From A Distance-Southport's Americana Festival

Carrivick Sisters Venue: The Atkinson Arts Centre
Town: Southport
Date: 20-22/9/13

The newly refurbished Atkinson Arts Centre on Southport's famous Lord Street hosted its first Americana Festival, titled "From A Distance", over the weekend of 20 -22 September 2013, with an eclectic line-up of artists including Sarah Savoy, Peggy Seeger, Kelly Joe Phelps and The Kennedys.

Three days of music kicked off on Friday evening with superb British bluegrass duo The Carrivick Sisters, who should need little introduction to readers of this magazine. Indeed, Neil King recently reviewed the Sisters' brand new album "Over The Edge"in these very pages. Tonight's gig was part of their "Album Launch Tour".

For those unfamiliar with Carrivick Sisters, they are Laura [fiddle,dobro and vocals] and Charlotte [mandolin, guitar and vocals]. They play bluegrass and old-timey music with an English twist and both sisters are highly proficient on their instruments. Not only are they superb musicians but they sing the most beautiful harmonies in true bluegrass tradition.

Naturally, their set tonight featured songs from their new album, including the title track "Over The Edge"which is based on a true events in which their great,great,great grandfather was involved. He was one of a group of protesters who tried to prevent the building of a hotel on a headland by pushing the builders' materials over the edge of the cliffs. Also featured was "Lady Howard", a ghostly tale from Dartmoor about Lady Mary Howard who rises at midnight to be driven in a carriage made of human bones, drawn by headless horses, in the company of a Cyclops dog. This Gothic masterpiece featured simply wonderful harmonies from Charlotte and Laura.

Other highlights of their set included "Outside Time", which featured a self-written fiddle tune called "Salamander" and also a traditional song, "Lazy John",which demonstrated their virtuosity on guitar and mandolin. Fortunately, this was not the last that we would see of The Carrivick Sisters this weekend, as they took part in a wonderful concert on Sunday evening, more of which anon.

I have to say that Sarah McQuaid is one of my favourite singers. Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing her stunning album "The Plum Tree and The Rose" and also seeing her perform live, so I was delighted when I heard that she had been booked for this festival. Sarah is a warm and engaging performer. According to the Carrivick Sisters, she is the smiliest person they have ever seen on stage.

Sarah lamented the fact that she would not be able to stay in Southport until tomorrow to see her inspiration Peggy Seeger, so instead she sang two songs which are associated with Peggy. The first was "The Chickens They Are Crowing" from Peggy's 1958 album "Folksongs and Ballads", which young Sarah used to play on her Mickey Mouse record player. The second was the immortal "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" which Ewan MacColl wrote for Peggy in 1957. Sarah's rendition of this wonderful song was truly beautiful.

Sarah's 2012 album "The Plum Tree and The Rose" was definitely one of the albums of that year and from it Sarah played a trilogy of superb songs. The first was "The Sun Goes On Rising" which she wrote to comfort herself in times of financial disaster. This was followed by the wonderful "Hardwick's Lofty Towers" which tells the story of the feisty Bess of Hardwick. The historical/Derbyshire theme continued with a truly stunning "In Derby Cathedral"which featured Sarah's ethereal multi-layered vocals as sampled live on laptop by sound wizard Martin Stansbury.

As well as being a superb singer, Sarah is also a highly accomplished guitarist, as demonstrated in a pair of old-timey tunes, "Shady Grove" and "Cluck Old Hen".

I was really looking forward to seeing the headliners for the evening, Sarah Savoy and The Francadians. I love Cajun music and it is a rare treat to see "the real thing". Sarah Savoy is most definitely the genuine article. She was born and raised in a small village near Eunice, in Acadia, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun country. Her parents are two of Cajun music's foremost musicians, Ann and Marc Savoy. Sarah is now based in Paris, hence the name Francadians. The band consists of David Rolland [Acadian accordion], Vincent Blin [fiddle] and Manolo Gonzales [ Sarah's husband ] on bass. Tonight the band were joined by Sarah and Manolo's four year-old daughter, Anna, on washboard and triangle! Sarah told us how, as a young child, she used to tour with her parents and sleep in a guitar case. Now she is carrying on this tradition with her daughter.

Sarah and her band perform Cajun and Zydeco music with great gusto and verve. For lovers of Cajun music it doesn't really get any better than this. We were treated to such great numbers as "Reno Waltz" [a favourite of Sarah's parents], "Blues de Bosco", " La Danse de la Limonade"[Sarah's favourite two-step] and Eunice Two-Step.

Emphasising the connections between Cajun and Country music, Sarah sang two songs by, and in memory of, the late George Jones, namely "Tall, Tall Trees" and "Just One More".

We also had an unusual, multilingual version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues", with verses in English, French and Spanish. This song is featured on the band's album "Allons Rock n Roll", as is the slightly risqué "Little Bitty Girl".

Cajun music is, of course, also closely related to the Blues, as demonstrated in the band's superb version of "Raise Your Windows High".

As I said above, this concert was a real treat and a splendid way to end the first day of the Festival.

Peter Cowley

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