Thursday, 25 July 2019

FESTIVAL REVIEW: SummerTyne Americana - Sage, Gateshead. Friday 20th July to Sunday 22nd July 2019

SummerTyne, the Americana jewel of the north east, popular with locals and those of us travelling from further afield. The festival where artists still don’t heed the warning not to say ‘it’s so good to be in Newcastle’, and thus face the wrath of local bi-partisanship. The event that flies the flag for music needing a little push to be heard and where the not so well-known massively outnumber the famous. Come rain or shine, it is a festival that rarely fails to unearth new talent and leave those attending it in some capacity refreshed and satisfied. Like so many festivals, choices need to be made on which acts to catch, with the best policy of leaving any regrets at the door once decided. As a fan you have to place faith in the organisers, who no doubt have a major balancing job to do regards availability and budget, and embrace the schedule as an opportunity to widen your appreciation of good music. 2019 saw SummerTyne cast a little debate in the air with their top billing, yet the strength of any festival lies within its substance and base. On this score, the event succeeded in this its 14th staging on the banks of the Gateshead side of the Tyne, matching up well to when last attending it two years ago.

Before an in-depth look at over twenty artists making the weekend a successful venture north from the Midlands, a quick mention of three pros and a solitary con to the overall feel of visiting the Sage this year. Firstly, the immaculate and seamless scheduling of music on the outdoor Jumpin’ Hot Club and indoor concourse stages was a sheer delight for anyone on a mission to maximise stretches of the festival’s offerings. This is the free part of SummerTyne and full commendation for all involved in this mass logistical exercise. This enabled many artists to be seen back to back on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. 

Rachel Harrington & Massy Ferguson 
Secondly, the sound in the concourse was a vast improvement on what was recalled two years ago. The litmus test was watching Massy Ferguson twice play this location on both visits and coming across so much better in the sound department this time.

Finally, while the Sunday River Cruise was not a new development, attending it for the first time was one of the highlights of the weekend. Once departure from the Quayside was underway, top music filled the air from Massy Ferguson and Rachel Harrington for a near continuous two and a half hours. They each played a pair of well-channelled and adapted sets in a richly invigorating environment. Listening to some seriously good Americana music while cruising from Newcastle to Tynemouth is probably the nearest I’ll ever get to Cayamo, but hey, who needs the Caribbean when you’ve got the River Tyne. 

In contrast, the one downside to the weekend was a fair few fans left music-less on Saturday evening after the Cowboy Junkies finished their show at 8:30. There were a couple of short sets from Hayley McKay on the concourse stage before Hollie Rogers came on at 11:30 to play an hour long slot as Sage 1 was emptying. This though left things a little flat for those making the festival their sole focus of the weekend. Maybe the Cowboy Junkies finishing relatively early created this enforced gap, but a couple of other sets could have filled the void.

For the second successive visit to SummerTyne, the decision was made to catch the three evening headline ticketed shows in the lower capacity Sage 2. This meant The Long Ryders won the retro clash on Friday over the sold out kd Lang show, mainly on the basis of preferring their style of music especially how it has inspired so much guitar fuelled alt-country and Americana music that followed in its wake. The populist tendencies attached to the Strictly Country (a few eyebrows raised at that title) presentation on Saturday was never going to compete with An Evening with the Cowboy Junkies , despite never really being deeply into this band in their heyday. However, you need to respect and embrace class when it’s placed in front of you. Similarly, Kiefer Sutherland’s diversion from acting into live music is not met with much enthusiasm here, and thus fell a distant second to catching Marlon Williams’ return to SummerTyne, this time headlining Sage 2 on Sunday with a full band. 

Cowboy Junkies
So what was the overall verdict of the three headliners who somewhat chose themselves against limited opposition? Sid Griffin and his Long Ryders played their hearts out as it was LA 1985 all over again. A vibrancy reverberated around the hall and all was well with the world for an hour and half. This was the same length of time that the ‘An Evening with the Cowboy Junkies’ extended to on Saturday. The effect of witnessing this set from the lofty reaches of Level 3 could be roughly split into three equal thirds. The first half hour mainly sharing songs from their new album , the familiar ALL THAT RECKONING, created a soothing scene setting ambience, which unfortunately led into a middle section where the prolonged intensity created a listening challenge. The switch to acoustic on the hour mark acted as the perfect personal energiser to make the last half hour a triumphant experience. If a mission of festivals is to broaden music with bands on the periphery of your horizon, Friday and Saturday was job done. 

Marlon Williams is an artist who creates and leaves a distinct impression. Those hooking into this idiosyncratic New Zealander are now starting to get a satiated fix. Since playing a late night solo set at SummerTyne in 2017, he has graced the main stage at Cambridge Folk Festival and now a return to Gateshead with a full band in tow. The one abiding memory of this show was a stunning finale posing the thought what it would be like if Marlon Williams permanently ditched the guitar such was the power, guile and mesmeric movement to his vocal performance. Maybe the wow factor from this as a short sharp stint provides the answer. 

Two of these headline shows had support acts, the odd one out obviously ‘An Evening with…’ English singer-songwriter Hollie Rogers opened for The Long Ryders and prompted discussion among the chattering groups afterwards. Her potential, vocal capabilities and song craft met with unanimous approval , along with perhaps a need to develop a grittier edge to win over those deeply immersed in the Americana spirit, such as her audience in Sage 2 this evening. 

Ida Mae
On the other hand, young English country blues duo Ida Mae have really sharpened their tools since re-locating to America in the last year. The two-piece operation consisting of Chris Turpin on mainly resonator and a century-old guitar and Steph Ward on tambourine and vocals, seemingly have the world at their feet. A rustic rawness to a sweet ’n’ sour sound has seen them make a record with Ethan Johns, link up with the influential American distribution organisation Thirty Tigers and just announcing on the evening that they are about to go on the road opening for Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss. Heady days for this young couple originally from Norfolk, who also happened to give a fascinating and impressively impassioned performance in their 45 minute opening slot for Marlon Williams.

With the ticketed shows attended out of the way (the afternoon and late night ones were given a miss this year to explore the other stages more), focus switches to best of the rest, although many would argue that Bennett Wilson Poole was the best of the lot. Headlining the outdoor Jumpin’ Hot Club stage on Sunday teatime was the perfect slot for this trio to show a mixed audience of fervent and casual observers why so many have shouted from the rafters about them since their formation a couple of years ago. Great tunes from a classic album, a new topical song and a rousing encore finale of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ suggest that the tank is far from empty. 

Bennett Wilson Poole
Maybe the ‘best of the rest’ at SummerTyne should exclude Bennett Wilson Poole, but there was still plenty to enjoy amongst the free presentation, an integral part of the organisers reaching out into the local community. The Jumpin’ Hot Club stage, set at the foot of what is named locally as ‘Shipcote Hill’, is an active zone for the three afternoons of the festival. Friday tends to be local artists with the occasional touring one popping up over the weekend. The highlight of admittedly only casually observing things upon arrival on Friday was a set by Nottingham based outfit Most Ugly Child at 4 o’clock. They crossed my path a couple of years ago via an album review and followed this up with an appearance at Maverick. Their SummerTyne performance this year didn’t disappoint as they sailed through a decent set of country inspired tunes, influenced by the greats and delivered in the staple male-female lead duet format. 
Saturday saw six more acts frequent the Jumpin’ Hot Club stage highlighted by two acts seen before in previous events across a vast divide from Perth in Scotland to Easton in Suffolk. Midlands based transatlantic duo A Different Thread opened the proceedings at noon and progressed to impress an increasing number of folks with their roots-infused take on the folk side of Americana. Following a short break where we could switch to the concourse to enjoy a seamless array of music, Daniel Meade took to the stage to play some songs with his lead guitar playing buddy Lloyd Reid. Daniel is in the middle of a rather busy year recording-wise with a live album already out and a new studio effort due for release in October. The duo were very much in acoustic mode for their set sharing a good mix of new songs and old favourites, while keeping a toe in the Americana scene during this interim period.
Fargo Railroad Company
A quick dash from the Quayside on Sunday afternoon following the aforementioned river cruise saw an arrival just as Fargo Railroad Company took to the stage. They were another band previously seen at Maverick and their style of southern rock influenced country was a welcome addition to a SummerTyne melting pot calling at every point of the wide Americana spectrum you could imagine, from country pop to dark murder ballads and full-on rock to intrinsic bluegrass. Fargo did their job splendidly, rousing an outdoor crowd enjoying the best weather of the weekend i.e. rain-free. 
Sandwiching Fargo and outdoor headliners Bennet Wilson Poole was Austin-based Georgia-native Barbara Nesbit, currently on tour with a guitarist and pedal steel player. To repeat a recurring theme, she first came to my attention when playing the Maverick Festival a couple of years ago. On that occasion she played solo, so the addition of pedal steel was an upgrade, one which added to the diversity of SummerTyne and delivered a performance very much in the Kelly Willis mould. A fellow Austin artist who has previously graced the banks of the Tyne.
Broken Bones Matilda
Away from the highlights of the Jumpin’ Hot Club stage, much was enjoyed on the neighbouring concourse location. This was the weather proof side of SummerTyne and a performing space that extends from a full afternoon schedule to some early evening performances leading into a couple of late night slots as the headline shows in Sage 1 & 2 finish. Friday teatime saw pedal steel and keyboard led blues instrumentalist Roosevelt Collier kick things off before a couple of home grown acts played late night sets. These included Darren Hodson from Southern Companion playing solo followed by Broken Bones Matilda appearing in their duo format. It was intriguing seeing the latter in this stripped down mode following catching them play Maverick a couple of weeks earlier in a five-piece set up. The sparse nature of this format was ripe for absorbing the sunken grooves that emanate from their sound, and mesmeric interpretations of ‘Dead Flowers’ and ‘In the Pines’ complete with serene movement and collaboration made for compelling viewing.
Saturday on the concourse housed more fine performances. London-based international bluegrass trio Lunch Special were the find of the day after missing their set at the recent Maverick Festival. A beautiful combination of traditional, lesser known and contemporary Appalachian tunes flowed from the stringed wands of these three players, marking them out not only as a festival success but a future torch bearer for this type of music on the UK acoustic roots scene. In contrast to Lunch Special, Jonas and Jane had been seen live before when opening for Sarah Jane Scouten in London earlier this year. Once again a light touch yet perfectly delicately formed folk Americana sound seeps out of their music in a pulse of blissful serenity. A set that didn’t challenge the sometimes tough acoustics of this cavernous performing location when multiple instruments are plugged in.
On the other hand, the full pronged highly charged alt-country Americana rock of Massy Ferguson does stretch proceedings in the sound department, but unlike two years ago their set was spot on with Ethan Anderson driving his four piece band along to a throbbing beat.To cement their Pacific North West unison with Rachel Harrington, a feature both at Maverick and SummerTyne, she joined the band to sing harmony on ‘Maybe the Gods’, to replicate a role that Danni Nicholls played on the same stage but on a different song in 2017. Without anointing a single top moment at SummerTyne 2019, this was a worthy candidate boldly propelled forward by the creation of a whole new genre – literary rock – in ‘Momma’s in the Back Seat’
While Sunday was a little lower key in the concourse for me, it was finally good to catch Smith and Brewer for the first time after countless near misses. On a similar folk theme, Daisy Chute has had a brilliant write up and an introduction that left her little wriggle room. Not to worry, as she gave a very confident, classy and assured performance to add another name to the growing list of young performers adept at a style of music that may not be sucked up by the masses, but thoroughly embraced by finely tuned ears.

Of course, many other artists appeared over the weekend that will get column inches elsewhere, but remember what was preached earlier, ‘leave your regrets at the door’. SummerTyne 2019 had a few similarities and differences to 2017. Some of its unusual features embedded in further this time and the strident approach of exploring the not so well known of the presentation regardless of who you would have wanted to be there paid dividends. With Southern Fried taking a break this year, it is imperative that events like SummerTyne continue to power forward to promote music so precious to an ever growing band. Since 2006, the north east of England has been very lucky to have such an event on their doorstep. Look after it and you will see people continue to make a long trek from other corners of the UK in future years.

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