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Thornbury Theatre, October 2, 2017. Report: Greg Phillips Photos: Jason Rosewarne

Presented by Michael Chugg, Nash Chambers and the international Americana Music Association, the inaugural Australian Americana Music Honours event, held at Melbourne’s Thornbury Theatre last night was a fabulous celebration of Americana music in Australia. It was our nod and wink to the respected Americana Honors & Awards Show, which is held annually in Nashville, Tennessee.

The night got off to a grand beginning with US band Old Crow Medicine Show marching down from the balcony to the stage beating drums and launching into the always shambolic but joyous Bob Dylan song Rainy Day Woman. Lead singer Ketch Secor claimed soon after that Dylan was a pioneer of Americana the day he went electric. The band further celebrated Dylan with a rousing version of Wagon Wheel, a song Old Crow’s Ketch wrote with Dylan, albeit recorded remotely and the pair have never actually met.

Americana Music Association’s Jed Hilly was the special guest host along with 3RRR’s Denise Hyland. Hilly suggested that  the true definition of Americana music is that “If you can hear dirt through your ears, that’s Americana.” Hilly went on to tell the audience how Americana Music was finally awarded it’s own chart category by Billboard magazine last year.

Kevin Welch, a long time exponent of Americana music, who flits regularly between the US and Australia took to the stage for a passionate and gritty rendition of Blue and Lonesome before Old Crow’s Ketch returned to the stage to present the first of of the two *Vanguard Awards for the night. The award was then bestowed upon Australian Americana music stalwart Brian ‘BT’ Taranto, who among many other things, presents the annual Out On The Weekend festival in Williamstown, to be staged in a couple of weeks. In his acceptance speech, BT spoke of his first ever tour with US roots legend Tony Joe White and the irony of being into Americana music and being raised in outer suburban Dandenong.

Back to the music, Jordie Lane and The Sleepers, as expected delivered in a classy and heartfelt manner. The guys from Busby Marou and a very pregnant Catherine Britt combined forces on stage and sounded superb, as did UK based Aussie expat Emily Barker. The pairing of Ruby Boots (recently signed to acclaimed Chicago roots label Bloodshot) and Henry Wagons was dynamic too. Shane Howard’s Razor’s Edge was as nostalgic as it was simply beautiful but was soon upstaged by the vocal magic of the extraordinary Yirrmal Marika, whom Shane had invited to the stage. Yirrmal, nephew of the recently passed Dr G Yunupingu caused the audience to leap to their feet in a hail of cheers and applause. Backed by the formidable backing band of Bill Chambers, Syd Green, Glen Hannah and Ben Franz, every performer on the night rose to the occasion and delivered a stunning performance.

Just as you thought the delivery of a song couldn’t get any more spirited, Kasey Chambers then blew everyone away with her gut-wrenching torch song Aint No Little Girl. The stars kept aligning as Bernard Fanning joined proceedings for a beautiful version of ‘Watch Over Me, a song inspired by the music played at the funeral of Pope John Paul II, which Bernard had attended. Kasey was then presented with her Vanguard Award by Jed Hilly and she spoke of her love of Americana, which she used to refer to as ‘outcast’ music before it had a definition.

Brian Wagner of Tennessee Tourism spoke to the audience about his joy that Australia had embraced the brand of music made famous in his state. Briefly interrupted by an unwelcome and inappropriate audience member heckle about Trump, Wagner continued on with grace and welcomed Tennessean Valerie June to the stage, who proclaimed that “politics is distracting … people should look inside their hearts”, a sentiment wildly endorsed by the audience. June somehow combines folk, gospel, soul and Appalachian bluegrass into one unique and exhilarating form and continues to accumulate new fans worldwide. With the formalities over and each artist having their own time in the spotlight, it was time for an all in knees-up. Old Crow Medicine Show were joined by Kasey Chambers, Valerie June and Kevin Welch in a euphoric execution of the Americana hymn, ‪Will The Circle Be Unbroken‬.

As an awards event, the night was presented professionally, with dignity and was free of superfluous talk. As a punter-paying show, the first Australian Americana Music Honours was a triumph featuring world class performances, perfect sound, a menacing house band and a vibe you could bottle as A-grade moonshine.

* Unlike the annual Nashville Americana Honours event, which presents awards in multiple categories, the inaugural Australian version presented only two special Vanguard Awards this year, honouring Kasey Chambers and Brian Taranto.

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