During his performance on the Barn Stage at the Maverick Festival, Dean Owens summed up how everyone was feeling, artists and audience alike: “Nice to see some real people. It’s like starting the football season without pre-season training and none of us are fully match fit!” The Man from Leith enjoyed many such good-humoured interactions with the crowd. However, the truth is that all the artists at the Maverick Festival were surprisingly match fit. Considering all the unfinished tours, interrupted rehearsals and socially distant band members, all the acts performed with precision and focused energy. Indeed, the relief from the enforced pause of the music industry seemed to create a joyful sense of release and a special delight in the connection live music generates.
For many fans, Friday night delivered the first live music in eighteen months. Jon Langford brought an upbeat vigour to accompany his stories of Joe Strummer and Elvis’s bassist. Simply put, he brought the fun. The flawless strings of Dana Immanuel’s Stolen Band packed out the Barn and there was a stirring version of ‘Mama’s Codeine’. Friday’s headliner, Black Eyed Dogs, produced a set that was perfect for the occasion, full of purpose and intensity. Songs like the opener, ‘Revelator’, were transcendent experiences, music to become utterly lost in. Such was the quality of the musicianship, it was hard to know where to look: there was funky bass and exquisite pedal steel on one side of the stage, urgent fiddle and guitar on the other. Black Eyed Dogs create music that feels like they are walking through your imagination, pedal steel stolen from your dreams and drums from your heart, ‘Silver Liner’ was the moment it came together and live music had finally come home. After the show, speaking of how it felt to play together again, the peerless Ethan Johns told AUK that, “…this is life for us.” Couldn’t agree more.
Saturday at Easton Farm Park included early delights, such as the melodic twang of Dan Walsh’s banjo, the playful Honky Tonk of Simon Stanley Ward and the powerful performance of David Banks, who apologised for playing three sad songs in a row. The highlight on The Green was the soaring sound of Forty Elephant Gang. The refreshing blend of strings and voices offered something smooth, summery and delicately different, perfect for the outdoor stage. On ‘Strange Things Happening’, the combination of slide over strum and mandolin was richly beautiful and the fast finger-work was hypnotic. ‘Drunken Promise Song’ was full of fine storytelling detail and mesmerising guitar. Andrew White’s vocal was clear and genuinely distinctive, rising above Seam Mannion’s mandolin and James Bachmann’s delightful picking. Forty Elephant Gang have already developed such a strong identity that they are definitely a band to look out for. Later, White shared with AUK, “It felt like we hadn’t played in ten years. It was lovely to be out playing in front of people again, a beautiful experience. We felt like we were warming up and the crowd got involved. We loved it!”
Kate Ellis was similarly impressive in The Barn. With seemingly effortless vocals, Ellis carried the audience along with her through her powerfully emotional songs. The fluent and heartfelt ‘Another Way’, the fiddle-driven ‘Don’t Lie to Me’ and recent single ‘Bluebirds and Rye’ were real highlights. The latter is an absorbing, poetic song, written like a letter to her daughter. The quality did not let up as next to take the stage was Dean Owens and The Southerners. Owens told us that he, “…started a tour last March and only played the second gig the other day.” Throughout the set, he was funny, engaging, full of character and confidence. Right from the gently rhythmic opener, ‘Elvis Was My Brother’, Owens maintained an excellent standard. ‘Up on the Hill’ soared like a hymn while ‘The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin’ was foot-tapping fun, with smiles and laughter helping to generate an excellent mood. A number of atmospheric songs, including recent Buffalo Blood and Desert Trilogy material, formed a particularly powerful sequence, beginning with ‘Reservations’. Of these, ‘New Mexico’ was especially moving. As would be expected from such a strong performer, Owens pitched this just right.
With the bar set high, Our Man in the Field took to the stage and did not disappoint. Featuring the understated, ethereal voice of Alex Ellis, Thom Durrant’s inventive drums, Henry Senior’s dreamy pedal steel and Luke Stenner’s grooving bass bringing all together, the band delivered an engrossing set. Highlights included the gorgeous ‘Stick Around’ with the winding, bending pedal steel to the fore. It’s one of those songs that feel like Ellis could be conversing with you as you listen. Otherworldly pedal steel also elevated new song ‘Go Easy’, which will be on the next album. ‘Pockets’ and ‘I Like You So I Kill You Last’ were introduced with humorous anecdotes, varying the mood. The interplay of Ellis’s delicate vocal and Senior’s pedal steel was at its best in ‘Thin (I Used to be Bullet Proof)’, which was written for Ellis’s father; so much story, so much emotion is packed into that beautiful melody. Our Man in the Field are currently one of the finest acts around and the new tour with Jerry Joseph adds to that sense that they are going places.
Duos and duets are as old as music but it’s never so fresh and well-matched as it is with a couple like Lou Dalgleish and Michael Weston King. On the Peacock Stage, they performed as My Darling Clementine with humour and style. The blend of their voices is genuinely natural and seemingly effortless on songs like the powerful ‘Indoor Fireworks’ and ‘Eugene’, a gorgeous ballad about being on tour in the USA. Particularly effective was the response to Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’, an idea that didn’t sit well with Dalgleish, “…even as a little girl.” ‘No Matter What Tammy Said’ is an upbeat foot-tapper but those lyrics are a smart, strong, meaningful rebuttal, showcasing the pair’s outstanding songwriting. Later on the Peacock Stage, Rich Hall, Dean Owens and many others performed a delightful tribute to the great John Prine, attracting a huge crowd. Alyssa Bonagura performed an outstanding rendition of ‘Angel from Montgomery’ for the appreciative audience and the man next to me said, simply, “It’s shit like this that makes me proud to be a human.” Then Jon Langford took on the weight of Prine’s weightiest song, ‘Sam Stone’, and did it justice with the audience joining in.
Rich Hall is a genius. His set was full of genuine belly laughs. It’s a joyous experience, especially after so much isolation, being surrounded by other people hooting with abandon. The way he twisted songs to fit with members of the audience was terrific, particularly a hilarious series of interactions with a retired clothing buyer from Leeds. The high point was a song written from the point of view of the man Johnny Cash (according to the famous song) shot in Reno, just to watch him die. Delightful, clever and just so much fun, Hall was incredibly popular with the Maverick crowd.
Shortly before taking to the stage for his headline set, Jerry Joseph spoke to AUK: “I’m crazy nervous! I’ve played a few shows at our own festival in Montana but I’m still nervous. I’m looking forward to playing with new friends ‘Our Man in the Field’. People have been so nice over here and we’ve had good reviews, so the nerves come from living up to it. I haven’t done a long tour for a long time so it’s like getting your sea legs back! I used to do three hour shows, two hundred nights a year. Now, it’s funny watching people come back because everyone has had some time to reflect. To come over here with a job in music is a remarkable thing. Covid in America is killing music.”
Joseph was charming, friendly, thoughtful and modest. Taking nothing for granted, he channelled those nerves into a deeply intense performance. He arrived on The Barn stage barefoot, wearing a scarf and hat that would soon be flung off, a commanding presence ready to lead the congregation, and launching into ‘War At the End of the World’. Even performing alone, Joseph filled the room and delivered this lyrical masterpiece, full of obscure historical references, characters and battles, blood and burning skies and powerful lines: “We’ve a little time to kill // Welcome to the New World // This is not a drill.” It was an immense opener that gave way to the stamping rhythm of ‘Days of Heaven’, a song about the drug cartels written in Joseph’s brother’s home in Mexico, one of the highlights of last year’s critically acclaimed ‘The Beautiful Madness’. Two songs in and he felt like an elemental force unleashed. Then followed ‘The Bone Towers’ with its quieter moments punctuated by bursts of fierce volume. Joseph often visits war zones to teach guitar and this song relates to the unfinished, skeletal-looking towers in Iraq. His introductions to songs, his stories and explanations added to the feeling of weight behind the lyrics. The rapid finger athletics on the fretboard, then powerful strum of ‘Climb to Safety’ was outstanding. It was a punky, emotional version with shouting away from the mic and an enraptured audience hanging on every word: “We must grab each other’s collar // We can rise out of the water // ‘Cause you know as well as I do // It’s no fun to die alone.” Henry Senior of Our Man in the Field added swirling, swimming pedal steel to ‘Dead Confederate’ one of the best and most relevant songs of 2020. Our Man in the Field joined Joseph for the last few songs, adding depth and a different texture to the music, sounding almost like a different gig entirely, beginning with the harrowing narrative of ‘Ten Killer Fairies’, in which a family is gathered up and made an example of by a cartel. The words are surprisingly beautiful for a song of such cruel loss. After the huge drums of the mesmerising, trance-like ‘San Acacia’, Joseph and the band finished with a cover of ‘Revelator’. An hour had passed in a flash; there was tension, humour, passion, shouting, stomping, dancing and, most of all, a connection and togetherness we’ve been missing. Perhaps driven by those nerves, Jerry Joseph brought all the energy he had to this stage in sleepy Suffolk.
One of the things that made Maverick feel special was the camaraderie and jovial atmosphere throughout: conversations with strangers, bumping into acquaintances (lovely to catch the John Prine Tribute with Morag Neil!), artists who were happy to mingle (amongst others, Andrew White and James Bachmann of Forty Elephant Gang spent a considerable time leaning on the bar, sharing friendly chat and laughter) and a general, genuine feeling of release. This was exemplified by the busking and crowd-singing after Jerry Joseph’s headline show. Late into the night, the likes of The Sam Chase Trio and The Folly Brothers led upbeat, rousing singalongs with favourites ‘Country Roads’, ‘Jolene’ and Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ getting the best responses. Perhaps more than anything else over the weekend, it was this coming together, drinking, laughing and making music that swept away the last eighteen months of isolation. Yes, there were reminders, like temperature checks on entry, limited numbers in The Company Store and notable absentees in Peter Bruntnell and John Murry (hope all’s well). But none of this detracted from the overall experience of togetherness.
Several acts played twice over the weekend and were simply good enough to take the trouble to catch both times. Alyssa Bonagura’s tuneful country was performed with a smile; when an artist appears to take such delight in the music and the connection, that transfers to the audience and makes all the difference. And her voice is tremendous live. The bluesy strum of ‘Love You Like That’ and the melodic ‘Road Less Traveled’ were the high points. The Sam Chase Trio were one of the takeaway acts of the whole festival. Chase’s vocal is incredibly earthy and characterful, perfect for story songs and emotional pleas like ‘Almost Done’. ‘Cold Night‘ was described as either, “…heroic and victorious or the saddest,” of his songs. I can confirm it’s a sad song. But delivered like that, it’s a stirring experience that stays with the listener. The combination of Chase’s voice with Chandra Johnson’s violin and Devon McClive’s cello is sublime, making these sweeping folk songs truly distinctive. McClive’s singing on ‘Lost Girl’ from the rock opera of ‘The Last Rites of Dallas Pistol’ was hugely effective and affecting: “I’m not here to be silenced // I’m not here to be broken…I’m not here for your opinion // I’m not here to stoke your fire // I’m not here to listen // I’m not here to be desired.” Dan Webster, accompanied by his fabulous band, was similarly impressive. Again, the songs were lifted by cello, fiddle and bass, each demonstrating athletic feats with fingers dancing up and down. The songs varied the pace and mood, with the upbeat ‘Elvis’ contrasting with the aching, resigned and subtly beautiful ‘Haul Away’. Webster was fun and funny, engaging and memorable.
The final act on The Barn Stage on a warm, sleepy Sunday was California’s Sara Petite. She joked that she was from a strict family but, “…Mama, I’m living the life you wanted.” And she sang upbeat, heartfelt songs of freedom, of throwing off the shackles of home. Watching her sing, and reflecting on the weekend that had passed so swiftly, it seemed we were beginning to return to the life we wanted, artists and music-lovers alike throwing off the shackles and moving together towards something that managed to feel both new and familiar at once. And it felt wonderful. Thank you Maverick.