Festival Review: AmericanaFest 2021, 26th-28th January 2021

The conference part of the Americana Festival had had to be shelved for the year, but nothing, not even a global pandemic, could prevent the AmericanFest showcase nights and award ceremony from going ahead.  Moving on-line was the only option, giving a different format to the live music showcase events.  Instead of multiple venues around Hackney there were just two “stages” but as these were running full-time and at the same time this required a goodly amount of flicking back and forth on the nights.  There was no danger of missing a crucial performance of course, as access had been provided to view again for a further eleven days.  That was definitely needed as the general excellence of the music has required several rewatches already.

What to single out for Day 1? Emma Swift was devastating in her set of Bob Dylan covers, ably assisted by her sidekick Robyn Hitchcock accompanying her on acoustic guitar. Every ounce of emotion was wrung from ‘You’re a Big Girl Now.’  And we’re right there with Emma when she says that ‘Planet Waves‘ is underappreciated – she made it clear that there’s a lot of subtext that’s easy to miss on what can seem like a slight song such as ‘Going Going Gone.‘ It takes a great artist to shine a new light on Dylan when they cover him, to bring out nuances and to reshape the delivery in a meaningful way – by which definition Emma Swift is a great artist.

The Thirty Tigers Showcase was great fun with Emily Barker and Robert Vincent co-hosting a chat show with music format, with a great series of performances from notable names on that label including Jason Isbell, Darlingside and Diana Demuth (as well as the two hosts!).  Loose Records of course could also boast a great line-up: Israel Nash, Courtney Marie Andrews, Native Harrow, Gill Landry and The Handsome Family to name but five.  As has become traditional there were a couple of Canadian showcases – Canadian Blast and Music PEI – with an amazing amount of talent on show, Terra Lightfoot rocked out, but Julian Taylor stole the section with his classy performances of ‘The Ridge‘ and ‘Ballad of a Young Troubadour.

Day 2 was just as good – a notable showcase presented by Yep Roc featured americana favourites such as Michaela Anne, Grant Lee Phillips and the ever chipper Chuck Prophet with perhaps the best filmed sequence of the night, with a costume change for each song.

Not that it was all rocking – there was a set of love-struck folk song from Judy Blank who hails from Utrecht  and had – with bassist Peter – recorded a gentle and uplifting set, full of charm.  Whether G&T is really an americana drink is still up for debate.

The visit North Carolina showcase had an abundance of riches – and it’s own Covid prevention original song.  As part of the promotion of the state all the featured musicians had recorded their segments at historical sites which was a twist!  Jim Lauderdale’s cover of ‘My Carolina Sunshine Girl’ was just perfect as were acoustic folk band Mipso.   But it was the Wild Ponies Happy Hour that brought some of the loosest and most enjoyable music of the night, recorded outside and coping with whatever the wind blew them were artists such as Kyshona, ably supported by Nicky Connolly and Maureen Murphy, who made the sweetest sounding soulful folk.  Perfect harmonies.

And there were more perfect harmonies as well as huge dollop of rock and attitude from the peerless larkin Poe, showcasing songs from their first album of 2020 ‘Self Made Man.‘  This really only scratches the surface though – there were so many great performances across the two showcase nights.  Oh – and the secret set?  That was The Secret Sisters (we should have guessed).  It was really two nights of jotting down albums that need to be bought from old friends and new discoveries – and that’s a very good thing.

The final day of the festival was given over to a tribute concert to John Prine which included such names as Billy Bragg , Robert Vincent and Emily Barker and a particularly poignant appearance by John Prine’s sons Tommy and Jack who covered ‘Paradise.’ This was followed by the Award ceremony as usual presented by Whispering Bob. It followed the normal format – more or less – with various nominees giving performances which were, of course, just like the acceptance speeches in being pre-recorded this year. It kicked off with one of the performances of the whole festival – Austin Lucas and his band knocking seven kinds of merry hell out of ‘Already Dead‘.

One can only agree with the host here: “fabulous performance to open the evening.” There’d be similarly strident performances later from both American Aquarium and Jason Isbell. You can find the full list of nominees and winners for each category here – but some notable performances and acceptance speeches are worth highlighting. The best selling UK Americana album of the year went to Laura Marling, but perhaps as interesting was Martin Talbot from the Official Charts informing us that Americana as a genre had sold in excess of 800,000 albums in 2020.  Lucinda Williams gave a superbly gritty performance of ‘You Can’t Rule Me‘.

For acceptance speeches the conversation between Mary Gauthier and Fiona Prine (accepting the inaugral ‘Songwriter legacy Award’) was understandably emotional and Fiona was appropriately honest in accepting the award: “I’m not going to feign false humility on his behalf” – damn right. Gauthier’s performance (with Jaimee Harris) of ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness‘ was another highlight, starkly accompanied and with perfect lonesome harmonies. You’ll not hear a better definition of Americana in a long while.

The required “unexpected fan introduction” was for Steve Earle and his trailblazer award – which was fairly gushingly introduced by Colin Firth.  Steve’s performance of ‘Harlem River Blues‘ just underscored what a loss Justin Townes Earle was. The greatest acceptance speech of them all was Brandi Carlisle (aka ‘Babby Gangsta‘) presenting the International Lifetime Achievement award to the incomparable Mavis Staples. This was a true conversation – and not a short one – between friends that we got to sit in on. And Covid permitting Mavis Staples will be back in London, hopefully at the Union Chapel, later this year.

It goes without saying that everyone hopes that next year will be back to normal and we never have to have an on-line festival or gig ever again: but if you have to have one then the Americana Music Association UK have shown just how to do it in style, and make of it a complete success.

About Jonathan Aird 2722 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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