What do Joan Armatrading, Judy Collins, Amy Speace and Irish Mythen have in common? That’s right: they’re all forces of nature. It’s Day One of AmericanaFest 2020 here in Hackney and the women of the world are taking over.
The legendary Joan Armatrading gives the traditional festival keynote speech to get us started (Rhiannon Giddens was prophetic in this role last year) and it’s an inspiring introduction. Taking us through her younger days when the piano was just “a good piece of furniture”, up to writing songs that would eventually lead her to a meeting with (and to sing for) Nelson Mandela, the Caribbean-born songwriting hero enjoys a standing ovation for a prescient piece on the music industry in 2020.
It’s music, after all, that brings the Americana community together and that’s the main topic of discussion when folk hero Judy Collins sits down with ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris for an ‘In Conversation’ with event next…
Over 50 albums in, and with a lifelong passion for music and activism, Judy is wonderfully engaging and cool as a cucumber when discussing the gamut of the music game and the changes she’s seen throughout her career. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Elektra Records and Jim Morrison are all discussed with an authentic candour and lightness of touch from golden-maned and golden-voiced Collins, as she discusses still playing over 100 shows a year and a belief that playing live music is what keeps her here on Earth. “Music is essential for our mental, physical and spiritual health,” she tells broadcasting legend Harris and goes on to describe her mantra of “resist and persist”.
She’s a great raconteur and there’s more than a glint in her eye when she reveals Dylan telling her in more recent days that he learned “sitting at her feet”. “I know you did,” she told him!
AMA-UK’s AmericanaFest works as a series of events, as described above, mixed with industry topics of discussion and an evening of showcase gigs. It’s a format that works well and everyone is ready to hear some live music after a day of talking about it! Luckily, Hackney’s venues are set-up and ready to go as the UK Americana community gets in position to hear some emerging talent and unsung heroes.
Indiana’s Austin Lucas is the first big draw of the night and his dramatic one-man show of minor key melodies and mournful vocals sets the scene perfectly for a great night. Newcomer Izzy Walsh’s lamenting shuffles also impress, while Elliot Brood is a harmony-drenched country riot at the Music Export Canada Showcase. Amy LaVere’s ‘Twin Peaks’ vibes pack out the room, too, before Blue Rose Code and Sam Baker bring their houses down with sets of Caledonian soul and ‘Paris, Texas’-esque talking blues respectively. Ex-Old Crow Medicine Show man Gil Landry stops time with his country ‘n’ (Nick) cave set, but it’s the bruised ballads and broadsides of the Amy Speace and Irish Mythen that steal Day One for Black Deer.
Maryland native Speace is the real deal and her set, accompanied by UK guitar hero CJ Hillman (seen playing with Yola and Billy Bragg last year in our deer park), is a real highlight. Great songs, wonderful singing and beautiful banter go a long way in this community and Speace delivers all three. The title track of her last album, ‘Me & The Ghost of Charlemagne’, is delivered at the piano and its scale puts you in mind of Bruce Springsteen’s early 1970’s shaggy dog stories. Speace stands in no shadows, however, and her set is a triumph of roots, country and gospel songs that you really need to discover.
Irish Mythen, on the other hand, is no stranger to the Black Deer audience and we bare witness to the songwriter soar during her packed showcase as she stretches out guitar chords and vowels in her own inimitable way. ‘Maria’ is a highlight, as Irish – who revealed live on Black Deer’s Instagram Stories that she was nominated for a Juno Award yesterday – tells us about her late auntie who was like a “God” to her. It was that kind of day: inspiring women telling tales to inspiring women about inspiring women.
Quote of the day:
“Music is in every fibre of my being…”
– Irish Mythen.