In Glasgow, as a damp and dreich winter beckons, October has at least one beacon lighting up the dark nights, the annual Glasgow Americana Festival which has been warming the hearts of music lovers for 13 years now. Spanning five days and six venues, this year’s festival offered 19 performers, an elegant balance of local and international names, some in up close and intimate quarters, others appearing to several hundred fans. The local Americana community is fiercely proud of this jamboree, witness the same faces who were at all of the shows AUK attended, presumably taking advantage of the keenly priced festival pass which allows entry to all shows. In addition, at several shows we encountered musical tourists, lured by some favourite acts with at least one of them expressing some jealousy at seeing the upcoming acts advertised to come in the following weeks.
Glasgow is, in the main, well served by visiting artists in comparison to other Scottish cities and much of that is down to the festival presenters, The Fallen Angels Club, who promote shows throughout the year. The festival is the jewel in their crown however, with the Fallen Angels director, Kevin Morris, obviously proud of his baby as it enters its teenage years. Always striving to enlarge on his original idea, this year saw the addition of a songwriting workshop with The Orphan Brigade to the usual gig format with Morris saying that he is keen to look for further ways to engage with his audience in the years to come.
Unable to get to the opening show which featured Scotland’s Rachel Sermani, AUK’s first exposure to the festival was the welcome opportunity to see Rod Picott on his first UK appearance since his recent health scare. He certainly seemed healthy enough as he bounced onto stage and exclaimed, “I’m Alive!” Always one to leaven the darkness in his songs with a degree of levity in his live shows, Picott, after an excellent opening burst of a sturdy ‘Elbow Grease‘ and a hypnotic ‘Gettin’ To Me‘, announced that his show, normally delivered in portions- welding, unemployed, car, divorce – had a new addition – near death – his favourite part of that addition, the word near. It was only after several other songs, including a magnificent ‘Welding Burns‘ and his co-authored break up song, ‘I Might Be Broken‘, co-authored of course with his ex, Amanda Shires, along with a short reading from his book of short stories, that Picott approached his latest album. ‘Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil’ is a stark recording which is, according to Picott, “The most depressing I’ve ever made,” but live, the songs slipped easily into the set, another episode in Picott’s ongoing circus of misery and heartbreak. ‘A 38 Special And A Hermes Purse‘ was close to the bone but the standout here was ‘Too Much Rain‘, on this outing a contender for one of the best songs of the year. Picott ended his set on a more upbeat note with a boisterous ‘Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues’ before an encore of Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire‘ and ‘Badlands‘, “Two of my favourite songs” he said. It’s a pity that the hordes who follow The Boss don’t pay more attention to Picott but on this performance tonight he’s firing on all cylinders and his heart appears to be just “tickety-boo.”
Picott was effusive in his praise for his opening act, Belfast’s Anthony Toner, and it’s fair to say that Toner was the find of the festival. Truly engaging, humorous, a nimble guitarist and no slouch in the song writing stakes, Toner was a blast. ‘East Of Louise‘ led into a discussion with the audience of his use of the word “sended” while his, “South Tyrone Gothic” song, ‘The Road To Five Mile Town‘ was a bit of a triumph. There were hints of Paul Brady and Difford and Tilbrook in his writing as he sang about Belfast’s past on ‘Sailortown‘ and addressed the troubles on ‘Exit Wounds‘. His most affecting song however was addressed to his father, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, delivered with a mordant humour one usually associates with Loudon Wainwright. At the end of the night, Toner’s album’s were flying off the merch table and it’s a sure cert that he’ll be back.
Saturday had three shows on offer. First up was a matinee offering from Nels Andrews and Jess Morgan. Andrews, a singular songwriter with a dreamlike quality to his songs, cleaves close to nature, his songs populated with beasts of the sea and sky. Holed up these days in Santa Cruz, he opened with his cinematic capture of his voyage there on ‘Scrimshaw‘, from his latest release, ‘Pigeon And The Crow‘ and ‘Memory Compass‘ was another odyssey of sorts. ‘Embassy To The Airport‘ had a touch of Paul Simon about it while ‘Small Victories‘ was preceded by Andrews’ recollections of chauffeuring a faded would be countess and her husband around New York. The highlight, however, was the title song from his latest album, a beautiful story about a girl who fed wild birds in her garden and was then rewarded as they brought trinkets in return. A lengthy number, nonetheless it had the audience transfixed as Andrews drew us into his superb twilight zone of glimmering folk like songs.
Co-headlining with Andrews was Jess Morgan who took the audience through a potted history of her ten year music career in words and song. Commencing as a fresh faced wannabe selling her home made CDs on arriving in London, Morgan’s tale was of eventual triumph over adversity with some awkward moments included. A date with Simon, owner of a sporty Subaru, joining the pylon appreciation society, getting second class food at a festival, all were plumbed for bittersweet humour. Her songs were warm and intimate; some bound to the incidents she described, others more a matter of setting the mood. ‘Whitby‘ and ‘Blue Jay‘ were fine melancholy tales of loneliness while ‘Don’t Meet Your Heroes‘, from her album, ‘Edison Gloriette‘ recalled the likes of Joan Armatrading. Ending on a somewhat muted happier note with a new song, ‘All My Summers Come At Once‘, Morgan summed up where she is at now, more content with life and herself although still prone to mishaps.
There was a clash on Saturday night. The Orphan Brigade took over the south side’s Glad Cafe for a sold out show while in the north, Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show, was holed up in The Hug & Pint. By serendipitous fortune, AUK had two reporters on the ground that night so we can relay you accounts of both shows.
The Orphan Brigade are quite a powerhouse. With two acoustic guitars, a mandolin and occasional rudimentary drums, the trio burst with energy while their three-piece harmonies are excellent. Composed of two Americans from the Deep South – award winning producer Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt – along with Ireland’s Ben Glover, they have a unique method of recording as they choose a specific location (preferably cloaked in history and myths) and soak in the atmosphere, before writing and recording songs inspired by the setting. An intriguing mix of field recording and musical psychogeography, it’s served them well through spells in a “haunted” civil war mansion, ancient caves in rural Italy and, most recently, the rugged coastline of County Antrim in Ireland. There’s surely some alchemy afoot as the band are able to deliver the power and mystery of the spectral presences they encountered to the audience (although it may just be that they are fabulous writers and performers, who knows?). Opening with a fantastic double whammy, they thrashed through ‘Under The Chestnut Tree‘ and ‘Dance Me To The Edge Of The World‘, both from the latest album, immediately casting a Celtic spell on the crowd. Later on there was a spine tingling rendition of ‘Banshee‘ while ‘Children Of Lir‘ showed off their harmonies to spectacular effect. While the set concentrated on the new Irish album, there was space for a rugged rendition of ‘Marching On Christmas Day‘, a hugely atmospheric and stirring ‘I’ve Seen The Elephant‘ and a sweet old timey Appalachian styled ‘Flying Joe‘. There was a great deal of banter from these three engaging personalities. Glover was in grand form, poking fun at Britt’s alleged resemblance to Harry Potter while Britt had the audience in stitches at times. It should be noted also that Britt, an accomplished photographer and video director, is a wizard on mandolin, wringing sounds from his instrument which at times astonished.
The trio were justifiably chuffed to have John Prine sing on their latest album and ‘Captain’s Song (Sorley Boy)‘ was one of the highlights of the night (although Mr. Prine failed to turn up). They also brought on local artist, Martha L. Healy to sing with them on a joyous rendition of ‘Sweetheart‘ while, as they returned for an encore, they were cajoled into delivering ‘Pile Of Bones‘ despite their protestations that they couldn’t remember the words. Remember they did, and it sounded grand.
In the Hug and Pint meanwhile, Grammy winning Americana artist Chance McCoy, the fiddle player in Old Crow Medicine Show, who recently quit the outfit at the peak of their commercial and artistic success, performed his acclaimed solo album ‘Wander Wide’.
McCoy had already played a warm up session the day before when he turned up incognito for a string band session in a local Glasgow bar, The Machair, and he mused, “I’m building my reputation on the unexpected,” as he presented himself as an artist starting out at The Hug & Pint. Genuinely touched by the sell-out crowd on a rainy October night, his set included the hypnotic guitar swirl of ‘Electric Crow’ and blistering paced fiddle solos (‘Cocaine Habit’). His voice was smooth and mellow, in particular in those numbers where he uses his sweet falsetto (‘Sugar Babe ‘and ‘No One Loves You’) and he went on to perform ‘Whipoorwill’, a crowd favourite. Towards the end of his set he teased, “Are you ready for some Old Crow?” before launching into ‘Cocaine Habit’, climaxing in a fiddle solo that galloped to over 200 bpm.
Curfew was 11pm. It was a Saturday. No doubt all over Glasgow, countless cover versions of the crowd-pleasing ‘Wagon Wheel’ were being churned out. It was no different here, except this was a Virginia born, ex Old Crow member, fiddle under his chin and closing his set with his own authentic take on the song. Thankfully, after some sweet chat to the soundman, the curfew got extended – ensuring that the crowd left humming one of his own numbers, the hypnotic and catchy ‘No One Loves You’.
Earlier at The Hug & Pint was Caitlin Buchanan, about to re-brand to the stage name Rambler. Citing Angel Olsson, Laura Marling and Kate Bush as her influences, the high point of her intimate set was the lush theatricality and beautifully fingerpicked ‘Slave’, her closing song where her vocals soared like Rufus Wainwright.
All too soon, Sunday, the last day of Glasgow Americana Festival beckoned, but it went out on a high note. First up was another innovation as a long standing Glasgow institution, The Seven Songs Club, had been invited to join this year’s roster. A simple and winning idea, The Seven Songs Club invites three artists to co-headline and perform seven songs. The brainchild of local musician Warren Starry Sky who comperes the show, the club had its first Glasgow Americana outing on the Friday but the Sunday afternoon outing was the one we were able to attend.
Introducing the show, Warren Sky sang his own song, ‘Be Kind‘, a special request from director Kevin Morris apparently. If so, it was an apt choice as the song is an invitation to acknowledge, respect and love each other, to essentially, be kind. A sentiment truly needed in these turbulent times and delivered excellently by Sky. So, three acts and first up was Ireland’s The Remedy Club. An attractive duo, they previewed several songs from their forthcoming Nashville recorded album, along with several from previous releases. Alternately jaunty and dark, especially on the booze soaked lament ‘Bottom Of The Hill‘, their best received song was their tribute of sorts to Tom Waits, ‘When Tom Waits Up‘, which was a fine cowboy like lope into the great man’s thoughts as the duo delivered some glistening guitar solos and inventive percussion.
From London, Jason McNiff bedazzled the audience with his guitar wizardry. A student of Bert Jansch, McNiff, in a similar fashion to Jess Morgan days earlier, led us through a potted biography. ‘Southbound Train‘ was his initial trip to London encapsulated and his introduction to Jansch led into some finger picking excellence on ‘Angie‘ although McNiff did acknowledge that it was Davey Graham who wrote the tune along with a fine joke. Aside from his guitar skills, McNiff showed that he is a grand writer in the Cohen style as he sang ‘Wind Of Zaragoza‘ while a cover of his favourite song, ‘Wichita Linesman‘, allowed him to decorate the standard with several excellent guitar flourishes.
Winding up the seven songs set up was local artist, Elaine Lennon. A relative newcomer, Lennon was a winner of last year’s Danny Kyle open stage awards at Celtic Connections, a true feather in her cap. She’s in the process of recording her debut album and her seven songs will appear on the album. Seated at her keyboards (with honey and water to alleviate a burgeoning sore throat), Lennon recalled some of the classic singer songwriters from the past with echoes of Janis Ian, Dory Previn and even Nina Simone hovering around, the latter especially evident on the bluesy ‘Trouble‘. ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart‘ (her song, not Neil’s) was a bedsit song in the best fashion while her closing number ‘By Your Side‘ was a touching ballad which just begs to be picked up by radio or covered by a major balladeer.
The big guns were rolled out for the festival closer as several hundred people crammed into a venue new to Glasgow Americana. Sam Outlaw played The Glee Club, normally a comedy venue. It was heartening to see such a large turnout and Outlaw played to the crowd in every way. His fiddle player, Lydia Luce, opened the proceedings with a short set of her own songs along with a fine version of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain‘. She returned, fiddle in hand, guitar discarded, for Outlaw’s powerful set. While Outlaw has been garlanded for his two albums with their blend of SoCal country, honky tonk and border ballads, it seems, on the evidence tonight, that he’s leaning more towards the current country rock of Nashville, seduced by the likes of C2C. Hampered by a leaden sound which was too bass heavy, with his singing hard to clearly hear and Luce’s fiddle playing buried, Outlaw still managed to have the crowd dancing and singing along. A new song, ‘Here On A Mission‘, was AOR rock to our ears and this was compounded by his rendition of REO Speedwagon’s ‘Take It On The Run‘ as part of the encore. That said, when the band dialled it down there were some great renditions of ‘Tenderheart‘, ‘Angeleeno‘ and ‘Ghostown‘ while Luce sang a wonderful version of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Passionate Kisses‘. The crowd cheered the openings of ‘Look at You Now‘ and ‘Trouble‘, the latter seeing many on their feet and dancing and they remained so as Outlaw whipped them up with ‘Hole In My Heart‘. The audience demanded and were rewarded with, ‘Jesus Take The Wheel‘. For this, Outlaw and the band unplugged and strode to the centre of the crowd for an almighty sing along, a fitting end to the festival. A fine song with hundreds of music fans singing along to a hero who was in their midst, truly, an example of Warren Sky’s plea to be kind.
All in all, Glasgow Americana was, as always, a concentrated dose of life affirming music. Sad songs, glad songs, venues large and small, all happy to be a part of the industry of human happiness.
Hug & Pint words and picture by Ken Irvine