Now in its 12th year the Glasgow Americana Festival is essentially a very concentrated dose of life affirming music delivered courtesy of local promoters, The Fallen Angels Club, who otherwise offer us locals regular spoonfuls of sugar throughout the year. Over five days and in various venues throughout the city around 25 acts converged, varying in style for sure but all rooting for roots music, that indefinable Americana we all talk about and which they all, in one way or other, delivered to their audiences.
The festival kicked off in fine style in the grand surroundings of Cottiers, a converted church (and a bit of an architectural gem) which can seem quite a forbidding place with its neo gothic eeriness and a vaulting roof dwarfing the stage. It really takes a big personality to fill this space but that was never really going to be a problem for the ebullient Yola Carter who headlined the inaugural show. Carter, an AMAUK artist of the year and seen by many as “the next big thing” is a most engaging character with her song introductions almost as entertaining as her gritty take on soulful country music where she manages to entwine Bobbie Gentry. Mavis Staples and Tina Turner as her band conjure up memories of The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The show was a fine balance of songs from her 2016 EP ‘Orphan Offering’ along with several intended for her forthcoming album with ‘Home’ from the EP opening the affair while a new song, ‘It Ain’t Easier’ followed, the latter allowing her guest pedal steel player (another AMAUK winner, Chris Hillman) plenty of room to shine. ‘Heed My Words’ allowed Carter herself to show off her vocal prowess while ‘Home Again’ was a tremendous country funk number. ‘Fly Away’ stomped into view with a vengeance with a full-throated Carter wailing above the chugging rhythms of the band and an encore of The Bands’ ‘The Weight’ definitely satisfied the crowd. It was a very satisfied and welcoming Carter who manned her merch stall at the end of the night and one can only hope that her forthcoming album is coming closer to a release.
Support for the night, The Red Pine Timber Co. from Perth, also featured an ebullient singer in the form of Katie Whittaker who, along with Gavin Munro, fronts this energetic band. Despite the lack of their usual horn section their blend of guitar, pedal steel and fiddle warmed the crowd up well for Carter’s set with ‘Different Lonesome’ standing out along with a raucous delivery of ‘For The Angels’ which closed their set.
There was a touch of serendipity around as Anthony D’Amato appeared at the festival just a week after Rolling Stone named his latest single, ‘The Oyster and the Pearl’ as one of their Ten Best Country Songs of the week and sure enough the song featured halfway through his set at The Glad Cafe with the engaging singer wheedling the audience into singing the chorus. Very much at ease with the audience and the setting, D’Amato was in fine form with some very humorous tales scattered throughout the set while there was a touch of the young Paul Simon in his vocals. Opening with ‘I Don’t Know About You’ it was obvious that in a solo setting his songs can carry as much weight as the recorded band versions with his delivery of ‘On The Banks of the River Where I Died’ much grimmer than the album version. He played a couple of new songs including one he said was inspired by a Ricky Ross tune he heard while touring with Ross (and incidentally Ross himself was in the audience tonight) and he also dedicated his song, ‘Passing Through’, a fine number about transience, to the late Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit, a nice touch.
D’Amato was preceded by Mabel & Huck, a local duo with a hint of The Handsome Family in their appearance and more than a hint of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in their delivery. Their ghostly tale of a haunted house was tantalisingly spooky while a new song from them, ‘Rollercoaster’, displayed their harmonies well. They returned to the stage with D’Amato at the end for an encore of ‘I Shall Be Released’ which again went down well with the crowd.
There’s little doubt that the most highly anticipated event of the festival was the Scottish debut of Bennett Wilson Poole with The Glad Cafe fuller than we have ever experienced it before for their sold out show, turning it into a jam packed sweatbox. The trio, along with their rhythm section, turned in a show which will probably be spoken of in awe over the coming months, their obvious camaraderie and the delight they get from playing together matched by the audience’s revelry. As has been the case on previous shows, they played their album from start to finish and for this reviewer who had only seen the trio before, the addition of bass and drums (Joe Bennett and Fin Kenny) allowed them to unleash the full power of their songs. Although they play on the comparisons to Crosby Stills & Nash (and rightly so given their harmonies and song writing skills) and there’s an undeniable whiff of nostalgia as Tony Poole unravels spiralling notes from his Rickenbacker 12 string summoning up not only The Byrds but also mid sixties Beatles and even The Searchers, they chime with the times. Their song about the political assassination of MP Jo Cox, ‘Hate Won’t Win’, and the highly charged attack on the media and the plight of refugees on ‘Lifeboat (Take a Picture of Yourself)’ are both worthy reminders that music can protest and inform. The latter song was an opportunity for the full band to really stretch out with their squalling guitars growling and grimacing in fine Four Way Street style but throughout the set all the songs sparkled leading one to wonder why on earth we don’t hear songs such as ‘Hide Behind a Smile’ or ‘That Thing You Call Love’ (surely up there with any song on Rubber Soul) blasting from the radio on a regular basis.
With the album run through over the band let their hair down a little starting with Poole playing perhaps the most recognisable opening notes of any record as they launched into ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. It was genuinely thrilling to hear Poole’s 12 string ringing out here and the occasion could only have been bettered had McGuinn himself wandered onto the stage to join in. Michael Nesmith’s ‘Different Drum’ followed (preceded by some Tippex jokes and this review would be twice as long if we mentioned all the wonderful banter from these three fellows) before they played a new song which may or may not be called ‘I Want to Love You But I Can’t Right Now’. Whatever it was called it was a fine Neil Young like country rock chug of a song with lyrics referencing various influences including Allen Ginsburg and it bodes well for future recordings. By now the heat had melted the band and the audience into one great party animal and the final song, a glorious and life affirming performance of The Wilbury’s ‘Handle With Care’ just about took the roof off the venue. A perfect close to what was a perfect show. When Bennett Wilson Poole come back they might need to find a larger venue but we’d be more than happy to reengage with them no matter where and when.
Spare a thought for Al Shields, an Edinburgh based singer/songwriter/guitarist who was drafted in at the last moment to replace the advertised support for BWP who had to pull out. Shields (who wins the award for appearing at the most shows in the festival) had just ended electric guitar duties for the sold out Martha L Healy album launch gig when he was roped in. With a borrowed acoustic (and no harmonica), he won over the restless audience with his couthy sense of humour and some fine songs. His tale of a bar room band condemned to play Freebird ad nauseum on ‘The Boys in The Band’ had some of the audience giggling at the inherent dark humour of the song which Shields’ excellently countered by saying, “This is supposed to be a sad song.” Sad and lonesome he can be as ‘Put Your Feet Up’ showed and with his fine EP with his band The Delahayes under his belt this year Shields is an artist to watch out for.
As is often the case in festivals there was a lot we missed including Emily Barker and Kimmie Rhodes along with launch gigs for two albums from local artists, Martha L Healey and Starry Skies and a rare show from The Hellfire Club. However we were determined to see Nathan Bell who was voted in as Americana UK’s Male Performer of the Year at the end of 2017. Bell’s rugged rustbelt songs, his political defiance and his celebration of family life have seen him rapidly build up a following here in the UK which has been bolstered by his powerful performances on his last two UK visits (with his set captured excellently on his current live album). Playing in yet another converted church, Bell was in commanding form as he regaled us with the sorry tale of an institutionalised prisoner in ‘Goodbye Brushy Mountain’ before heading in to his latest studio album for a razor sharp dissection of a family man and then heading into the prairies for ‘Black Crow Blue’, a song which is like a Larry McMurtry story condensed into three minutes.
Most of Bell’s song introductions were accompanied by his guitar picking as he spoke of his guitar pupils, his introduction to the blues via Brownie McGhee and a fine tale of playing alongside Ricky Scaggs. There were some barbed comments on the present POTUS but there was also space for his wonderful love song to his wife on ‘I Would Be A Blackbird’. ‘Raise Your Fist’ remains a potent commentary on current events and towards the end of the show Bell utilised some guitar loops to expand his sound as he again delved into the blues stripping out the inherent misogyny contained in so many old recordings with his celebratory ‘I’ve Got a woman’. It’s all powerful stuff and Bell is spellbinding on stage, a true sage for these troubled times.
Overall, an action packed five days from Glasgow Americana with a fine spread of artists allowing folk to experience laid back troubadours, fiery songwriters and red-hot combos. We’re already looking forward to next October.