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Finding excellence between Dukes and Maniacs

So here I am, in the middle of a gig at Sage Gateshead’s SummerTyne Americana Festival 2018 and I start pondering the depth of quality in UK female singer-songwriters.

Perhaps I should qualify this a little more. Even though this is an Americana festival, in the Northern Rock Foundation Hall (subtly rebranded the’ SummerTyne Lounge’ for three days), sandwiched between two behemoths of the scene, Steve Earle (three Grammy’s, seven weddings, six wives) with his Dukes in Hall 1 and Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs, political activist, friend of Michael Stipe) in Hall 2, two of the most promising talents of female British song writing give it the old ‘Yee-haw’ like they were born 5,000 miles across the Atlantic. Jade Bird and Holly Macve are only two of the many refreshingly exciting female acts currently mining rich musical seams. Jade topped Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart earlier this year with ‘Lottery’ and even in a country that seems to have a music chart covering every base, this is still a very big deal, as only six solo women, including Adele and Lorde, have managed to do so since 2010. And Holly, signed to Bella Union (always a guarantee of quality), writes timeless, yearning classics and belts them out with a voice like Kitty Wells.

The venue is buzzing, the sun is shining, hats, some of the cowboy variety, are very much in evidence and the mood is good. As Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ fades into the distance, Jade is duly introduced and bounds onto the stage. Apparently Jade is somewhat of a fixture on the nation’s (former) favourite, Radio 1. Which is a sure fire way to remain undiscovered by discerning music fans. A self-confessed babbler, Jade introduces tracks with enthusiasm and nervous chatter: “shall we have one about divorce?” The appropriately titled ‘Something American’ perfectly illustrates this venue’s suitability for acoustic performance. ‘Cathedral’ , introduced as “a song about jilting someone at the altar’ is a brilliant example of Jade’s “a lot of my songs are : ‘Screw you’” attitude. And the catchy ‘Uh-huh’ (still humming it now) is introduced as “this one is less about baring your soul, more about hunting you down.”

I first encountered Holly Macve when I was lucky enough to be asked to review her debut album Golden Eagle for the legendary NE:MM and, spoiler, it was magnificent. ‘Heartbreak Blues’ is so musically and thematically timeless that it wouldn’t have sounded out of place if released at any time in the last 60 years. Holly’s album was recorded in Newcastle, produced by Lanterns on the Lake’s Paul Gregory, and she tells us it’s good to be back before launching into its title track and one of the album’s (and this gig’s) many high points. There are some new songs from Holly tonight too; ‘Bird’ which is more ‘psychedelic’ than Holly’s other tunes, and the fabulous ‘Bring My Soul in From the Cold’, which, we are told, was written in a pub in Brighton on “one of those days”.

It seems somehow wrong to compare the artists on a double bill, but you know I’m going to do it anyway, so here I go. Jade and Holly make similar music. No surprises there, they’re both playing at an Americana festival. They’ve both developed a fine line in yearning, tear-jerking lyrics laced with raw emotion (example Jade: “He loves me, but it’s her he adores”, Holly: “As I walk beneath the evening sky, the darkness closes in”). No surprises there, they’re playing at an Americana etc…In all other respects though, they appear to be polar opposites. Jade’s act is all about interaction with the audience, peppering the gig with effortless inter-song waffle, while Holly is otherworldly and cool beyond belief, her languid, yodelling vocal perfectly suited to her deep, often ink-black, words.

Two superb, powerful authentic country voices, and, with due respect to Steve and Natalie, this was a gig that proves that you don’t need to see the biggest names to have the best time.

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