The crowning event of the annual UK Americana Music Week (aka AmericanaFest) organised by the Americana Music Association UK (AMAUK) is the awards show, held this year at Hackney Church which marks something of a homecoming after a few years of awards shows in theatres, as well as the unavoidable moves on-line during the pandemic. And what a venue the 18th century St John at Hackney is – impressively solid from the outside and, thanks to a multi-million pound restoration, absolutely beautiful on the inside. With several hundred chairs in rows downstairs and further seating in the galleries there was plenty of room for the conference attendees, the musicians and those who’d just signed up for this night. We’ve already reported on the winners of the various award categories which cover best artists, songs and albums both Internationally and UK based, selected by the votes of AMAUK members as well as a series of Special Awards selected by the AMAUK committee to honour life time achievements or significant Grass Roots contributions by non-musicians.
Prior to the event there was a “Red Carpet” photo shoot which served many useful purposes with the majority of the performers, Award nominees and many of the Showcase artists from the previous two nights to be found blinking in the flashlights. Expect to see more shots from there in coming weeks and months….
A key part of the Awards show amid the acceptance speeches is the mixing in of musical interludes featuring nominated artists, mostly supported by the house band organised by Michelle Stodart. It’s a credit to the event that they can get some big names to actually turn up in person – and it fell to Drew Holcomb (nominated for International Album of the Year) to get the event off to a powerful start before the host for the evening, Baylen Leonard, took the stage.
Bob Harris would appear on stage later in the evening, but Baylen was our genial and entertaining host – by turns mocking the difficulty of getting to Hackney from anywhere and encouraging us to once more to keep ourselves awake through long speeches by playing “count the hats“. Would we beat last year’s grand total…?
Drew Holcombe would return to the stage to present Lauren Housley with the award for ‘High Time‘ as UK song of the year, and she gave a typically lively performance of it alongside The Northern Cowboys. Elles Bailey was also in great voice whilst celebrating her win for UK Live Act of the Year.
Amongst those who couldn’t attend but who accepted their awards by video were Margo Price for International Song of the Year, and the wonderful Allison Russell picking up both International Artist of the Year and International Album of the Year. worthy winners from lists that featured strong contenders including Jason isbell and Margo Cilker. And it was Margo Cilker, fresh from a stunning double length showcase at Paper Dress Vintage on the previous evening who reopened proceedings after the mid-show interval with a beautiful solo rendition of ‘Lowland Trail,‘ just a guitar and a pure vocal, totally mesmerising.
The Grass Roots Award went to outgoing AMAUK chairperson Stevie Smith whose achievements supporting music for many years were relayed by Billy Bragg. Bragg then led off the next musical session with a side step from his introduction, they said he was going to play ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’ but actually he opted for ‘Rich men Earning North Of A Million‘ a rebuttal to a similarly titled song that has become beloved of the American right – the way out of waged poverty is, for Billy Bragg, not to punch down on the poor but to organise – “join a Union” is the oft repeated chorus. He did follow this up with “Way over Yonder…”, a fantastic rendition backed by CJ Hillman (himself a multi AMAUK award winner) on mandolin. This writer has heard this song many times in many live settings – but never a better version.
The house band leader Michelle Stodart did well in the awards stakes as well, picking up best UK album for her recent release ‘Invitiation‘ and when Charlie Starr presented her with UK Artist of the year “What are you doing to me?” was her shocked response. It was warmly accepted with Stodart mentioning that “music has been a lifeline for me, I was insanely shy growing up.” Not stage shy in any case as she performed ‘Push & Pull‘ from ‘Invitiation.‘
It would be disingenuous not to admit that the pre-announced International Trailblazer Award winner Jason Isbell was one of the artists most keenly anticipated. He was introduced by Nick Hornby, who recounted his long admiration for Isbell, going back to the days of the Drive By Truckers, and how sad he’d been both for the band and Isbell himself when he’d heard that he’d quit the band. He’d assumed that was it, and we’d never hear from the guy again. The guy himself then made a passionate acceptance speech – noting quickly that he never quit the DBT – stating “I was sacked.” He was passionate about the music and the scene around it – noting that he used to think it was a shame to have been born too late – in the Seventies bands who made his kind of music were superstars, now he regards it as a blessing, the lifestyle would have killed him. He touched on his early experiences of the UK, recalling playing the Borderline (a venue now sadly lost to us) and noting that the reason he was over was primarily to pick up this award – which of course means that anyone who caught his solo gigs over the following weekend was therefore in the AMAUK’s debt.
His solo performance of ‘King of Oklahoma‘ and ‘Cast Iron Skillet‘ was a definite highlight, compelling and a perfect demonstration of why he so richly deserved the award, his is a distinctive voice in this Americana music world.
The Award show wrapped up with a band tribute to Dan Penn, who had accepted his Lifetime Achievement award by video. A well deserved award as proved by a medley of songs like ‘Do Right Woman‘, on which Simeon Dallas Hammond was mightily impressive on vocals, and the all star ‘Dark End Of the Street‘, which Billy Bragg described as endlessly relevant as its lyrics of having to meet away from prying eyes took on meaning for different groups of people over the decades.
It had been a great evening, a really fine way to end a week of music. And there was still the after party…but you know our policy on that is – “what happens in the AMAUK after party in Oslo stays in the AMAUK after party in Oslo.“