It was a night when downtown Hackney was thronged with hordes of Americana loving music fans – it was, in fact, the night of the Americana Music Association UK (AMA-UK) Conference music showcase. Dozens of artists performing sets of around half an hour at four closely located venues – with the likes of Steve Grozier, The Americans, Tyler Childers, The Texas Gentlemen and so many more vying for attention. Inevitably this led to all sorts of difficult decisions – even the talented writers of Americana UK struggle to be in more than one place at a time, but one set that had a definite circle around it on the schedule was Kashena Sampson upstairs at the bijou Paper Dress Vintage. It seems that a lot of other people had also been busy with their magic markers – it was quite an effort to get through the crowd on the stairs and into the performance space over this popular Vintage Clothing shop / licensed cafe bar.
This was Kashena Sampson’s much anticipated UK debut – and adding sterling support on guitar was multi-instrumentalist C.J. Hillman, who quite deservedly won the AMA-UK Instrumentalist of the Year award in 2017. Hillman provided a second guitar, on one song taking over acoustic duties to allow Sampson to concentrate on signing, and his classy fills on the bridges gave each song an added shine, impressing everyone including Kashena Sampson. Kashena Sampson herself has an arresting look that accounts for the comparisons to Stevie Nicks, is no mean acoustic guitar player but most importantly she has the songs – varied tales of life’s knocks and expoundings on the vagaries of love. To top all that she is the possessor of a voice that it is impossible to ignore, full of colour and emotion and with a volume that punches clear through to the emotional core. Whilst distinctively her own sound there’s something of a Hot Band era Emmylou Harris or Seventies Linda Ronstadt about it in tone and delivery. That her’s is a late starting career is, for all this, that much more surprising – but it also gifts Kashena Sampson a wealth of life experience to draw on.
The set opened with the upbeat but downhearted Don’t sit too well with me – a straight country kiss-off song cut from the same musical cloth as You’re still on my mind. It’s a direct chiding of one who has fallen short: “we used to be the best of friends but now I come to find / you never cared, no, not one bit / and darlin’ that don’t sit too well with me”. Kashena grabbed the room from the start with her easy charm. Several of the songs that made up her set were, at least in part, autobiographical – Long Way Back is a reflection on Kashena Sampson’s new life in Nashville and a glance over her shoulder at her old life in her home town of Los Angeles. Greasy Spoon came out of a few weeks working in a diner when she first hit Nashville – it’s a Jim Croce like portrait of a Mom and Pop restaurant celebrating grits, biscuits and turnip greens. From the sound of things it must have been something of a honky-tonk on the sly. Never give up, by contrast is a classic country ballad introduced as “another song about abandonment”, seen from the perspective of the one being left behind as a lover walks out the door. It’s full of a last gasp, grasping at straws, desperation.
Coming far too soon – and there did seem to be a song or two left on the handwritten set list – Come back to me was a dramatic closer: with a slow tempo it’s an emotional ballad begging for a lover to return. Featuring those huge vocals it’s quite simply an earthshaker of a song performed with power. What a debut, and Kashena Sampson surely picked up a few more fans in Hackney…and beyond.
Don’t sit too well with me
Away from here
Long way back
Never give up
Come back to me