Summertyne Americana Festival

Summertyne Venue: The Sage
Town: Gateshead
Date: 19-21/07/13 Website: http://www.sagegateshead.com/

It is hard to believe that this is the 8th annual SummerTyne Festival, now a highlight of the Sage Gateshead's calendar, held in part on a stage on the banks of the River Tyne and in part across the various spaces within the Sage.

I was lucky to begin the weekend at the Press Launch, where Raul Malo and Jon Langford treated us to songs to kick things off, after Tamsin Austin, Programme Director spoke of the great lineup and how special the event has become over the past eight years.

Numerous local Americana acts got the weekend started outside for those lucky people not working! On Friday night in Hall 1, by all accounts, The Mavericks' audience got to dance the night away, whilst over in Hall 2, Matthew E White went down well with his die hard fans, before all in the room were blown away by the gospel music and harmonies of The McRary Sisters. (Due to a delayed flight, they closed the show instead of opening it; very creative on the part of the Sage, I thought!)

Saturday night came to a close near midnight, after an exquisite set by an admittedly slightly nervous Patty Griffin. Playing us a selection of old and new songs, she and her guitarist had the room mesmerized from start to finish. Switching between guitar and piano, she eased into a relaxed banter, telling stories of Austin, musicians she has worked with, and one of the best, of her Dad. The highlight for most of us I suspect, was a deeply moving rendition of Top of The World. She seemed surprised by the number of requests called for as the encore, exclaiming "What a treat!" Closing the show, she promised us she would be back soon; we can only hope that she will keep that promise.

The McRary Sisters got Saturday off to an amazing start, with their Gospel Brunch on the Concourse, helped by the Sage Choir; a truly stunning collaboration and a pleasure to see the main act be so respectful and appreciative of the local choir.

During Saturday there was so much going on between talks, film screenings, performances outside and in every inside space, and musical cruises of the River Tyne, it was impossible to keep up or see everything; sadly that always means some overlaps where choices have to made!

Jon Langford, whose stunning Nashville Radio Art exhibition was on display throughout the weekend, delivered an insightful talk about his early days in music and art, took us through a powerpoint of career images, made us laugh, then took questions, which he answered unflinchingly. He came across as a very down to earth, likeable guy, a theory which was proven on the occasions I got to speak to him during the weekend.

Larkin Poe, aka, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, rocked Hall 2, as they, along with their band, showed us their current direction; they are clearly enjoying expperimenting and seeing where their music takes them and exuded sheer joy and energy from the stage. I loved the fact that they rocked and it was loud but it always felt like music; often when this direction is pursued, it begins to feel like mere noise. Kudos to them that they are evolving their sound but remaining true to their roots. On watching them perform a Bonus Tracks session in the Foundation Hall, we heard their original, acoustic sound. Fascinating was to hear the acoustic version of a wonderful Gospel song (please record it, preferably both ways, girls!) that we had just previously heard with a very different sound! Hopefully when they return, they will still be including some of the acoustic songs, since, after all, that is what drew us all to them in the first place and it would be lovely to hear the current varied sound continue.

Following on from last year's show featuring Raul Malo with the Northern Sinfonia, this year's SummerTyne special commision was Honky Tonk Angels, the name taken from the hit song by Kitty Wells. Led by Elizabeth Cook, herself no stranger to SummerTyne, the show featured the legendary Jan Howard, Brennen Leigh, Yolanda Quartey, Lou Dalgeish and local songstress Hannah Rickard. Alongside songs and banter, the show featured Cook interviewing Howard about her career, with some hilarious stories as a result. The reports I heard about this made me truly gutted it had clashed with Larkin Poe.

My Darling Clementine also earned great reviews in Hall 2; despite the fact that they played to a small audience, it seemed all had a great time.

Immediately following this, Jan Howard and the director of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville talked at length in the Northern Rock Room. After completely making me want to go back to visit, he handed over to Jan, who regaled us with stories and memories from her career. Opening the floor to questions, she was incredibly candid, as she talked and answered. She made us laugh and cry in equal measure and by the time it drew to a close, I felt I had met Johnny Cash and George Jones in person, which is quite a gift. Happy to meet and greet afterwards, she proved to be just as lovely in person, inviting us all to Nashville soon! It isn't every day we get to meet a true Nashville legend like that and it turned out it came about due to a friendship formed with a local man named George Miller, who, as it happens, wrote a wonderful book I recently read called Is This The Way to Amarillo? Kudos to George for allowing us all to benefit from his rare connection!

Headlining the evening on the outdoor stage, John Turrell & Band, Geordie soul sensation of Smoove & Turrell fame, delivered a stunning performance, leaving me wondering how on earth I haven't encountered him or his music previously.

Martha Wainright returned to Hall 1 on Saturday evening, which I was very much looking forward to after she blew me away when she performed her Piaf album a couple of years ago. When she talked and told stories, frequently interrupting herself as she did so, she had us all crying with laughter. I have to say though, I left the hall wishing she had performed Piaf again, rather than her English material; it just didn't work for me in the same way. Maybe she will treat us to another Piaf show soon?

Saturday night came to an incredible climax with a performance of Cajun music from Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Beginning at ten pm, they had everyone tapping their toes, singing along with them (even in French!) and some up dancing (the rest of us were all wishing there was more space so we could all join in!) For two and a half hours they entertained us and several times when I closed my eyes and listened, I was back in Louisiana, in my head and heart, at least. It was well after midnight before we all left on a total high. I hope this isn't the first time we will share a night with those guys! Another great idea was making it a Cajun supper; the Jambalaya was delicious (though cornbread would have been better than corn!) The only general comment was that for the price charged it should have been more of a Cajun buffet selection, as originally advertised, as the price was high for a bowl of jambalaya. However, I will say, it was as good as any jambalaya I had in Louisiana! Maybe it could even make an appearance on the Sage's menu on nights of Americana performances?!

The outside stage rocked on Sunday, with performances from Jon Langford, Polly and the Billets Doux, Brendan Croker, the Shiverin' Sheiks, and David Wax Museum, who between them covered a wide range of Americana. The weekend was brought to a close outside by the brilliant Tom Russell, who more than deserved the headline spot. He owned the stage and was so at ease in the outside evnironment, it made me long to see the Kerrville Folk Festival, or similar. Tom went from literally inducing silence as he sang the beauriful Guadalupe, to having everyone singing along, had a great rapport with the audience and earned a standing ovation when he finished, all too soon.

Americana weekend was brought to a fanstastic close with Veera Van Heeringen's bluegrass supper, which had toes tapping until late at night.

Another fantastic SummerTyne weekend of Americana music. Thanks so much to The Sage, Gateshead and to all of the artists involved. We really are so lucky to have this every summer, a fact I was even more aware of this year, noticing how many people had travelled to The Sage for the weekend. I think we're all still buzzing, but looking ahead already to next year and wondering what SummerTyne 2014 will hold in store for its 9th year?

Helen Mitchell

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