Live Review: Americana Music Association UK Awards, Hackney Empire, London – 26th January 2023

Photo: J. Aird

It’s a cliché but none the less true, that all good things have to come to an end and their annual awards show is the capping event of the Americana Music Association UK’s annual conference, held once again this year in Hackney after two on-line events in 2021 and 2022.  It is of course a star studded event with notable names both presenting and receiving the awards along with a series of performances from some of the nominees, mostly backed by the house band led by Michele Stodart.  There are two categories of awards – those nominated by and then voted on by the membership of AMA-UK and those decided on by the AMA-UK’s board, as well as a special award in the gift of Bob Harris.  We’ve already featured the nominees and winners here.  All the features you know and love from award ceremonies were on display, including a glamorous “red carpet photoshoot” held in a side venue of the theatre.  It was here that we discovered two things – any photograph including Lade Nade, Allison Russell and AMA-UK CEO Stevie Smith will have at least one of them moving fast enough to blur the image, and that this would be the only place it was possible to get an even quarter-decent shot of the showcase superstars The Sadies, so here’s one of those and you can imagine the other.  And it’s worth saying again that, wow, did The Sadies rock Paper Dress Vintage on Tuesday evening – outstanding.

Photo: J. Aird

Once seats had been finally taken in Hackney Empire, the Awards got underway with an introduction from host Baylen Leonard, who was ably assisted through the evening by an up and coming young fellow called Bob Harris.  Bob was reliably enthusiastic throughout and Baylen did a great job of keeping everything going smoothly with wry comments, an Americana bingo card and the presentation at one point of a vintage T-shirt from BOB radio in Minneapolis (yay, Minneapolis!) with a very appropriate back logo.

Photo: J. Aird

Having kicked the show off with a bang – The Heavy Heavy rocking the house and showing why they were nominees for UK Live Act of the Year, the first award of the evening went to Holly Carter who seemed genuinely surprised, and rather thrown, in her acceptance speech although, as C.J. Hillman can testify, UK Musician of the Year does quite often go to the multi-instrumentalist pedal steel player.  She’d be seen on stage during the night with the house band.

Photo: J. Aird

There was a performance of the soulfully slow ballad ‘Make It Romantic‘ by Simeon Hammond Dallas who was up for the UK Song of the Year, an award that actually went to an emotional Hannah White for ‘Car Crash.’

Photo: J. Aird
Photo: J. Aird

There had been a rumour going around that a certain Led  Zeppelin frontman might be in the audience, which was confirmed when one of the winners of the International Album of the Year picked up his award saying that he was pleased that he and Allison Kraus had been able to “cook the magic again” and  particularly because ‘Raise the Roof‘ was able to shine a light on artists such as Bert Jansch.  The contribution of T. Bone Burnett was also highlighted as key to the success of the record.

Photo: J. Aird

The quite literally dazzling Allison Russell was destined for a good night, picking up two awards for International Song of the Year and International Artist of the Year.  It’s remarkable, and fully deserved, recognition of an artist who has clearly been deserving of greater awareness and a bigger audience – this writer first saw her some years ago playing The Stables – and Stage 2 of The Stables at that, a room fully capable of holding maybe 80 people and which was not exactly at capacity – as Birds of Chicago.  What a night.  It’s nice when the world catches up with what has been staring it in the face for more than a decade.

Photo: J. Aird

With Brandi Carlisle not available, Allison Russell was joined by Lady Nade to perform ‘You Are Not Alone‘ and this combination of vocals was a joy, an absolute joy, to hear – and thank goodness for the multi-instrumental talents of Allison Russell and the appearance of a banjo.  Lady Nade now clearly has a foot in two camps – the folk world aren’t going to give her up without a struggle though.

Photo: J. Aird

Allison Russell would also be on stage as part of the tribute to Loretta Lynn for the Songwriter Legacy Award, joined on this occasion by Miko Marks and Elles Bailey, who was herself having quite a good night, for a vocal powerhouse rendition of ‘Coalminers Daughter‘.  The award itself was accepted via a video message from Lynn’s granddaughter.

Photo: J. Aird

Elles Bailey was a double winner for UK Artist of the Year and UK Live Act of the Year, and her acceptance speeches focused on a theme within the evening of “community” – that the Americana community, assisted by AMA-UK, is a very welcoming and supportive one which is open to a wide variety of artists and styles.

Photo: J. Aird

And that’s certainly true for the genre as a whole with the award show an exemplar of how difficult it is to pin down “What is this Americana thing anyway” as previously discussed at length here on Americana UK.  There were artists performing, and receiving awards, who come from a background of folk (another infinitely sub-dividable genre), rock, blues, and country and playing to different combinations of these. Want an example of that? Well, how about Ferris and Sylvester who picked up UK Album of the Year for ‘Superhuman‘?  They certainly make for a contrast to, say, Nickel Creek or Judy Collins (of whom more below).  And they were introduced by Katherine Priddy, yet another link in to the British Folk Music scene.

Photo: J. Aird

Another example might be the fuzzed up rock stylings of the winner of the Bob Harris emerging Artists Award – now on Loose Music and four albums into their musical career The Hanging Stars are very much in the zone described by Bob Harris as being somewhere between ‘Younger Than Yesterday‘ and ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘ (which by my reckoning would be ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers‘) and with a touch of Big Star about them.  Their performance was dedicated to The Croz, another nod to their influences.

Photo: J. Aird

It’s safe to say that Nickel Creek were overjoyed with their International Trailblazer Award, and went on to inject some much needed Bluegrass into the evening.  If there was anything missing from the evening it was mandolins. And banjos (so thank the deities for Allison Russell).  Their performance of the new song ‘The Gather‘ was bluegrass of course, but with a twist.

Photo: J. Aird

Grassroots award winner Ralph McLean was also very happy to have a lifetime of sharing his love of roots music and Americana on Radio Ulster recognised by this special award for those working in the music scene other than as artists themselves.

Photo: J. Aird

Following some interesting official chart figures – 243 different albums featured on the official Americana Music chart and there were a total of 18 number one albums throughout 2022.  Overall 1.1 million albums were sold, and the biggest seller was Frank Turner who gave a powerful and emotional solo performance of ‘A Wave Across A Bay‘, a tribute to Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison, which comes from the album ‘FTHC.

Photo: J. Aird

Introduced by folk duo O’Hooly and Tidow (currently riding high on the theme to ‘Gentleman Jack’), the International Lifetime Award went to another dyed in the wool folky – Judy Collins who was recognised for, well, where to start?  Seven decades of recording and touring with several dozen albums to her name all told. Her championing of both Sandy Denny and Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now‘ was the song that Judy Collins treated us to on the night.  Her activism.  Her openness about addiction and mental health issues.  Her voice.  Her guitar playing.  All that and more – like her songwriting and her stream of anecdotes in her acceptance speech.

Photo: J. Aird

Judy Collins, ever the professional, praised the award show for being spellbinding, and then laughed and added that ‘Spellbound’ just happens to be the title of her most recent album.  It was particularly pleasing to see Judy Collins get this award – as Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham bluntly wrote “send her flowers in her lifetime, she can’t use them when she’s dead.”  Posthumous awards such as Loretta Lynn’s don’t do much for the recipient unfortunately – and of course it’s difficult to award everyone who deserves it.  However it did prompt the personal reflection that there’s at least one so far completely unrecognised person who might by now have been at least nominated for International song, International album, or maybe would have been awarded International Lifetime, or Trailblazer, or even Songwriter award – sure, Dylan would never turn up but has no-one ever considered him as a contributor to the Americana genre?  I bet his sometime tour buddy Richard Thompson (Lifetime Award 2017) has.

Photo: J. Aird

Another of Judy’s comments – that she’d sat in the audience for half the show for the first time in a long time – was another nod to the kind of award show this is.  It’s a really relaxed setting – everyone’s out there and no-ones getting bothered no matter how well known they may.  To the extent that one might, perhaps, be talking with Julian Taylor about how cool it was that Robert Plant had turned up in person to receive his award, only to realise that Robert Plant is actually standing just behind you.  It may seem like this only applies to the great and the good and Americana UK writers – but as Elles Bailey noted in one of her acceptance speeches, a few years ago she’d been a starting artist and sat way up in the back of the theatre and had hoped one day she could be down the front.  And now she was.  So that artist in the balcony seating that one half recognises from the showcases, perhaps they’d opened a smaller stage at 6PM, could be an award winner in a year or two.  It’s a real build them up and celebrate community spirit.  Points also touched on by the AMA-UK CEO in her speech.

Photo: J. Aird

Paul Gambaccini made mention in his introduction of Lifetime Achievement winner Mike Scott that there had been more members of The Waterboys than there have been Drifters.  Mike Scott doubled down on that stating that there had been more Waterboys than there were members of The Fall.  His song choice to perform was ‘Fisherman’s Blues‘ and it was as vibrant as it was back in 1988.

Photo: J. Aird

All that remained to do was to thank the crew and to have the ensemble of musicians reassemble on stage for ‘Amazing Grace‘, led, naturally enough, by Judy Collins.  It had been a great celebration of music from a great year of music, and to add one more – it was great to be back doing this all live and in person.  And after that was a general decamp to Oslo for the notoriously debauched after-party of which little should or could be said. Other than to acknowledge James Riley and band presenting ‘90s Nashville‘ in the upstairs venue at Oslo.  Only 12 months to go until the next one.

About Jonathan Aird 2731 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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ANDY TROTT

Lovely concise review Jonathan of what looked like a super night of well deserved awards.
I was well pleased that my friend Holly Carter picked up “U.K. Instrmentalist of the year” she has worked hard for it.

Keiron

What an amazing awards night and performance from the killer house band MD’d by Michele Stodart! Absolutely over the moon to see Hannah White pick up UK song of the year, her emotion showed just how much it meant; thoroughly deserved!

Great to also see Holly Carter pick up instrumentalist, she’s rocking it.

Top night.