InMusic

Hannah Stuart-Leach pulled on her snazzy red cowboy boots for this year’s foot-stomping weekend of country music.

 The five members of The Hillbenders with instruments outside

Image - The Hillbenders, Bristol Americana Weekend 

Yeee-haawwww, the Bristol Americana Weekend stormed back into town for a second year! As a closet country fan, I was pretty excited by the line-up which included The White Buffalo – aka Jake Smith, the gravelly voiced singer behind the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack; Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriters Lucinda Williams and Mary Chapin Carpenter and American-influenced rocker Elvis Costello. And don’t even get me started on how excited I was to wear my scarlet red cowboy boots (from Uncle Sam’s American Vintage on Park Street if you’re looking).

Not your average festival, Bristol's ode to Americana is a series of separately ticketed gigs divided up between St George’s Bristol, The Lantern and Colston Hall – the latter also hosting some excellent freebie performances in the foyer.

Americana ranges from traditional country and blues to more modern interpretations of roots and bluegrass, so I think gig-goers appreciated being able to dip in and out according to their particular predeliction. Especially on a weekend with so much else going on including Bristol Harbour Festival and Cary Comes Home, a festival dedicated to Bristol’s Hollywood hero Cary Grant.

First up for me was a Friday night double bill at St George’s Bristol – acoustically amazing but also just a really interesting space to be in with its grand columns and intimate galleries. Dom Flemons – otherwise known as the American Songster – kicked off the evening with great merriment.

In case you haven't heard of them, songsters were itinerant multi-instrumentalist musicians who roamed the southern United States in the 19th century. Just as those old timers would have needed to be very skilled at playing music to suit the tastes of different audiences, Flemons was also able to switch seamlessly between instruments and styles. From strumming a wistful black cowboy number to singing a fun, up-tempo ditty about Nashville hot chicken. Each song told a story in its own way, whether our entertainer picked up a guitar, a banjo or harmonica.

Next on stage were headliners The HillBenders for their acclaimed bluegrass take on The Who’s rock opera Tommy. If you’re unfamiliar – Tommy is a musical based on The Who's 1969 album of the same name.

Poor Tommy has the terrible misfortune to see his father murder his step dad, which traumatises him so much he’s rendered deaf, blind and mute. All looks pretty dismal, until he discovers a knack for pinball and becomes an international star. This bizarre tale is – incredibly - all played out through the five-piece band’s furiously energetic set.

Whilst at times it was a little too much like a musical for my tastes (I know, not quite sure what I expected), I can’t fault the band’s expertise – they were all highly accomplished musicians, throwing everything they had into each and every song and clearly thrilling the initially quite mellow audience. Even I wasn’t immune to the crowd participation when it came to stomping my favourite boots and yelling out: ‘Sure plays a mean pin ball!’

Elvis Costello with a white hat and hands on his face

Image - Elvis Costello, Bristol Americana Weekend

I bookended my experience with tickets to the big one: Elvis Costello and the Imposters at Colston Hall. The packed out crowd were almost giddy with anticipation when I took my seat, and I found myself wishing my mum lived closer (her name’s Alllllissssoooon, she would have loved this). New wave rocker Elvis and his cheerful band of Imposters got stuck right into it, to everyone’s obvious delight.

I have to confess I didn’t recognise many of the songs - a mix of thoughtful, politically motivated new material sprinkled among classic hits - but everyone else was very well versed. Some serious super fans in Costello t-shirts took to the very front, unable to drag themselves from the foot of their 70s idol.

But wherever they were in the room, most people were up out of their seats, clapping and dancing along with the red, white and blue lights that illuminated their English Americana star - it was great to be in the midst of such unabashed joy. No doubt nostalgia played its part; I just hope I’ve still got such enthusiasm to share when it comes to seeing the musicians of my youth in concert.

My personal highlights were the ballads, in particular ‘She’, which Elvis admitted he and his band ‘****ing hate’. It’s understandable – his version was first released 17 years ago so he’s probably had a fair few requests since then. He played it anyway though, because the fans love it – and for a decent-seeming man with such a dedicated following, that’s the most important thing.  

St George's Bristol and Colston Hall, as always, have lots of great gigs coming up. For more American-themed crooning catch ‘new Bob Dylan’ Loudon Wainwright III at St George's (17 October 2016) and over at Colston Hall don't miss hit UK country duo The Shires - tickets on sale from Friday 22 July at 9am - or Beth Hart (17 November 2016). Until 7 August you can also visit 'America' at The Glass Room at Colston Hall, an exhibition of photography by Pete Williams with shots of great American musicians like Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Miles Davis and Dr John.

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