Holding a festival of Americana music in the grounds of Claverton Manor, home of the Museum of American history and Culture, on the edge of Bath was the inspired idea of Matt Owens, best known as a co-founder of Noah and the Whale.This was the first festival to be held at this site and with the valley behind the stage and gardens to walk through between stages it was an absolutely ideal venue for a weekend’s music.
The early part of Saturday was marked by the inevitable festival rain, but this had cleared by the time Morganway hit the stage. With singer SJ Mortimer confined to a mobility scooter by a broken ankle the band were a little more static than usual. The music however was anything but static. Guitarist Kieran Morgan pulled some great Neil Young style solos from his Flying V on ‘The Man’ and ‘Come Over.’ Highlight of the set was ‘Hurricane’, not the Bob Dylan song although Nicole Terry’s fiddle and the rich harmonies put their music in a similar place to Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. Morganway had played the Stone Circle songwriters stage earlier in the day with Lady Nade and katy Hurt, a set they described as magical
The natural amphitheatre set into the side of the hill featured the more acoustic based acts, and the next act on the amphitheatre stage was Lady Nade herself. As one of the rising stars of the moment this may be one of the last chances to hear her on the sort of small intimate stage she works so well. She played a set drawn from across her three albums. Highlights included ‘Honey Bee’ and the title song of her ‘Safe Place’ album. Her band of Bassist Dan Everett, and pedal steel and guitar player Holly Carter complement her dark bluesy voice well. That voice was put to good effect on a cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘My Journey To The Sky.’ Speaking to her after she, said that Tharpe was one of her key influences, and she did full justice to the song. An album of Sister Rosetta covers from her would be just fabulous.
After this it was back to the main Lawn stage in front of the house for Crow Black Chicken, an Irish power trio in the Gov’t Mule mode, who rather overwhelmed the relatively small sound system. An extended jam on ‘John the Revelator’ was both set closer and highlight. Black Eyed Dogs were a far more enticing prospect with their danceable folk music. Their set included covers of ‘Cinnamon Girl’, Gillian Welch’s ‘Time The Revelator’ and ‘Morning Dew’. As a band new to me Black Eyed Dogs are certainly worth further investigation.
Headliners on Saturday were Robert Vincent and his band. On this occasion they included Joe Coombs on guitar who ”absolutely smashed it out of the grounds of the museum” according to Vincent’s Facebook page the following day, and Samuel Taylor on banjo. Vincent commented that they were “both great young musicians I’d never played with before, but they were totally on fire”. This is true, and Coombs particularly is a name to watch. Unfortunately, Taylor’s Banjo was inaudible for at least part of the time, but when you could hear him, he was indeed on fire. Highlights of the set included ‘This Town’, ‘My Name Is Ghost’, ‘The Ending ’ and an appearance from Ethan Johns for one song. Vincent was booked to return on the Sunday for a songwriter’s circle with Peter Bruntnell and members of Treetop Flyers.
The only black mark against the festival was the chaotic parking arrangements, which lead to an unexpected walk of over a mile from the Bath University car park. This meant that we missed the aforementioned Vincent/Bruntnell/Flyers songwriters session. The last half of Kezia Gill’s set was good enough to regret missing the first half. She has a song called ‘Thirties’ which is a wry look at getting older which felt more than a little ironic to those of us for whom thirty is a hazy memory. Her soulful voice was put to especially good use on a cover of Dylan’s ‘Forever Young‘. Another name for the must watch out for her tour list.
Alex Lipinski and The Crown Electric’s brand of high energy bluesy power pop was ideal for the much sunnier afternoon that Sunday offered. Lipinski seems to be a bit of a closely guarded secret and doesn’t have as much recorded work as he deserves. Judging by the queue at the merchandise stand at the end of his set though he converted quite a few fans with this performance.
As well as music there were cooking demonstrations, children’s events and, on Sunday, the Cadillac owners club showing off some of their cars. The sound of a 1960 model V8 burbling away as it drove off may not be very green but is still one of the great American sounds. The gardens at The American Museum are worth a visit on their own being set on the side of one of the valleys that surround Bath, looking towards Wiltshire. There wasn’t the time for more than a glance today though. One of the advantages of having the festival in a relatively small area was that it was easy to hear and follow intriguing bits of music on the smaller stages.
Drifting back to the Amphitheatre in anticipation of seeing Jason McNiff, I found one of the scheduling changes that pop up often at festivals. Ren Harvieu was now in the mid-afternoon slot, performing her slightly morbid torch songs with the Magic Numbers’ Romeo Stodart on guitar. ‘Curves and Swerves’ is typical of her material and highlighted her confessional style and undoubtedly great voice. This was not the slot for her however and the audience did drift away after a few songs. The One To Watch segment floated over from the Homegrown stage, set up for lesser-known Bristol and Bath artists to get a hearing. ‘Johnny B Goode’ was followed by a frenetic version of ‘I’m A Believer’. The next band’s cover of ‘Crocodile Rock’ was more than passable and having a stage for new local acts is a great way for them to get experience and exposure.
Festival organiser and local resident Matt Owens was up next on the main stage with his band the Delusional Vanity Project. With a sound balanced between pub rock and country rock, his mix of Dylan harmonica with the Heartbreakers guitar and organ sound was just what was ordered for a Sunday afternoon. He owned up to playing a completely unplanned set, but it didn’t show.
Jason McNiff’s set overlapped with Owens and was one of the highlights of the Amphitheatre stage. He played several songs from his recent brilliant covers album, notably the title song ‘Tonight We Ride’ and ‘Tunnel of Love’ along with the standout, as it is on the record, his version The Waterboys ‘Fisherman’s Blues’. McNiff has been around for a good while now and it was nice that he name checked Americana UK for his album of the year award from 2003. He also played several older songs including ‘Southbound Train’ and ‘Hat’.
McNiff’s set bumped into the start of Peter Bruntnell’s meaning a hurried change of stage. Bruntnell played one of the outstanding sets of the weekend. Every song was a winner as were his between song explanations of them. ‘By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix’ and ‘Broken Wing’, from his excellent ‘King of Madrid’ album, were the songs that topped the list although it was hard to pick favourites. I arrived at his show a casual listener and left a firm fan, and with two of his albums from the merch stall.
Next to last act on the Lawn stage were Treetop Flyers. The perfect early summer evening band. Their set was drawn largely from their most recent album ‘Old Habits‘. Set fixture and early single ‘Things Will Change’ still carries a feel of America’s ‘Ventura Highway’ about it, but also shows off how far their music has come. The Saxophone segments make the more recent material feel a little more in the territory that Al Stewart occupied in the mid-seventies.
The festival was closed by Magic Numbers. Described by the pre-show publicity as Folk Rock legends, they deserved the award for hardest working group of the weekend, having popped up all over the various stages backing and supporting other artists. The only disappointment was that by the time their set got underway the audience had thinned out noticeably. With an audience that had a high family component this was maybe inevitable, and the plus side of this is that there were many who had never been to a music festival of any sort and were hopefully converted by the relaxed friendly atmosphere.
My companion, a seasoned festival goer, described it as a mini Cornbury, and while I can’t make the comparison the ability to drift between stages and pick up on music that you may not have heard before without a long trek made this a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. Sunday was less well attended than Saturday judging by the size of crowds, but with the artists all praising Matt Owens and his team and the delightful setting of Claverton Manor this could become a very welcome fixture in the calendar.
So, what did we learn from Americana fest? Everyone in Americana land plays a Telecaster. Americana is a very broad church. That The Magic Numbers are very committed to their work and supporting other artists. Also that Lady Nade and Kezia Gill will be stars and that Peter Bruntnell already is.