The annual AmericanaFest Showcases organised by the AMA-UK as part of their festival is a highlight of the year. With six venues (Moth Club, Paper Dress Vintage, Night Tales, Oslo, Hackney Social and Hackney Church Brew Co) and six artists on each stage on both evenings it’s too much for one person to see and hear it all, making judicious picking an art only slightly complicated by a couple of errors in the pocket timetable – it turned out that The Hanging Stars were not playing Paper Dress Vintage both nights – well, these things happen to the best of us. One strategy is to just stay in one place – and the Loose Showcase on Tuesday was a big temptation to do just that, as was the Ja Records showcase on the Wednesday. But somehow the wandering from venue to venue, braving the cold or the rain (or the cold and the rain, no snow this year) just seems to be part of the experience and does mean that inevitably one will see some acts that were previously unknown which is often a good thing. The prospect of the nights ahead did, at times, look like revisiting the Americana UK Tracks section but in a live arena, which is pretty cool really – seeing if all of these people who can cut it in their home studios can have the same impact in the flesh. Here’s the first fence-sitting spoiler – the answer is generally yes. In the end not all six venues got even a fleeting visit – Night Tales and The Hackney Social just couldn’t be fitted in despite featuring the likes of Simeon Hammond Dallas, Suzie Ungerleider, St. Catherines Child, and Madison Violet.
Our first stop was to see Our Atlantic Roots in Hackney Church Brew. The Yorkshire meets North Carolina duo who are based in Cornwall brought their sweet harmonies and sweet lyrics to London for, possibly, just their second time. A pleasant blend of folk and country with songs like ‘Autumn Leaves‘ and ‘Wildflowers‘ leaning on metaphors from the natural world to describe emotional states, the first thinking about finding love in a difficult time and the latter a more upbeat description of love as a pairing of flowers. A nice way to start that more than filled the time until Native Harrow at Paper Dress Vintage.
There’s a full review of the Loose shows here, so suffice to say that this was a perfect set drawing mostly from the latest album ‘Old Kind Of Magic‘ which saw the three piece Native Harrow in great form, with Devon Teul’s vocals just perfect throughout. And to save a bit of time, second spoiler – against expectations it did prove possible to later push back in to the crowded room for The Sadies and they were everything one could have hoped for, and more. Them being so damned good just makes the tragic early loss of Dallas Good even more poignant.
On the way to Canada House at Moth Club it was possible to make a quick detour to a somewhat empty Oslo for a couple of songs from the folk-rock of Izzie Walsh. It’s a band that includes banjo and mandolin but the feel of their use is more Irish folk than bluegrass. Izzie Walsh is a self-effacing performer, and a great singer.
Catherine MacLellan’s set at Moth Club showed off her finger-picking skills on a traditional sounding tune that can best be described as a jig. Before and after this she played songs from her new album ‘Coyote‘ which she explained is half about a break-up and half about new love. ‘Out of Time‘ was definitely one of the former, a country-tinged slow ballad steeped in regrets.
Lawrence Maxwell – like Catherine Maclellan – hailing from Prince Edward Island, had a set based on his most recent album ‘Ballad of Miles‘ which veered between the jokey and the serious. ‘Happy Little Life‘ details all the little concessions in a relationship which go to make up a life of compatibility – even when there’s “fussing” and “fighting“, whilst ‘Ballad of Miles‘ is a reflection on carrying on even when things aren’t going too well, and dealing with life’s unpleasant surprises “he vows to never take life for granted / things can change from the way that you planned it / Life can just slip away like grain through your hand.”
So the Sadies had been wonderful – a full on half hour that started fast and never slowed up. There was still time to catch just one more set before calling it a night on Tuesday and so it was back to Hackney Church Brew for Lizzie No. Rotating song by song between acoustic guitar and harp – including a short period of retuning for the latter device – Lizzie No kept up a stream of songs and between song discussion points. ‘Pity Party‘ is a self-deprecating take on the problems of getting a break in the music business – with it seeming like every night is another attempt to win over an audience who have no idea who you are. It also, though, reflects that the opportunities do mean that she is in a real sense living the dream. Her modern folk credentials shone through on ‘The Mountaineer‘, which captures nature in song and reflects on the challenges of the wilderness as a means to keep one’s feet firm on the ground. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. All things being equal, Lizzie No is a name you’ll be hearing more and more often in the coming years.
Wednesday night could have been spent quite happily in Paper Dress Vintage for the Ja Records/Die With Your boots On Records showcases but then there was Julian Taylor at Moth Club, one of the “must sees” from the first announcement of musicians playing the showcase event. Starting then at Paper Dress with Ole Kirkeng who more than impressed. With a band that fuzzed and popped in all the right ways – and would surely have appealed to fans of, say, the Hanging Stars – Ole Kirkeng started by addressing love on the insanely catchy ‘Double Shift’. There’s more love on the pedal steel drenched ‘Million Miles‘, which Courtney Marie Andrews sang on for the studio recording (Ole Kirkeng plays bass in her band). A change of pace was a new song performed solo with just acoustic guitar – which took an amused look at falling in love in unusual places and included a daring rhyming of “idea” with “Ikea”. There’s a touch of humour on the unrequited love song ‘Still On My Mind’ which also served as an opportunity to close the set with a band workout.
This set had also featured lead guitarist Sander Eriksen Nordahl who would turn up in several bands as the night progressed – and immediately with the barefooted Signe Marie Rustad who took things into a more sensitive singer-songwriter direction with a set of songs of love, beds borrowed and opportunities taken…and missed. ‘Particles of Faith’ is the title song of her new album and it is, she says, “not a party song.” No, but it is a delicate finger-picked acoustic guitar and solo vocal song which argues that good things can – in a cosmic sense – come your way. The band on stage are the band that Rustad records with and are, she mentions, a big part of forming her sound. It’s a sound that can feel like it is channelling a nature spirit, and it’s a sound that sometime dips into, paradoxically, an optimistic despair as when Rustad sings “help me come clean / I’m strung out abut hopeful / Just like when I was seventeen.”
Moving to Moth Club there was just time to catch the last couple of songs from the quite country in every way The Hello Darlins, prior to hearing Julian Taylor’s showcase set.
Julian Taylor appeared solo for his first ever European performance, and started out with the only song not taken from his recent two solo albums (‘The Ridge‘ and ‘Beyond the Reservoir‘). ‘Desert Star (who could ask for anything more)‘ is a love song to life wrapped up in a ball of confusion as Taylor sings “am I winning? Am I losing? I don’t even know the score/ There’s too much of everything who could ask for anything more.” It certainly fits in with Taylor’s world view that life should be experienced and enjoyed and that dwelling solely on the bad is not such a good stance. Which is not to say that he is blind to injustice.
Moving to his newer more autobiographical material, Julian Taylor introduced ‘The Ridge‘ by explaining his background as someone of both Mohawk and Caribbean descent, and ‘The Ridge‘ is a loving portrait of time spent with his Mohawk grandparents and how this imbued him with a strong attachment to the natural world. In stark contrast ‘Murder 13‘ is a story of a friend of Taylor’s who was the 13th murder in Toronto the year he was killed – it’s made all the more poignant by the scene setting introduction. ‘SEEDS‘ is Taylor’s catchiest song and rails against the persecution of both sides of his ancestry “they tried to bury us – but they didn’t know we were seeds” he sings, celebrating the strength required to survive this.
‘Ballad of a Young Troubadour‘ is very much Taylor’s own story – the promise he alludes to in the lyrics he explains was to his parents that he wouldn’t head too far south within the USA. It’s not only a great song, but it’s also one that Julian Taylor succeeds in getting some audience participation on. The much too soon set closer ‘Opening the Sky‘ is advice that Taylor would like to pass on to his daughter, and was in part inspired by a recent, and quite serious, car accident which left him wondering what would happen if he just wasn’t around to tell her in person. The explanation added an extra layer to a song that encourages both politeness and standing up for oneself, as well as being proud of who you are.
Following on from that memorable set there was a chance to catch a few songs from different bands before heading back again to Paper Dress Vintage. Whitehorse lean heavily into the classic male-female country duos – think of your favourite and you’d probably hear a resonance here. And in a still sparsely attended Oslo Gareth Dunlop was full on rock for songs like ‘100 Years’ which puts all life into perspective – whatever you do, no-one will recall in 100 years. He also took a turn at slower songs to show off his pandemic developed keyboard skills.
Photo: J. Aird
Back once more in Paper Dress Vintage there were two remaining showcases from the vibrant Nordicana scene. Darling West (Fronted by Mari Kreken and Tor Egil Krekan) take some inspiration from a more Laurel Canyon / Fleetwood Mac end of the Americana multi-axes spectrum, and ‘Oh Love‘ from their upcoming new album is a prime example of this – who says Americana can’t be dancable? ‘River‘ is the band’s “love song to nature“, and is marked by Mari Kreken’s vocals which tremble with vibrato. New song ‘Wild Dreams‘ by contrast sees Darling West heading in the direction of psychedelia with Tor Egil Krekan adding a distorted banjo sound which gives an almost Eagles-ish feel to this celebratory song which was written (but is not about) in a jacuzzi. Rock and roll. Closer ‘Light Ahead‘ took things into a funkier groove.
On a fashion note – and if you’ve ever seen the Americana UK staff on parade then you’ll know that fashion is our number two priority after music [an outrageous slur Jon! – Ed] – it has to be said that Paper Dress Vintage was the house of slacks. Apart from Malin Pettersen – whose choice of stage wear was…striking, and encouraged a few to make the kind of comments that frankly we thought we’d seen the back of amongst the socially progressive audience we’ve come to expect from the Americana crowd (Jeez guys, this is 2023 not 1973). Pettersen didn’t look particularly impressed but it didn’t affect her performance. Malin Pettersen keeps her audience on their toes, as she can be very country, then really quite rock, then heartbroken impassioned singer-songwriter. ‘Cry‘ is a new song that plays to the singer-songwriter in her nature – it’s a song about acceptance and understanding that one can cry without that being a weakness. ‘California‘ and ‘Arkansas‘ – her partial tour of the States – go for, unsurprisingly, a dreamy Laural Canyon vibe and a more upbeat country-rock feel respectively.
And this was the last call before the unrefusable attraction of the second-to-last train out of Hackney Central. What a couple of nights it had been – with two showcases which could easily have been attended for the whole night without feeling that one had really missed out – Loose have some great bands and as to Ja Records, well it’s the same with the finest of Nordicana, and it’d be great to see those bands in particular make some more UK appearances, two or three of them together would make for a great gig. Just a thought, eh?