Unbelievably the Americana Festival celebrates its tenth year and it’s incredible to think of the number of fantastic artists that have graced the indoor and outdoor stages. This mighty roll call includes incredible names like Dr John, The Jayhawks, Randy Newman, Guy Clarke, Giant Sand, Mark Lanagan, Richmond Fontaine, Lucinda Williams, Booker T, and Jakob Dylan. Only three years ago Tom Russell played a storming set on the outdoor stage that made him a bone fide star right here in Newcastle making sure that all his shows to date have been instant sell outs every time he plays in North East. To celebrate the tenth birthday a couple of the festivals most famous and legendary friends are returning, as well as the pick of the new crop of breakthrough acts.
Amongst the artists taking to the stages this year at the Sage Gateshead between 17 – 19 July will be the great Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell who delivered a fantastic show at the Sage in support of their ‘Old Yellow Moon’ album in 2013. Emmylou & Rodney scarcely need any introduction from me as their track record, solo and together, stretches right back to the early 70’s. Emmylou has made many classic records and over the years she has played with the likes of Gram Parsons, Mark Knopfler, James Burton, Linda Rondstadt and Dolly Parton and happily her wonderful voice remains untouched by the ravages of time. Rodney Crowell’s career may not have been as high profile but having great albums like ‘Sex & Gasoline’ and ‘The Outsider’ has ensured he is very highly regarded and has been overloaded with awards and accolades.
The Traveling Kind by Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Rodney Crowell was married to Roseanne Cash at one point. Roseanne herself makes her return to the Sage headlining on Saturday, marking five years since her last appearance on the banks of the Tyne. She has pulled off the almost impossible trick of stepping out of the gigantic shadow of her father Johnny, to make this very welcome and highly anticipated return and will no doubt be playing a set featuring a slew of classic tunes alongside cuts from her latest album ‘The River and the Thread’ that won three Grammy awards last year.
The Wheel by Roseanne Cash
Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham may not be household names but they were back room boys on dozens of great soul classics Dan Penn’s writing credits read like a soul jukebox and he often works with his friend Spooner Oldham. Penn was behind many hits like James Carr’s ‘The Dark End of the Street’ (memorably covered by Richard Thompson, Peter Green and Elvis Costello) Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Man, Do Right Woman’; Percy Sledge’s ‘It Tears Me Up’; Otis Redding’s ‘You Left The Water Running’; James and Bobby Purify’s ‘I’m Your Puppet’. If that isn’t enough you can hear Oldham’s spectral organ on the late Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’.
The Shires, despite only being together for a couple of years are gaining a reputation as a wonderful live act with their particular English take of Americana magic. They are a duo made up of Crissie Rhodes and Ben Earle. Crissie cut her teeth at weddings, pubs and clubs performing songs by Dolly Parton. Her musical influences include Alison Krauss, Martina McBride and Faith Hill. I suspect that this is the first time we’ve had an X-Factor competitor at the Americana Festival but Crissie made some progress in the 2013 UK series of The X Factor. Ben has been plying his trade as a solo artist supporting KT Tunstall on tour. Since joining forces as The Shires though they have made some real progress and I’m certain that after this appearance they are destined for great things.
Nashville Grey Skies by The Shires
Naomi Shelton and The Gospel Queens have already put out a three excellent albums and their latest, ‘It’s a Cold, Cold World’, has attracted great reviews and strong sales. Hundreds of new artists rear their heads every year, each struggling in vain to distinguish themselves from the rest with the gimmicks and novelties of the latest radio fads. However, rarely will an artist come along that can transcend the boxes and boundaries of our musical landscape with nothing but the pure soulfulness of her voice. Naomi and the Queens deliver stirring powerful gospel music and will no doubt have the joint jumping. The McCrary Sisters work in a similar area and have been touring the USA to packed houses and have supported Bob Dylan on occasional shows.
There’s no doubt that Gruff Rhys, front man with the Welsh band Super Furry Animals, will raise some eyebrows with his ‘American Interior’ one man show. It tells the story of one John Evans, a distant relative of Gruff’s, and a daring and intrepid trip across the American hinterland in the 1790’s in search of a mythical lost Welsh tribe. It was a trip that didn’t end well but I don’t want to spoil the ending – see the show It’s a show that features low-fi video screens and images, placards, strange instruments and a three foot high manakin – miss this show at your peril.
American Interior by Gruff Rhys
The Felice Brothers (unfortunately on at the same time as Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell) have been likened to The Band and it’s a worthy comparison as they play similar rootsy country/folk music with gutsy playing and fantastic songs filled with almost mythical characters. I hope that they play ‘Chicken Wire’ from their classic album ‘Yonder Is The Clock’ simply because it’s a truly fantastic song. They will be supported on the night by the excellent Pierce Brothers.
James Hunter has been out there playing for nearly three decades now and he has an enviable, almost secret, reputation amongst those who know him. Hunter’s career began with a band called ‘Howlin’ Wilf and the Vee-Jays,’ who were well known for their stompin’ live shows. They put out their first album way back in 1986 entitled ‘Cry Wilf’ ( geddit?) He spent much of the 1990s building up his fearsome live reputation playing small clubs in London, such as the Weavers Pub in Islington (North London), and the 100 Club on Oxford Street in London. Hunter’s soulful style drew the attention of Van Morrison, who appeared on Hunter’s first album released on Ace, ‘Believe What I Say’, in 1996. (Morrison sang backing vocals on ‘Turn On Your Love Light’ and ‘Ain’t Nothing You Can Do’.) A move to the States in 2004 helped his career to at last start to take off. Hunter’s first solo release in the United States, his 2006 breakthrough album ‘People Gonna Talk’, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album at the 49th Grammy Awards ceremony. He comes to the 2015 Americana festival with the James Hunter Six – Lee Badau (baritone saxophone), Damian Hand (tenor saxophone), Jonathan Lee (drums), Jason Wilson (double bass), and Kyle Koehler and Andrew Kingslow sharing keyboard/piano duties. The Six have delivered multiple albums and more than two decades of international touring developing a cohesion and intuitive knack for creating precisely the right arrangement and feel for James’ original songs. This show is tailor made for Hunter and will, no doubt, be a real highlight of this very strong bill.
Chicken Switch by The James Hunter Six
Another newer act that are likely to be very well received are Ward Thomas, an attractive duo made up of twin sisters Catherine & Lizzy, who released their debut album ‘From Where We Stand’ in 2014. They’ve been attracting a great deal of interest up and down the country and will certainly be a one to watch over the next twelve months.
There’s far too many acts to mention in great detail but get to the outdoor early each day for a superb array of talent on the excellent Jumping & Hot Club stage that will include Gilded Thieves, The Bevvy Sisters, Red Sky July an Alt-county twang and gorgeous harmonies and beautiful melodies, Norrie McCulloch a Scottish alt-country/folk singer-songwriter, and Chloe Chadwick a country singer-songwriter with a lyrically captivating and unique sound.
A decade on I hope that we all feel privileged to have such a fantastic complement of talent spread over three days at this wonderful venue. Let’s hope that the sun shines and we can all grab a cold beer, ram a Stetson on and pull up a chair – it’s the Summertyne Americana Festival 2015 – Whoooeeeeeee!
Previewer: Greg Johnson