Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Maverick Festival - Easton Farm Park, Suffolk. Friday 30th June to Sunday 2nd July 2017

There is a motto banded around Austin Texas, probably originating in the tacky tourist trade, of ‘so much music too little time’. This will likely also apply to many music events around the country, and in our own little world of deepest Suffolk on the first weekend of July, it was certainly a theme when reflecting upon the 10th renewal of the Maverick Festival. Some events grow, some events fizzle and die, but there is a level of consistency that singles out this now established festival, ranging from its gorgeous idyllic setting to the way the organisers feed the thirst for the type of music so many of its dedicated followers crave. Even the golden ball in the sky accepts the invite each year. Nevertheless, one interesting thought in the aftermath is what drives the viewing habits of folks over the weekend.

The beauty of Maverick, and its compact location, is the appeal to spontaneous drifters with the urge to just saunter around the stages taking in full/part sets plus anything that catches the ear. On the other hand you have the dedicated planner with every hour marked out, maximising the volume of artists on offer to a multitude of motives. This can include old favourites, new favourites, hot tips and ones making the transition from record to stage in the domain of the listener. Inevitably, there are going to be many fine artists who don’t make a planner’s list; some have been seen elsewhere on a recent/upcoming tour or on a more frequent basis, while others could be the unknown stars of tomorrow. Therefore, with the crystal ball for tomorrow’s stars not fully functioning, the pick of the unseen acts was likely to be between Dean Owens, Worry Dolls, Erin Rae, Annie Keating, The Black Feathers and Hannah Aldridge. All have been subject to kind praise here in the past and please stay tuned for much more on the latter as her UK tour proceeds.

Lachlan Bryan
However, let’s focus more on the many artists who formed a near wall-to-wall batch of great music from the Friday 5 o’clock launch to when time was almost upon us just after Sunday lunch. What better place to start than an artist who was highlighted the week before from a trusted source and transpired to be the find of Maverick 2017. While seasoned Aussie rockers The Black Sorrows made the preview headlines with their Saturday night closing slot, it was their compatriots Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes, which stole the limelight some twelve hours earlier with a both fascinating and fabulous set on the outside stage. Lachlan’s songs, stories, music and stage persona was right on the mark for a festival with a left field streak. The comment of an ‘Aussie Cale Tyson’ resonated with a few others and an initial final bonus was the announcement that he hopes to follow up this inaugural English show (following on from some Scottish dates) with a tour in the New Year. However, the icing on the cake was catching Lachlan and the guys later playing an impromptu 15-minute set on the unscheduled Travelling Medicine stage with the enhanced appeal of expanding their song repertoire.

Justin Townes Earle
Justin Townes Earle still holds my record for the lowest ever attendance at a ticketed gig when first seen in 2008. Those days are long behind and he has become a firm favourite over the years. His Maverick Festival Saturday night slot in the Barn was billed as one of the headline sets. True to form, this stylish performer who has successfully stripped away the family ties to make an acclaimed individual stance appeared with a chipper disposition ready to show how a stellar bunch of songs and an engaging personality can blow a hole in an event packed with other outstanding music. Justin’s appearance at the festival was the only feasible chance to see him on this short UK tour. Playing alongside exceptional guitarist and pedal steel player Paul Niehaus, Justin didn’t disappoint and rewarded the wise decision to view the whole set, up close and personal.

Prior to Justin taking the stage, Sierra Hull played a captivating set of virtuoso mandolin playing accompanied only her colleague on stand-up bass. In contrast to the artist that followed her, Sierra was in the camp of being seen for the first time and displayed every inch of her class, even as the temperature soared with the Barn drenched in the last remnants of a sun that heeded to the order. Sierra is basing this current UK visit around her Grammy nominated album release from last year WEIGHTED MIND and her highly technical set weaved a classical input into a trademark bluegrass sound. Preluding Sierra on the Barn stage, and also falling into the camp of seeing live for the first time, was country outfit American Young. This core duo, expanded into a quartet for the tour, represented a strand of music not normally the staple of Maverick. While there is a debate as to whether they fit the ethos of the event, they were well received by an appreciative audience.

Sierra Hull
Moving away from the transatlantic acts populating the Barn on Saturday night, the whole of the Friday evening on the nearby Peacock stage was commissioned by the AMA UK to showcase emerging British talent. Of the six artists scheduled, three made my viewing list for the evening on the basis of checking two out for the first time and breaking all the rules laid out for omitting artists as expressed earlier in this piece for the other performer. Sophia Marshall and The Grande were both new names to me and greatly impressed in their opportunity to expand a fan base. Some really strong songs flowed from Sophia’s generally singer-songwriter acoustic base, though there was a band in tow for this show. The Grande impressed immensely with their substantial bout of alt-country rock, paying homage to the three-part harmony while injecting energy into a set, which utilised the standard array of instruments including the expanded use of keyboards to bridge the country-rock divide. Just a quick word on Danni Nicholls’ performance at the heart of this presentation. There is no finer artist playing her all round style of music in the UK at this moment in time. She blossoms as a performer with every appearance, even on this occasion when playing solo without Max Milligan on accompanying guitar. The combined history of Danni Nicholls and my Maverick experience go back to 2010 when the third staging of this event launched both an artist and a festival to stay on my horizon ever since.

Usually my Maverick Friday evenings tend to be split between the Barn and the Peacock, but this year’s desire to seek out newer artists saw a quick two-minute walk to the Moonshine on a couple of occasions. First up was to see a performance from Alabama-based singer-songwriter Amy McCarley who interestingly stated in her set that being a full time musician is a recent move for her after spending time working for NASA. If Amy’s music was excellent standard singer-songwriter fare, a later visit to the Moonshine saw the far more eclectic duo Royal Jelly Jive. This San Francisco-based pair were literally straight off the plane and shrugged off any jetlag to stir the Maverick pot with some entertaining music, best described as ‘jivin’’ in the festival programme.

Hannah Rose Platt in session
Earlier it was indicated that some artists make a festival viewing cut by adding the live performance to enjoying their recorded material. It was a privilege to be among the first folks to shower online praise on Hannah Rose Platt’s debut album PORTRAITS a couple of years back. Up until her Saturday lunchtime set on the outdoor location (retaining its attached name of the Sweet Alabama Stage assumedly from some sponsorship a few years ago) the path of seeing Hannah in a live setting hadn’t been crossed. The omission was corrected as she played an emerging set of songs from both the aforementioned album and the impending new one. Emerging also in the sense of opening with three solo songs before first introducing guitar/keys playing sidekick Thomas Collison and then a drummer to eventually complete the line-up. The infrastructure, association and material expansion is in place for the career of Hannah Rose Platt to continue to flourish and hopefully this will be the first of many Maverick appearances. Hannah was also one of many artists to play a session in Leader's Live Lounge over the weekend for broadcast to the wider world at a later date.

An additional factor for the Maverick set viewing choice could be the near guarantee appearance of extensive Saturday afternoon sunshine, which enhances the appeal of the sole outdoor stage. The general rule for this setting is that it is predominately the domain of largely up-tempo full band acts with the Clubhouse stable providing a couple of back-to-back mid-afternoon slots in the guise of Don Gallardo and Case Hardin. Both have been Maverick favourites in the past with Don especially growing from the often buried confines of the Moonshine location to this latest higher profiled billing. Linking up with a ‘Danberry’ on guitar, borrowing the drummer from Danny and the Champs and utilising the ubiquitous talents of Thomas Collison, Don and his usual travelling sidekick Travis Stock set about demonstrating what an accomplished and established artist he has become from a touring perspective. Case Hardin were just their usual appealing selves, rocking especially hard in the set finale with some of the best tracks from the excellent COLOURS SIMPLE album.

Don Gallardo 
A picture is emerging that for a multitude of reasons the outdoor stage became my prime focus for the sun-drenched hours between 11 and 6. Southern Companion kicked things off and gently felt their way into this environment with a trio of popular covers from Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Ryan Adams featuring high in their set. While celebrating the works of others is not unknown at Maverick, especially in choreographed arrangements such as last year’s Jimmie Rodgers tribute and a similar one for Hank Williams in the Peacock this year, original material tends to be the de facto position with covers probably getting a minimal sprinkling. Indeed, it is the self-penned song that pumps life into the independent Americana music scene that is core to the ethos and appeal of Maverick. Following the opening act, Fargo Railroad Company played a high-octane set of southern rock, and as we headed towards the end of the outdoor presentation Sonia Leigh returned to a setting where she has previously excelled. Teaming up with the backing band from American Young helped project her own material that benefits from a feisty coating of determined grit. This portrays an artist fighting for every inch of the music she believes in and winning each bout in the eyes of the fans who increasingly adore her.

Legendary performers tend to be carefully chosen and pretty sparse at Maverick, no doubt for the obvious fiscal reasons. However, selecting Albert Lee to close the outdoor stage was a masterstroke and he set about showing all and sundry why he is classed as one of the guitar greats over a career that has taken him to many places and worked with many great people. On this occasion, legendary UK pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole and Albert’s own son on keyboards were his prime sparring partners. In his own inimitable style, the works of many iconic artists were celebrated from the Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris axis to Buddy Holly, Glen Campbell and Rodney Crowell. What Albert can do on electric guitar is literally amazing and while opportunities to catch him live have been numerous in the past, perhaps Maverick 2017 was one of those occasions to freeze in the memory bank of the mind.

Low Lily
Sunday morning at Maverick is always a good time to catch new acts. The double scheduling of certain artists also works in the favour of those who like to maximise the diversity of music listened to over the weekend. So the motive for the morning after the night before was to catch the sets of five performers not previously seen. Both The Danberrys and Terra Lightfoot have flickered on my horizon in the past, but there is nothing like a live appearance to boost the understanding of an artist. Canadian rocker Terra had solely flown the flag for her country on their July 1 national day and word had got around that the full band gave a heated rocking rousing late night performance in the Peacock. While the location switched to the Barn for the second Sunday lunchtime set, the effect was similar as she sailed through a thirty-five minute exhibition of soulful blues rock. Of course, this tossed around the debate of style fitting the time of day, but from my perspective when the music was that good you can easily slip into the necessary groove, plus there were choices across the three stages providing the Sunday entertainment. The Danberrys followed Terra in the scheduling, but not in style. This Nashville based trio operate more on the rootsy folk side of country music and geared their set to those seeking a more sedate offering. Co-front person Ben DeBerry had been the guest lead guitarist with Don Gallardo’s makeshift band the day before, although preferring the acoustic model alongside his tambourine playing vocalist partner Dorothy Daniel for his band’s set.

Before we leave the Sunday entertainment in the Barn, a quick word about Vermont-based trio Low Lily which played a very accomplished set of old time folk music with a particular emphasis on some classic fiddle playing. They offered a fine contrast to the other bands around their schedule time, proving that Maverick does literally have all the bases covered across the broad spectrum of Americana music.

Roamin' Jasmine
The Moonshine stage has been mentioned before and this slightly hidden gem at the festival can throw up some interesting acts really adding to the diversity. It’s hard to top a small serving of southern gospel music on a Sunday morning especially when its architects are the real deal authentic old time duo Ramblin’ Steve Gardner and Bill Steber. Folks needed little encouragement to join in with the songs as the beautiful weather for the festival showed no sign of abating especially at a location, which can act as a suntrap for those listening outside the venue. The second band caught live at the Moonshine was another festival tip and a splendid half hour was spent in the musical company of Roamin’ Jasmine: a Louisiana based jazz band proving the theory that a stage initially designed for a couple of artists can comfortably house six musicians with a touch of improvisation. These New Orleans natives play an infectious style of music close to the roots of their city and while this was not their Maverick debut, catching them live for the first time was a wise Sunday morning choice.

As we head towards the conclusion of a highly successful tenth staging of the Maverick Festival, let’s turn the clock back nearly 48 hours and give a final mention to the duo that kicked off this personal spin around the event. True to a pre-determined plan to steer the viewing in a new band direction more this year, Hymn for Her got the nod and provided a style of music that got to the very core of the Festival – independent, authentic and extremely maverick.

Without the omnipresent powers to view every single act plus the thankful odd social breather, this concludes a comprehensive if not exhaustive list of the fabulous music that once again brought Easton Farm Park to life. No doubt during the post-festival reflection further recommended artists will be banded around, alongside the ‘must have seen’ sets that sadly haven’t made this review. However, Maverick Festival is not about lamenting what you didn’t see; it is about celebrating what you did catch, enjoy thoroughly and if so desire, choose to share with a willing world. 

Congratulations Maverick on your tenth anniversary with the hope that the next decade will just be as prosperous.