This is the fourth festival The Caledonia has hosted, and, at ten days, it’s the longest. A celebration of American roots music in all its forms, it’s a welcome addition to the city’s gig culture. And it’s completely free. Never a bad thing, that. There’s no doubting the amount of sheer graft that goes in to putting such a broad variety of events on in a pub, and that alone is further proof of the importance of The Cali.
The venue is already doing a roaring trade as New Orleans-based ANDREW DUHON takes the stage on the opening night. About twelve bars into the song Evelyn he sings “I found an empty boxcar and pulled her on board, we’d get south before the winter sets in,” and that line sums up the feel of his classic US troubadour set, with stories culled from the railroads and highways of the American Nightmare. Duhon’s resonant voice and bluesy strumming perfectly capture the small-town dreams of Just Another Beautiful Girl, while the shimmering slide of Sidestep Your Grave has the crowd stamping out the rhythm on the floorboards.
By the time MARTY O’REILLY and his band, the Old Soul Orchestra, get going it’s standing room only in a packed, hot and sweaty Caledonia – the perfect atmosphere for a rootsy line-up of drums, upright bass, fiddle and Resonator guitar. They launch into Junior Parker’s classic Mystery Train, O’Reilly’s Resonator sending out striking, anvil-clear riffs underneath the shimmering washes of Chris Lynch’s fiddle, before moving straight onto a mid-European waltz number. Lynch’s gypsy-fiddle meanderings are grounded by O’Reilly’s bluesy lines, a perfect example of the blending of cultures wrought from centuries of trans-Atlantic migration, and with more than a hint of Raindogs-era Tom Waits about it.
O’Reilly cuts an animated figure, hunched over his guitar, rocking back and forth, and grimacing as he solos. At the microphone, his thousand-yard stare gives him the look of a man channelling the spirits of his musical forebears.
As the night draws to a close, O’Reilly and his men lead the crowd out onto the street and, beneath a flapping Stars and Stripes, deliver a rousing, sing-along encore in which the crowd are only too happy to participate. There’s no roof to raise but Little Liza Jane blows the clouds away.
Eight days later and an early Friday evening feel permeates this most communal of city venues for the festival’s penultimate night. Tonight, we’re talkin’ all that jazz. Tonight’s opening act – THE YELLOW BELLY STRAGGLERS, with double bass and a stripped-down kit – bring their own brand of 20s swing jazz, fused with a tight hillbilly backbeat and a hint of Woody Guthrie. As well as carrying authentic rootsy vocals with tight and well-honed harmonies, this largely self-penned set shows that both Dave Brown and Amanda Searson are relaxed, accomplished guitarists, and are more than comfortable with the stylings of the genre. There’s a homely humour to some of these songs, which, again, adds to the authenticity of the whole. There’s a clear need for this band to head into a studio sometime soon, to gives songs like Weary Bones, Folks Like You, I Hate Myself, and tonight’s genius opening track, The Little Fish, the chance they so richly deserve.
Much has been made of the city’s links to the USA of late, and that link is undeniably strong and is clear to see on nights like this. THE DOWNTOWN DIXIELAND JAZZ BAND take us through a host of classic Dixie jazz, starting with Hindustan, and the Jazz Me Blues. Some of this band have been playing these songs for more than fifty years, and it’s easy to see why and how. On top of a solid rhythm section of Peter Campbell on double bass, and the tight and light skilful drumming of John Blackman, the trumpet, clarinet and banjo have plenty of room to move around the melodies, and the improvised lines bounce around the stage, delivered with an accomplishment that could only be attained from such experience. Amanda Brown returns and joins the band during the first set, for the brilliant Dr Jazz and Winehouse Blues, and set two also sees the return of Searson, to sing the classic Sweet Sue, a tune he delivers in a scratched rasping vocal and with all the wizened passion of someone who was almost born with these songs in him, and lending another layer to the band’s stomping jazzy wonder. A fine, spirited end to the show is brought with a swinging version of Shine On Harvest Moon, and the crowd dance on long after the band finish.
One of the Caledonia’s best features is its dog-friendly status, but on the closing Saturday night of this year’s Americana Festival it’s strictly Cats (and one Badger). Opening with a set of covers, THE UPSIDEDOWN CATS don’t treat them like museum pieces – and playing the Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go alongside Eddie Cochran and Johnny Cash hits makes perfect sense.
Hissing cymbals and slapping strings complement clinking glasses, scraping stools, and low-level conversation – it’s the American accent of music. Ex-La’s man MIKE BADGER doesn’t play rockabilly with a Scouse twang, though. His is as close to the genuine article as we’ll get these days, especially as Americans have long since been homogenising their roots music with pop production’s heat lamp.
With such a formula, you’d think that every possible rock ‘n’ roll lyric ‘n’ hook would have been written by the early 60s. But the silver-quiffed Badger and his SHADY TRIO get a lot of mileage out of it in originals like Rockabilly Man and Tupelo Hardware Store, however coolly they may shrug and drag on their cigarettes (outdoors, of course). The lyric “You’ve got the knife and I’ve got the fork/You’ve got the wine and I’ve got the cork,” could’ve been around forever. Tupelo Hardware Store, for context, is where Elvis bought his first guitar.
We should be grateful for this Americana Festival, for all the great music, and, most of all, for The Caledonia – the best little music pub this side of the Mason-Dixie line.
Paul Fitzgerald / @nothingvillemusic
Stuart Miles O’Hara / @ohasm1