When Patrick Stewart and Simon Mayo mooched past me in the queue I could see a few of the Americana old guard checking their tickets to make sure they were at the right place. The Hackney Empire, the hallowed Victorian music hall, the only charm left on the Mare Street bracelet in the heart of one of London’s poorest boroughs, was certainly an impressive location for the third year of the Americana Music Association UK’s (AMAUK) music awards show. Funneled into our seats the atmosphere was one of excitement and disbelief. As lights dipped I acknowledged a longtime gig-going regular sitting a few rows back. He looked at me as if to say, ‘I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore!”
What the AMAUK have achieved in these last couple of years would be pretty extraordinary in any genre. That it has happened in a genre that until recently wasn’t even really seen as a genre is truly remarkable. Last night’s show has to be applauded both in terms of sheer dogged determination and fight from the likes of Stevie Freeman (CEO) and the incredible hard work of the whole team around her to not only form an organization but to get it recognized and supported in such numbers and add that celebrity chutzpah to what is seen to many as old man’s music. As Whispering Bob Harris strode to the podium to begin proceedings, adorned in a three-quarter length Nashvillian suit, those days of standing amongst ten people watching some Kentuckian at The Weavers seemed a distant memory for a couple of hours at least.
All the trimmings aside, it’s still the music that holds centre stage on the night and is ultimately what any such event should be judged on. A number of excellent performances held beautifully together by the Buddy Miller-esque Ethan Johns – a guitar player who never overplays anything, compliments everything and has a tone that if bottled would be sold for a kings’ ransom on Denmark Street – entertained the full house.
Robert Vincent, 2016’s Bob Harris Emerging Artist Of The Year, opened up the night with a nine-piece band. I joked with him afterwards he’d need to save up every penny if he wanted to take those on the road with him. Not many singers have a voice strong enough to fill the Empire. Vincent not only did that, his voice even seeped out onto the wet London streets.
The Worry Dolls (main image), regulars on the root scene these last few years, did a fine job and looked more than some at home on such a huge stage.
A sharp intake of breath from my entire row accompanied Imelda May‘s melancholic performance on what where skyscraper heels whilst Emily Barker‘s sparse, contemplative display clearly has strong support in the aisles. She’s fast becoming the scene’s own Kate Rusby in terms of audience endearment.
Angaleena Presley brought some Nashville glamour and grit with her Wrangled whilst Decca’s new darlings The Wandering Hearts are seemingly charming everyone in their wake including Mr Harris who awarded them this year’s Emerging Artist Award. Their four-part harmonies and melodies would soften even the sternest of hearts.
Ohio’s Aaron Lee Tasjan (left image) strode on like he owned the place. Five minutes later he did. This kid could be anything. Think Ryan Adams guzzling neat malt crate-digging through Jack White’s record collection. It’s country, but not as we know it. Courtney Marie Andrews, whose star has been in a rapid ascendancy these past twelve months, underlined why so many think she is the next big thing. Her rendition of Table For One was, alongside Tasjan, my favourite of the night. I’d be in the minority though if you were to judge by audience reaction alone. Certainly, the biggest cheers came for the big guns, Mumford & Sons and Robert Plant, whose inclusion on the night clearly attributed to a lot of bums on seats.
Now, I have to admit a wry smile crossed my face as the place erupted after the Mumford’s fine acoustic version of ‘Sister.’ With ‘The Banjo Wars’ still fresh in the memory, a lot of this very crowd was dug deep in the trenches of authenticity fighting against what they saw as a middle-class hipster assault on everything they held dear. Now, a lot of those same people are on their feet stomping their brogues. Its funny how things change, right? I guess its time to move on. Cleary the AMA UK think so as the band were awarded the Trailblazer Award on the night.
Plant, the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award was in truly great form. His words on likes of Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt and all the other “voices’ he had chased his entire musical life clearly came straight from the heart. With his band, The Sensational Shape Shifters, he tore through Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down and the aforementioned Leadbelly’s Gallows Pole – Joined by The Mumfords – would have been what most people were talking about on their way home. There is still much to love about the tousled-haired Plant, a seemingly fitting end to the night’s proceedings. In fact, that was left to an all-star ensemble tribute to Tom Petty underneath a giant picture of the much-loved star.
As for the other winners, Robert Vincent won UK Album Of The Year for his “I’ll Make The Most Of My Sins” (At The Helm); all-round instrumentalist Thomas Collison received a much-deserved Instrumentalist Of The Year award; Yola Carter won again, this time for UK Song of The Year for Home. International Song Of The Year was Tenderheart by Sam Outlaw, International Artist Of The Year was Courtney Marie Andrews with the UK equivalent going to Emily Barker. International Album Of The Year was Jason Isbell‘s The Nashville Sound, and Robert Plant picked up another gong for Best Selling UK Americana Album. One last award, the newly commissioned Grass Roots Award went to Big Steve and Alan Tyler for their Come Down And Meet The Folks club that has been the undoubted beating heart of the scene for a number of years. Richly deserved it was too.
Photo Credits: Jude Media Agency