It goes without saying that the annual AmericanaFest Showcases organised by the AMAUK as part of their Conference is always a highlight of the year. With four venues (Moth Club, Paper Dress Vintage, Night Tales, Oslo) and five stages – Night Tales had a large room as Stage 1 and a smaller sidebar Stage 2 – and with half a dozen bands and singers appearing on each stage, it’s a hoo-wee of a difficult choice to decide where to go and what to catch. With the stages running to two timetables – Night Tales Stage 2 and Oslo started at 6:15 with half hour sets and twenty minute changeovers whilst the other venues had the same slots but started at 6PM – it’s actually possible to catch the start and end of sets whilst reserving whole half hours for the “must sees.” It turned out, when the running order was announced, that there was a must see on each night – Lizzie No on Tuesday and Margo Cilker giving a double length showcase at Paper Dress Vintage on the Wednesday. Which by no means suggests that there were not riches in abundance throughout the evenings – let’s just say there were evening closers like Michelle Stodart, John Smith, Sara Petite, and Dustbowl Revival. No, it’s not lack of other attractions – it’s just a good idea to have a couple of lodestones to guide one through the event. Because there are always the discoveries – the unexpected, the half hour when there’s no-one really familiar and you either stay where you are or try another stage just for a change of scene, and by so doing find a short set that blows you away. Let’s mention Villages right now, they were a maybe and wow what a maybe they were.
Events got going on Tuesday night after a rapid stop to pick up the Showcase wristband (well done AMAUK in using one that could be taken off overnight!) at Night Tales and a brief look in on Niall McCabe on Night Tales 1 for the last couple of songs of his set. With a voice that has a hint of Paul Brady in it, Niall McCabe from Clare Island, Co.Mayo has a new album ‘Rituals‘ which takes a more folky path but with a full band behind him he featured songs such as the countryish, and with a sing-a-long chorus, ‘Your Letter‘ which tells of a man too afraid to read the “Dear John” letter he’s been left.
Night Tales 1 was quite a cavernous room , but just next door in the cosier bar setting could be found Bristol based American born Ben Jordan, a warmly engaging singer-songwriter with songs that celebrated life – with a train of thought leading from holy words to the highest sanctity of all, love, of course. He has a new album that is definitely upcoming in 2024. At one point he supported loyalty to his stage with a shout out for Lizzie No, expressing surprise she’d be on such a small stage. It’s true, that was strange.
Heading out into the night for the first leg of the rubber band being stretched hither and thither portion of the evening, and a first visit to Canada House at its now traditional home of Moth Club. Quote The Raven are from Newfoundland and so of all Canadians they’d had the longest journey to get to Hackney. They are a country leaning duo, whose songs have a strong feel for familial links and celebrating what one has in life over whatever riches have remained out of reach. ‘Hope‘ proffers the simple wish to always be together, with the unspoken subtext that this won’t be possible. ‘Lovers Do‘ was introduced as a homage to early influences such as The Mamas and The Papas, with a concentration on vocal harmonies. Songs such as ‘Living on Borrowed Time’ and ‘You’re Already Gone‘, which anticipates a breakup that just requires the declaration to make the fact of being over a matter of record, could have brought the mood down but fortunately the evening’s hosts had decided to order in free pizza…
Bouncing back out and heading for Oslo, a large venue which is often strangely empty on these evenings, it was possible to find the complete contrast to the quite country harmonies of Quote the Raven in the form of Daniel Kemish and his band who were putting out some high energy – and higher volume – with their roots-rock sound. A proper guitar band touching on “blue collar” topics – with songs about getting it from the man, and about smuggling moonshine across the border during prohibition; and everything lit up with some powerful harmonica playing by Portuguese multi-instrumentalist Tercio Freire who is a passionate and enthusiastic musician who, he explained a few nights later, plays a variety of instruments and in a range of styles and, of course, predominantly for harmonica in the Blues. An excellent set, which put a spring in the step for a rapid return to Moth Club.
Irish Mythen is one of those singers who attracts the force of nature comments – a really powerful voice – and whose self-deprecating humour conceals a commanding stage presence. Really, you’ll not be looking elsewhere or thinking stray thoughts when Irish Mythen is addressing you in speech or song. Her set opened with the passionate love song ‘The Dancer‘, followed up with the statement that riches is not all that life is about of ‘Four Walls‘. How to describe Irish Mythen? – non-schmaltz country, passion, honest are three phrases that come to mind. ‘Let Them In‘ was an old song that she’d thought would have a short shelf life of topicality, but it seems that refugees are still a hot topic. Sung as someone who had emigrated to Canada. Her acapella rendition of ‘The Old Triangle‘ encouraged some chorus singing and closed the set in style.
By this time there was a little over half an hour before Lizzie No back at Night Tales, so a strategic double pin hit allowed for a couple of songs by Dominie Hooper at a still pretty empty Oslo and Bobbie at a nicely full Paper Dress Vintage. Dominie Hooper on electric guitar was backed by bass and drums, producing an appealing electric folk sound on ‘Dandelion‘ with its imagery of leaving with a direction as unknown as wind blown seeds. The gently swaying ‘Robin‘ was introduced as being about many things – growing up on Dartmoor, Christmas, family, love and queerness and how all these things leave their marks in different ways.
Over at Paper Dress Vintage Bobbie offered up some singer-songwriter material very much in a traditional vein with lyrics exploring emotional issues, worries, anxieties and broken love – all coupled with beautiful vocals. Bobbie introduced herself as from Paris “but I sing in English“. It was certainly music that deserved a longer listen, but, well, there was this siren call of Lizzie No. Bobbie is releasing her debut album later this year.
To some extent it certainly felt like things had been building to this point all evening, Lizzie No at Night Tales 2 and with the fulfilled anticipation that she would be showcasing her well received album ‘Halfsies.‘ Now three albums into her career Lizzie No is building a following for her distinctive blend of folk and singer-songwriter material, marked out by her use of guitar and harp – instruments which she frequently changes between during this short set. There’s an authority in her vocals, a deserved confidence in her lyrics – oh, and her voice is sweet enough to charm the birds. Accompanied by Will Green on guitar, Lizzie No was dazzling on ‘Deadbeat‘ with words tripping forth to harp accompaniment “I’m a deadbeat dead ringer for a bad luck man / oh I’m dead set on doing better than my daddy ever did” as Lizzie No deftly blends together doubts, ambition, and luck in love. It’s a gorgeous song, as is the perfect folk-pop of ‘Heartbreak Store‘ with its letting go of memories as love evaporates – “So if you’re hurting, crying, lying on the bedroom floor / Come on down to the Heartbreak Store / Bring your memories; his house keys can’t stay on the ring no more / Sell ’em all at the Heartbreak Store.” In a sensible world you’d know this one well from the radio. ‘Sleeping In The Next Room‘ is the sound of not-sleeping, staring at the ceiling and thinking about how it all went wrong “I’m afraid to tell you / I’m not who I was / You’re sleeping in the next room’/ I’m falling out of love.” If you get the chance to catch her live in the coming months take it, it can’t be long until Lizzie No is going to be on substantially larger stages.
Rather than dash off again it seemed sensible to take the opportunity of a short non-musical interlude whilst waiting for the next person on the same stage – which was Jenny Owen Youngs, fresh from opening for the Milk Carton Kids just a couple of days earlier and she reprised much of the same set in her half-hour allocation. ‘Avalanche‘ is a real grower of a song, it sounds better on every hearing as does the slightly swampy ‘Everglades‘ and the invitation to weightless abandon of ‘Graviton.’
And then there was just time to get back to Moth Club to catch the closing band, Villages, from Cape Breton Island. They say they are a four piece – electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin and lead vocals, but certainly on this night there was also a drummer. They took the stage clearly with the intention of taking no prisoners and launched into the liveliest performance I’d manage to catch so far. They brought an electric power to their folk-rock set with lead singer Matt Ellis putting everything into his breathless performance. Standing still was not an option – this was infectious music and there was actual dancing in the room. It was hard to catch actual lyrics, but that didn’t matter so much as the passion in the music was infectious – and a sound something like a blend of early Fairport, Trembling Bells and the Oysterband in their early Oyster Ceilidh Band incarnation. And yes, a bit of punk energy that did call to mind the Pogues. Blend all that together and you have a band that actually has their own sound and a hell of a lot of fire in their playing. Exhilarating and a fabulous way to close the first night of Canada House.
And really that should have been it – just a stroll back to the station and head for home. But maybe Villages went on a little early – or off a little early, or maybe Sara Petite was allowed longer on stage. Whichever it was a quick duck into Paper Dress Vintage did provide the chance to catch the closer of her set ‘The Misfits‘ with its musicians as outlaws chorus: “We are the misfits / We are the ones / We are the rebels With the smoking guns / We are the outlaw / We are the thieves / We’ll steal your heart with a broken melody.” By all accounts this had been an excellent hard rocking set, and on this evidence it’s easy to believe. What a night it had been – and there was the chance to do it all again the next evening.