It goes without saying that this has been a terrible year in many ways – trade you a pandemic against the bizarre play out of politics in the USA. And then conflate them – now simple measures to prevent the spreading of infection is deemed a political act and it’s better to join a death toll of 300,000 than to wash one’s hands. It’s hard – no, it is impossible – to understand this self-inflicted wound. Not that we can be too smug in the UK – we seem to be mastering the self-inflicted wound playbook just fine. Late lockdowns, the in retrospect folly of the eat out to help out campaign and the wilful folly of infecting a generation of students and schoolchildren are just three low points of a year of low points. Throw in the burning double standards which showed that one person’s job was more important than a clear and consistent health message, no wonder the current PM has such a poor approval rating. And with all that still talking about how to leave the EU for…what? A black “blue” passport and the loss of freedom to travel – what an irony that the black “blue” passport means we can’t pass ports so easily.
So 2020 has been a dismal spectacle with the toll of those lost in our particular niche of interest just making it worse – yes, thinking John Prine of course, but also the tragedy of Justin Townes Earle was a hard blow. And to think that it was all looking so very, very good at the start of the year. There will be lists later, of course, but the gig one will be abbreviated – the richness the year offered sadly curtailed. It’s laughable now to look back and see that I had planned on catching – in the space of less than a fortnight no less – Kurt Vile, Ron Sexsmith, Drive By Truckers, Jimmy Webb, Frazey Ford, Mavis Staples and Chuck Prophet. That would have been a great, if exhausting, run of gigs. Catching the planned gigs in intimate venues by Anna Tivel and the wonderful Amy Speace would both have been emotional.
On to the sections then – with the ever present caveat that this is not Americana UK’s view: yes, I’m a Deputy Editor but this view is mine, all mine.
It’s got a back beat – you can’t blues it….
The songs of 2020? Well, these are certainly some of them – no doubt by New Year there’ll be a new favourite, and that’s just the way it should be.
1. Already Dead – Austin Lucas. The swirling literate rage of Austin Lucas was the perfect soundtrack to an increasingly strange year – and there’s a lot of hope within that rage. When I think 2020 this is what I’ll think of.
2. I Contain Multitudes – Bob Dylan. Dylan explains himself, perhaps. Or Dylan wraps himself in a new enigma, maybe. Either way sounds good.
3. Hare Spell – Fay Hield. Setting a conjuration to music, and with such strong delivery, Fay Hield crafted an unforgettable contribution to weird folk.
4. Down to the Well – The Long Ryders. In this year it was a long time coming, but so good to hear more new music from the Paisley Underground.
5. Cinnabar – The Magpie Arc. A glistening standout on an EP of standouts – the British take on folk-rock played and sung to perfection.
6. Ballad of the Young Troubadour – Julian Taylor. Turning his hand to the singer-songwriter form Julian Taylor delivered this autobiographical sketch in music.
7. Hello – Brent Amaker Deathsquad. The title track of an album of Lee Hazelwood style strangeness. The deadpan of ‘Hello‘ exerts a hypnotic fascination.
8. Long Way Back – Kim Richey. From the reimagining of ‘Glimmer‘ Kim Richey made this tense acoustic wonder.
9. 69 Corvette – Jonathan Wilson. ‘Dixie Blur‘ was something of a side-step for the mercurial Jonathan Wilson, adding a folky richness to his Laurel Canyon allusions.
10. Some Tune We All Already Know – Kellen of Troy. From the all through excellent ‘Vanity Project‘ which ran a cynical eye over the business we call music.
Play us another song, let’s hear them all.
Albums – there have been a lot of albums this year. What’s new about that? Well, there were planned albums, delayed albums, home-recorded albums in place of tours. And there were cover albums, particularly within that last category. Larkin Poe had one of each, the planned album and the “what shall we do whilst we’re at home?” album, and showed what a glorious reimagining of other people’s songs could be achieved. Emma Swift rekindled the art form that is the Dylan Covers album. Molly Tuttle just impressed immensely with her take on songs by the likes of The National, whilst Neil Young covered himself. In the end though it’s the albums of new material that hit home the most.
1. Austin Lucas: Alive in the Hot Zone! Such controlled fury, and such empathy. From his Covid imposed exile in Germany Austin Lucas captured the whole strange year, and held up a burning torch lighting the path to a better way.
2. Chuck Prophet: The Land that Time Forgot. Chuck Prophet – with ample assistance from Stephanie Finch – looked back to a time when things were simpler (or covered up) and a future when things are more honest. Here’s hoping.
3. Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways. Dylan’s return to his own music was more than welcome and this well trailed release fully lived up to expectations. Dylan has much yet to say and do – thank goodness.
4. Bonny Light Horseman: Bonny Light Horseman. Where ancient songs meet the spirit of the Grateful Dead, that’s where you find Bonny Light Horseman standing.
5.Drive By Truckers: The Unraveling. The first part of the year’s double release from Drive By Truckers concentrated on enumerating the faults in American society. The reckoning is “many” and the solution is “uncertain” at best.
6.Fay Hield: Wrackline. Whether it’s conjuring her spirit into the body of a hare, bargaining with the Devil or wondering what the waterless world looks like from the eyes of a Selkie, Fay Hield wove a mysterious path through British folk that was, yes, spellbinding.
7. Julian Taylor: The Ridge. A mixture of autobiographical sketches and just plain good storytelling shaped ‘The Ridge‘ into an album that received frequent revisits.
8. VanWyck: God is in the Detour. The latest release by VanWyck brought an upbeat feel to her music, but within the joy there was also remembrance, and a spirit of endurance.
9. Sam Lee: Old Wow. Another reason to be hopeful for the “future of folk” (if that’s something which keeps you up at nights) with Sam Lee showing how traditional talks a modern language of environmental concern.
10. Brent Amaker Deathsquad: Hello. An album that walks its own way through a world of its making – although it’s not quite as disconnected from reality as a first listen might lead one to believe.
He crossed the room, swerving to avoid the grinning horror sprawled in its midst…
This section is traditionally all about the gigs, and let’s stick with that. It’s acknowledged that Americana Fest was the finest party stretched across three nights – two of showcases and one of the award ceremony where the double highlights were the amazing Amy Speace deservedly winning International Song for ‘Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne‘ and the amazing Mark Whitfield deservedly winning the Grass Roots award for this very web site. The after party wasn’t bad either. Let’s not ask “when shall we have such days again?” but rejoice that we ever had such days – and be confident that they will come again.
So – gigs, and really early 2020 included some of the best gigs I’ve ever had the privilege to attend which serves to double underscore that yes, there was great, great music in the past but today’s new music has no reason to feel overawed by such cherry picked recollections of past glories. What a vibrant scene there is in that swirl of Americana that encompasses Rock, Country Rock, Folk, raw Country Blues and the richness of the modern singer-songwriter tradition. It’s all out there, and so much of it is superb.
1. Simone Felice – The Slaughtered Lamb, London. A performance of grandeur and ramshackelness, emotional, funny and intimate beyond imagination.
2. Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn – Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden / The Barbican London. The Barbican was a flawless performance, as was the similar but far smaller Saffron Hall gig. This was banjo playing at the highest level from a stunning pair of warm and engaging musicians.
3. Judy Collins – Union Chapel, London. If you have to get old, get old like Judy Collins: an incredible voice, with a new album and decades of classics to choose from and in the Union Chapel just a perfect musical experience.
4. Bonny Light Horseman – The Lexington, London. It’s easy to see the attraction of British folk to American musicians, branches of this music have travelled the world and been woven into local traditions. But to take that tradition, honour it but also bring it vividly into the moment is more than an achievement. Bonny Light Horseman should have been one of the huge bands of 2020.
5. Smoke Fairies – Hoxton Hall, London. A welcome return from the gothic blues folk of the Smoke Fairies whose natural environment is dusk and dawn and swirling mists. And such a perfection of a venue for them as well.