Our man in a sleeping bag corrals up in East Anglia, finding it all a bit better than OK. Seuras Og takes us to the 2021 iteration of the Maverick Festival.
With the Wickham Festival mud barely dry on my boots, I was looking for yee and looking for haw, and found plenty of each at this delightfully boutique celebration of all things Americana.
In now, its 14th year, give or take a COVID no-show last year, it has remained defiantly roots in both style and substance, remaining a welcoming niche in the network of larger events, bringing back a hardcore of aficionados year after year.
Set in and amongst the restored outbuildings of Easton Farm park, it is curtailed perfectly by that constraint of size, and the capacity limit of 2.5k has guaranteed it a regular fixture in the smallest and the friendliest festival stakes. The baby of organiser Paul Spencer, he and his team have nurtured their tiny spot of heavenly hoedown with a love and affection that permeates the whole weekend.
It’s true, COVID had played havoc with the bill, both before and right up to the opening day, but, as was made plain by Shane Kirk, guitarist for the opening act, Helen & the Neighbourhood Dogs, and the jack of all trades organising the Travelling Medicine Show Stage over the rest of the schedule, it is the experience that is all, and less so the size of the names performing. Not that there weren’t names there, as you will see, but, perhaps understandably, more homegrown talent than transatlantic.
A name that will be known is that of Jon Langford, the one-time punk squat posterboy of the Mekons, turned alt.country convert of, amongst innumerable other iterations and manifestations, Chicago’s Waco Brothers. His imprint was all over the festival, with four, maybe five and possibly more appearances, popping up on all the stages, announced and otherwise. Back in the UK for the first time in two years, he was without band, hooking up with a keyboard player and his cousin Clive on bass, he was a tornado of energy and goodwill. Despite never having played before as a unit, the selection of songs old and new, standards and self-penned, flowed effortlessly out of the trio. I regret not catching the piano players name, but, over two days of exemplary otherplayers, he shone and some. My first sighting was when the aforementioned (S)Kirk(y) rushed over from his stage to call me over. With some time to spare ahead their official first set, they had decided to warm up over there.
Langford apart, most of the first night was spent getting my bearings between the three main stages and the bar, dipping into acts as I found them rather than by any design. First night names to remember, however, included Dan Webster, a likeable and burly cove from Harrogate, who with his band: fiddle, cello and drums, together with his dustbowl vocals and guitar, played a lively set of blue collar chugs. With Emily Lawler’s fiddle soaring through the songs, she was also providing an Emmylou purity of backing vocal to his gruffer lead.
The Crux were an extraordinary concoction of styles and influences, deliberately so and designed to challenge the preconceptions of any limited Americana gentrification. I found myself thinking Alex Harvey playing Kurt Weill songs at the Grand Ol’ Opry. Which is, I think you will agree, odd. And there was Dana Immanuel and her all female bluegrass/badass Stolen Band, tonight augmented by additional (token) male 2nd fiddle, which is, I guess, how she and the girls would want it. Their rowdy performance was uplifting and gave no small thirst to the enthusiastic audience, if that image was softened a little by Immanuel toting a new puppy, in a clutch bag, that hung dangerously close to her energetic banjo flaying.
Closing that night for me was Ethan, son of Glyn, Johns, and himself an eminent record producer as well as having his own band, the Blackeyed Dogs, who closed the Barn stage. All good and solid dependable fare, guitars, fiddle, steel, keyboards and a solid rhythm section. Strangely reminiscent in style and swagger to the Grateful Dead, a point to which I will return. Full marks, too, to the steel player who kept his head when B.J. Cole popped his head around the door to catch the younger competition.
Up bright and early for good showers, good coffee and even better bacon baps, I was pleased to see the ground and tent all dry. The outdoor stage on the Green was to be my main destination today, but I had a date to catch the remarkable clawhammer technique of Dan Walsh even ahead of that, back at the Barn, for an ungodly 10 a.m. set. Solo banjo and vocals may sound daunting, but wasn’t, such was his ridiculous absence of boundaries to the applications of his instrument. Jaws were piling up on the floor around me as he played, his repertoire encompassing Celtic jiggery-pokery to avantgarde hillbilly Appalachia. No dab hand on guitar either, his take on Paul Simon’s Call Me Al covered every bit of the song, even down to the Bakithi Kumalo’s extraordinary bass runs on the original. Astonishing, as was his Indian/Kentucky raga/breakdown hybrid on banjo
Over on the Green, it was the rather more meat and potatoes of the David Banks Band. The onetime Whybird is now in more straight ahead southern rock territory, and very good it was too, reminiscent of Hughie Thomasson’s 1970s band, the Outlaws. (I made that point to Banks after the show, and bless him, he had never heard of them….)
Another stretch of my legs and it was to the Sam Chase Trio I next found myself engrossed by. American, they had actually flown in for the festival and a UK tour, which made for some surprise. Chase himself is a bluff and self-deprecating presence, playing a resonator guitar, his songs all gravel and grit tearjerkers, with a voice pitched midway between Steve Earle and Tom Waits. To set that combination into a bed of exquisite violin (not fiddle, definitely not fiddle) and cello was a brainwave, a chamber duo who added their pathos to the spit and sawdust of the singer. Tremendous stuff.
The name of Dean Owens has slowly been seeping into my awareness, and that of many others, this last year, on the back of his Desert Trilogy EPs, made with Calexico, which are well worth seeking out. The fact he was playing here was definitely a trigger to my attendance and, having made myself familiar with his Bandcamp back catalogue, notably his ‘Man From Leith’ best of collection, I was raring for him to go. With his band, the Southerners, he had but 45 minutes, but he won’t be long for stages as small as this. Jim Maving, on mandolin and guitars, coaxed impossible sounds out of his instruments, evoking slide, steel and tuneful twang, all in the same instant, whilst Tom Collison provided keyboards and bass guitar, and yes, somehow and sometimes at the same time. Owens sings and strums, but there is no just in that, either, the songs uniformly powerful, his vocal tones those of warmed honey and creme fraiche on autumn berries. This man should be a giant, yet he doesn’t know it, shyly standing in the audience as he waited to go on. Scots seem to have an innate affinity for American music, mainly, perhaps, as that is from Scotland, in part, that American music, or this sort, first came from. Glaswegiana, I call it.
Owens was that good I elected to miss the beginning of the Los Pistoleros set outside, possibly the toughest clash of the festival, but I took the view I had seen them before. And, like before, they were on fire when I did get there, their Camden honktonk jive undiluted by age. OK, it was largely the set they played that last time, and that was 20 years ago, but what a set. Bobby Valentino still has that impeccable dark brown croon and the niftiest fiddle about, even if a little stouter than in his Clark Gable prime, Martin Belmont remains the jerkiest presence in rockabilly twang and B.J. Cole, well B.J. Cole is just B.J. Cole. Impeccable, as was the return of Ethan John’s band, with their Dogs Do Dead set, my expectations they would be perfect for the material confirmed, that view confirmed by the small group of elderly Deadheads to the right front of the stage, who d(e)ad-danced throughout.
As a big fan of the Michael Weston King/Lou Dalgleish My Darling Clementine schtick, it was now time for them to grace the Peacock Stage, in yet another barn, with some strategic filleting of the walls for covid purposes. Just the two of them, King sporting a massive white lockdown set of whiskers, they didn’t disappoint one bit, with a mix of country duet weepies and a taste of their recent Costello covers set.
The day was giving after giving, that process continuing with Hank Wangford. Someone I have never managed to see, his slot was a masterclass in holding an audience, both with his onstage banter and his songs. A new song, ‘Missing You Already’, must be a first, as it was to do with the impact of loss on old and established relationships. Gulp. Now a (very) spritely octogenarian himself, and perhaps closer to that than many, he was abetted by a superb dobro player and two bassists, one acoustic, one electric. And I learnt a fact, in that Kevin Foster, bassman also for Los Pistoleros, was once bassist for Jackie Leven’s Doll By Doll, which must have been a bit of a jump.
Rich Hall, ahead of his own show back at the barn, came on to act as MC for a tribute to John Prine. This ultimately very moving show had most of the performers at the festival playing their favourite Prine song, each doing him proud, as well as reminding how great the legacy of his songs is. Jon Langford sang ‘Sam Stone’ and eyes were being wiped vigorously. Feeling nothing could top the evening, I bade my goodnights and went back to my tent, a happy and content man.
Only one decision for Sunday; a quick getaway or to catch a reprise of some of the artists seen already. It was sunny. I decided the latter, delighted to have done so, getting a final blast of Sam Chase and his delectable string section, and yet more of the unstoppable Jon Langford, this time with added B.J. Cole. The correct decision.
There were probably as many acts I missed as I saw; apologies to them. But, you know, it didn’t matter. I had a good time and I bet they did. To be fair, I probably did see them, if not playing, as most of the performers mingled with the crowd when off-stage, only too happy to stop and chat, but often just blending in. It’s that sort of place. Not only will I be back, I’ll bring my dog next time, it being the only festival I have been to where dogs are both allowed and encouraged. I reckon she’d be a shoo-in for the best dressed dog competition.
You can view a gallery of pictures on Maverick Festival’s website here.
You can view Saturday’s livestreamed Barn Stage replay here.
You can get a sense of the festival below.