Americana UK 2008 Report of the SXSW Festival
Kilkenny 2008 by Maurice Hope
Once again I was off over to Kilkenny in the south-east of Ireland, and after the poor weather back home I was hoping for better things and with Friday the first day of the festival a near perfect day weather wise welcomed my arrival.
Bathed in spring sunshine and with expectations high of a festival that has been a permanent fixture in the Irish (and beyond) music calendar since it began in 1998 — the adrenaline was soon pumping once I re-acquainted myself with old friends.
Like in previous years where you have had Alejandro Escovedo, Buddy Miller, Dave Alvin, Robbie Fulks, Hem, Scott Miller, Terry Allen, Ryan Adams, Paul Burch, Eliza Gilkyson, Ollabelle and making a return visit, Grammy winner Tim O’Brien the event attracts quality Americana acts and has a wonderful history.
However, that is the past and we are living the present where Americana music and its acts are going from strength to strength since it is them who are making the most authentic music.
Searching out the roots of our forbears, non-more so than O’Brien who over the years has become a regular visitor to there shores [since, as a young man he learnt his trade listening to music of Ireland and the British Isles] and took part in last autumn’s acclaimed Transatlantic Sessions.
However, his sole appearance at the festival wasn’t one steeped in Celtic or even bluegrass, but a mix of American music alongside a few gracious concessions to his past recordings.
As he delivered a rousing version of A Mountaineer Is Always Free from his album, The Crossing — plus from the Transatlantic Sessions, Brother Wind and from his album, Traveler a song that he wrote with Ray Bonneville [Forty-Nine Keep On Talking]
Written after the two singer-songwriters / musicians had taken a trip down to Mississippi it saw O’Brien joined by Bonneville [harmonica] on it and a couple more songs. Working On A Building that dates back to when they performed in different bands in Colorado being another, and where like always O’Brien shone.
Yet, it was Tim’s airing of material from his album Chameleon where the bulk of his selections came, and to round out a performance where he appeared more relaxed than I have ever seen him — the stories behind the title cut [Chameleon], Get Out There And Dance and Magna’s [the grocery truck song] coupled with the jaunty Father Forgive Me saw O’Brien deliver one of the finest shows of the festival.
The competition was fierce too, since Sam Baker was in great form when he stepped out onto the same Clubhouse Concert stage. Chatham County Line who brought to the marble city an equally vibrant and finely honed mix of new style bluegrass but traditional rooted also found one of the more airy venues to their liking.
Baker may be a new hand at the recording game and just finding his feet as a performer, but he is learning fast that his audience are only interested in him being honest with his songs. Delivered in a semi-monologue fashion his stories paint vivid painted images in mind of the listener, he has after all been described as being a mix of court jester, Raymond Carver and Woody Guthrie.
Sam was the find of the festival for those not lucky enough to catch him while he was over on the mainland late last year. Even those, myself included who did were amazed at the ease in which he performed, accompanied only by his own guitar and harmonica he eased himself through a batch of songs from his two albums, Mercy and Pretty World. With requests raining down on him from the off Baker had won the audience over and not even struck a chord never mind a song.
Unfazed by the demand, his hair unkempt and a day or more growth of facial hair he just took in his stride as he spoke of his first time in Ireland. Where he joked about among other things, Ireland’s rainbow season. It mattered little whether he was delivering the story ballads Odessa, Orphan, his epic Broken Fingers [inspired by his miraculous escape when the train he was travelling in South America was the victim of a terrorist bomb; killing those sitting opposite him], Pretty World, Waves or a fabulous new song concerning Mennonites every one was a winner.
The new song nicely whets the appetite of his fans already marking off the days till the release of his next album. With the shows held in a host of venues and all within easy walking distance of one another the spirit around Kilkenny where, on an evening people spilled onto the street and on afternoon into beer gardens —as bars, upstairs rooms, concert rooms in some of the hotels plus the Watergate and Cleeres [a small room at the rear of the public bar] Theatre hosted not only the paid gigs but acts from the UK and Ireland. As rock country, blues rockabilly, bluegrass and even a Johnny Cash tribute band, Strictly Cash hit town.
It was a case of little sleep as late nights became early mornings and breakfast was taken at mid-day as the Guinness flowed freely, and the boys in the Chatham County Line saw to it that they got their share. Before they headed over for some dates in the UK, and where they appeared on Jools Holland’s Later Show and if anyone deserved being thrust into the spotlight it is the entertainers on North Carolina record label, Yep Roc
For they came to Ireland without any hype, just a reputation of being the real deal; their song The Carolinian from their new album [1V] is as good as it gets, and with Chip Of A Star, the energy powered Whipping Boy and melancholy One More Minute (where live, it became a truly epic affair] from the album the boys showed how good this kind of music can be. For, despite the compact stage and sharing the one microphone the band switched lead instrument with great dexterity and how the crowd loved their efforts. Martha Scanlan who was supported by bluegrass musicians Trevor and Travis Stuart had recently been deputising for Amy Helm in the band Ollabelle, while the latter took time off on having a baby may not have the pipes of some but she has guts.
Working her socks off, squeezing every ounce out of the songs she gave excellent value through the renditions of material from her album The West Was Burning (Sugar Hill), James Cleveland’s Get Right Church, Bob Dylan’s Went To See The Gypsy and her own funky Walkin’ that more than any other proved that she is the business.
When I walked in for the Fred Eaglesmith show I did not know expect, but was soon to find out — since for the next 90 minutes he sang, told jokes and showed his audience that there are few who can hold a candle him as an entertainer. He saw the opportunity and grabbed it, and through his new album Tinderbox (Sonic Rendezvous) blew us all away with the likes of Shoulder To The Plough, the swirling, an impassioned Get On Your Knees and on bringing the feel of old fashioned southern Baptist ministry, Fancy God — he blazed a trail like a fire across a ripe cornfield!
Canadian Eaglesmith shook the place with his songs and the dirty guitar sound he delivered, where, in turn his band featuring drums songs telling of shooting a neighbour’s dog, boarding a runaway train and watch the horses get spooked.
Swedish trio Baskery [three sisters] did them selves a power of good over the weekend too as they played three gigs, not least being due to their lunchtime slot at Cleeres [Sunday).
Where, the accomplished musicians who between them play upright bass, guitar and slide and banjo stormed the place. Delivering music that was a combination of traditional folk blues merged with country blues, fuelled with a vibrant, fresh attitude that can rock saw the blonde, good looking [is there any other] Swedes win over a host of new fans.
Plugging their debut album, Fall Among Thieves leader Greta Bondesson [banjo, resonator guitar, harp] joined by her sisters, Sunniva [upright bass] and Sunniva [guitar] drove hard throughout, thrilling the audience with the hard driving One Horse Down, Out-Of-Towner, the restless and extremely good mining song Here To Pay My Dues, where with slap bass and close harmonies to the fore the music all but exploded.
With one day merging with the next, and schedules clashing, something had to give. The first casualty was Tift Merritt [but saw a couple of weeks later], who had slide player Clive Barnes open for her were acts I would have liked to see.
Especially since they were on at the Watergate, and where on July 24th Iris DeMent is booked, another great coup for Kilkenny by the man who started the Rhythm & Roots Festival (but has since handed over the reins to John Cleere); Roscrea booking agent and record shop owner, Tom Stapleton.
The Tom Fun Orchestra and Hillbilly Casino who I heard but briefly (free acts Two Time Polka, Elvis Fontentot And the Sugarbees can also be added to the list) likewise sneaked under the radar.
Of those who didn’t, wind down day (Monday) produced two memorable gigs, while the third and the one to close the festival from Edinburgh’s Wynntown Marshalls who opened and Chuck Prophet and his band, The Mission Express missed the mark for me.
Sure they rocked, but it was a case of one song running into another hence I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t for an evening of cranked up music in a crowded bar. Yet, they were still serving frothy pints of Guinness and as ever — the atmosphere was great.
However, I have jumped ahead of myself, since the fabulous Eilen Jewell and her band and Malcolm Holcombe were to respectively play at the Pumphouse and Cleeres. Up first before an audience of all ages, Jewell accompanied by electric lead guitar, slap bass and percussion delivered music awash in both rockabilly and west coast country guitar. Jerry Miller told me afterwards he was greatly influenced by the playing of Roy Nichols leader of Merle Haggard’s Strangers, as for Jason Beck, drums and Johnny Sciascia, bass they too were awesome.
Music to die for such being the groove the band supplied, and with such a natural sound featuring songs from her two albums and some borrowed gems they hit the spot.
Non more so than her haunting cover of Eric Anderson’s Dusty Boxcar Wall, If You Catch Me Stealing (Bessie Smith) and on sounding like Lucinda Williams Charlie Rich’s Thanks A Lot (all found on her current album, Letters From Strangers & Sinners), Back To Dallas alongside those from country’s Loretta Lynn, Fist City and George Jones’ Tag Along With Jesus plus, blues act Sleep John Estes’ Drop Dead Daddy. A show not to be missed for Eilen Jewell is an artist very much in the ascendency.
Meanwhile, Malcolm Holcombe has few illusions about seeing demand for him going through the roof, but is still picking up covers by the likes wonderful song interpreter Maura O’Connell and with the likes of Not Forgotten (2006) making terrific albums.
On stepping up on stage and scurrying around as he set up his acoustic guitar and sat himself comfortably on a bar stool Malcolm by his erratic movements looked like he had lived on the edge for a good part of his life and it had taken it’s toll. As for his music, it was brilliant. His songs had the audience stood in awe, listening to every line and when it came for him to go, they were thirsting for more and, yes — they were correct too.
For he was in top form as such songs as Sparrows And Sparrows, Not Forgotten, and the fantastic, mellow and poignant reflective ode Where Is My Garden came from the stage, and it did not stop there.
He had lots more, between his stories (and referring to ‘butt naked women’); you have some acts who are all organised and predictable to the point of being boring, but Malcolm his hair untidy and old pair of boots worn down at the heels. Partly due to him stomping down hard on stage as he digs out a gritty groove, and his rough edged vocals deliver one of his many wonderful songs.