Hall & Oates played in the UK, back in 1972 – and John Oates quipped “does that make it a folk song now ?” He quickly added that he’s played it in every show he’s done since, and tonight won’t be an exception. And, in this stripped down version it’s a pretty sweet song, showing off of course John Oates’ most soulful vocal but also his not unremarkable guitar playing. The song ? ‘She’s Gone‘. Whatever people might have expected from John Oates it can be said without hesitation that he delivered as good a set as anyone at the AMAUK showcase, and at the same time showed his deep love for solid country and country-blues.

John Oates Set List: Let Him Come To You, Stack-o-lee, Spike Driver Blues, That’ll Never Happen No More, (?), Miss the Missippi And You, Arkansas, Lose It In Lousiana, Edge Of The World, Dance Hall Girls, She’s Gone

And with that John Oates left the stage, and the room emptied. Which was pretty hard on Wade Bowen who wryly acknowledged that he’d pulled the short straw going on after John Oates. Armed with acoustic guitar and harmonica he has a bit of a ‘Harvest‘ era Neil Young feel about him. His first song – ‘I Could Move A Mountain‘ self-deprecatingly imagined a series of impressive scenarios, which would not impress his lady. He followed up with a couple of country love songs, including the county-pop of ‘The Sun Shines On A Dreamer‘, but these were not enough to prevent a drifting off to Paper Dress Vintage to catch Amber Rubarth.

Amber Rubarth presents an ethereal figure on stage, but she quickly mentioned that her vocal was suffering from a cold that meant she would be giving us her “sexy voice“. Nonetheless she gave an engaging performance – playing guitar initially then switching to piano where she chose to do a Tom Waits cover, since she had his voice at the moment! A stand-out song was ‘Rough Cut‘, which is about chainsaw sculpture, from the point of view of the wood being sculpted. It was a song that Rubarth wrote after switching from her previous career: for four years she was a chainsaw sculpter – “no, really” she declared in the face of mild disbelief. She’d figured there weren’t too many people singing about chainsaw sculpture, so maybe it could be her niche.It was a gentle folky set, in complete contrast to the waves of raucous rock being generated just across the road at Oslo by William The Conqueror.

Their most recent album was produced by Ethan Johns, and he was out front giving them his full support as this three piece pounded their way aggressively through songs dedicated to “all the exes” which gave the break-up promise that “you can thank me now – or thank me later“. William The Conqueror had pulled in a large and enthusiastic audience – there’s was the loudest performance so far of the evening, and included at least one song from the upcoming release ‘The Curse Of Friendship‘. In just an hour pretty much all bases of Americana had been touched – and then some.

By way of a gentle come-down from this musical high energy set nothing could have been more satisfactory than Sam Lewis, back again at Paper Dress Vintage. A fine singer-songwriter he’s also the master of the comic turn of phrase which lets him hold the room in the palm of his hand throughout. There’s a lot of irony in his music – ‘Everything’s Going To Be All Right‘ was inspired by seeing someone moving out of their home in ever more expensive Nashville, where he also lives “but not for much longer“. There’s something of a latter day country James Taylor about Sam Lewis, with the occasional adoption of a vocal style reminiscent, appropriately enough, of Dylan’s Nashville Skyline voice. But definitely not “modern country“. Leaving after the set there was a real need to hear more of Sam Lewis’ music – which is surely what a showcase is meant to achieve.

The astute reader will have noticed some names absent from these summations of the AMAUK showcases – “what“, some may ask, “no Austin Lucas, no Bennett Wilson Poole?“. Well, no – not for lack of wanting to, more from a lack of public transport out of Hackney Central – yup, National Rail prevented seeing these highlight sets. That’s how it rolls (or doesn’t roll). Even with this slight disappointment though the expanded Showcase evenings were great fun, and are now a calendar highlight not to be missed.  Just the Award ceremony to go.

Author: Jonathan Aird

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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