Maverick Festival: "A Case Of The Feels" For Americana Fans In The UK

Maverick Festival 2018. A curation and celebration of Americana music from North America and across the water on the Albion side of the Atlantic. Five stages, 48 acts, workshops, film, and so much more.

The UK’s first Americana festival, it opened its doors in gorgeous Easton Farm Park in Suffolk back in 2008, and according to founder Paul Spencer, Maverick is exactly where it should be. “The ethos, the general spirit, and the whole aesthetic hasn't changed, it has done exactly what we set out to do,” he explained over the phone, taking time out from organising the 11th Maverick Festival, this year running 6th- 8th July.

Things have changed though since that initial festival – the experiment, the pilot, or what he has described as a “big garden party.” But what he lost in money, he gained in experience and the festival has only improved. “We have grown,” he pointed out. “We now have five stages. In the beginning there were two, but as far as I can see that is as far as it will go. It has changed in terms of the amount of music we put on, and the number of stages, but we’ve kept it very sympathetic to the site, so it will always have this nice intimate vibe.”

Spencer has long years of experience in the music business - as a drummer and also as a film maker. After living for years in the USA he returned to England and found himself looking for a new area of work. “I had to look around for something else to do” he recalled. “I've got a very limited skill set. I've been in the music business since I was 17 so I only really know about the music business. I know about music video film, and I played in a load of bands when I first started out, but I needed to dig deep and come up with something that would use my skill set and enable me to live in Suffolk … in terms of how I was going to make a living and keep my body and soul together.”

During those years in the U.S he had fallen in love with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “It has lots of cool music and vibe, and I wanted to bring some of that spirit to a festival in England.”

At first he wasn’t sure which genre the festival should cover. “I had a good friend who was a key part in the early days of the concept, [the record sleeve designer] Ken Ansell.” Heavily influenced by Ansell’s enormous record collection they started to look at alt-country. This however created its own challenges. “To say the word ‘country’ in your publicity, certainly in 2008, proved to be really quite a problem,” Spencer continued. “Even though we called it alt-country, nobody actually knew what alt- country was. They mistook it for big hats, and rhinestones, and country and western, and a lot of negative imagery that came with that. It just did not relate to the people we were trying to reach. What we now call Americana had that alternative country thing, but people couldn't really grasp it over here, so it took several years to get people to even begin to understand what sort of music we were putting on.”

However, Spencer persisted, and it hasn’t been easy. “The festival is probably the hardest thing I’ve done,” he admitted, recalling the huge impact it had on him financially, and not least on his family life. “I was banging on about it at every dinner party, every bar we went to, every holiday we went on. Anyone I met on the street, at the market, whatever. I would be banging on and on about Maverick because I just had to get it on the radar. … My kids, everybody, got sick of it. But you know, now I don't have to do that.”

He knew this was the right path, and progressively over the years he has been proved right. “Then came the happy day when I was approached by two leading Americana alt-country agents to form the Americana Music Association UK (AMA-UK ), because we wanted to identify ourselves as Americana, push that genre out into the world, and have people understand what it was, what it is, and celebrate it. Bring people together in that part of the industry, forge an identity for it and bring it forward.”

Beyond all five of its stages, Maverick this year is offering much more than music. As Spencer pointed out, “the festival has to have a celebration of the culture and more than just the music.” For Maverick this develops organically from the programme. For example, “this year we are concentrating very much on Hawaii … something really credible about Hawaii and the debt that country music owes to Hawaii and the steel guitar, the slack key guitar, and so on.  We've got a whole lot going on with Hawaiian singer Kehau Kahananui coming over … she will do a hula workshop, an authentic beginners class, so that people can see how that works.”

In regard to the music though, there is a successful structure to the festival, a structure to which Spencer sometimes has difficulty sticking. “I have a rule and unfortunately I break it periodically,” he confessed. “My rule is that I do not repeat a band on a second year.” This however, is easier said than done. Not through lack of choice – there is a plethora of talent out there – it is because some artists were just too good not to have back the following year.

Take British southern-gothic rock band Curse Of Lono for example. They played the festival last year, but Spencer is pulling rank. “Curse of Lono … people love them. They’re just maturing as a band. [Lead singer] Felix [Bechtolsheimer] is great. He served his time in Hey Negrita before that … I’m excited about putting them on the outdoors stage … it is breaking the rule, but it is my festival and if I decide, then, that rule just goes out the window if I think it’s deserved.”

“To be honest, we were a bit nervous before we played Maverick last year as our sound is a bit more rocky than most of the other acts on the bill,” Bechtolsheimer admitted about playing 2017’s festival. “[We] needn't have worried. The crowd was 100% behind us from the very first note. We played a lot of festivals last year and Maverick was probably our favourite one, certainly in the UK. I think that we suit the festival as our sound adds a slightly darker and heavier flavour to what else is on offer over the weekend.”

“There is a really cool Americana and roots scene in the UK now,” he continued. “When we started Hey Negrita there was none of that and there were very few bands in the UK who knew what a banjo was. Now we have festivals like Maverick and we have the UK Americana Association, who have really supported us and helped us get our foot in the door. This has meant that things have moved much faster for Curse Of Lono than they did with Hey Negrita. Although the two journeys have been very different, I feel very privileged to have been part of both of them.”

Canadian musician and singer song writer Terra Lightfoot is another artist over whom Spencer couldn’t help breaking his own rules. “She played on the Saturday night last year,” he told me. “She wasn’t on the main stage, but I knew that people would flip over her. And they did absolutely flip … she’s great, and I just felt that, Yes! I'm going to have her back.”

Last year Lightfoot was honoured by the Canadian Independent Music Association for being a touring musician selling at least 25,000 concert seats in a 12-month period. Those numbers solely include sales in Canada, but they can be a good measurement of the growing number of people keen to see her live.  “We love the UK,” she responded on why she wants to travel back across the Atlantic to play. “Scotland is where my family comes from, so I’m always keen to stop there, though we’ve toured all over England and made many friends. I can’t wait to come back to play Maverick …I feel really at home at that festival … I’ve always got something up my sleeve and Maverick is a special place for us. I feel like it’s the place our music first landed in the UK. People went wild during our first performance there — I remember it was Canada Day and we said something about being Canadian and people lost their minds. A beautiful memory.”

“Hard rocking -folkin-alt-art country” artist Amelia White has dedicated over five weeks to tour England and Scotland over the summer. I asked her howcome? And her response was honest to the bone. “I will go anywhere to play my songs for an audience who cares and listens. I’ve found that in the UK, and added delights are the intelligence, the ocean, English gardens, tea, moody skies, and NO GUNS!”

“Amelia white hasn’t been here for at least two maybe three years,” Spencer explained. She has this new album [Rhythm Of The Rain],  and I just felt this was time to have her back and see.  I like to get people before they break, as they’re on their journey, as they’re developing, and as they’re getting what I consider to be more and more mature and interesting as artists.  Occasionally they’ll last for a while and then disappear. or someone like Amelia, who I think is just coming into her stride.”

It was while touring England in 2016 that White started writing songs for The Rhythm of the Rain. “There’s a freedom to writing songs on the road,” she explained. “Homesickness can bring about an ache that is conducive and watching the political and social turmoil of the US through the eyes of the BBC certainly influenced the content of the album.”

Accompaniment for White at the festival will come in the form of Thomas Collison “on various strings and keys and Scott Warman on the double bass. We hope to give you a case of the feels - moments of gritty laced with pretty melodies … Maverick is utterly unique and pastorally so pleasing. I am an animal lover so being surrounded by them while making music is perfectly fine by me. It’s also amazing how many friends I ran into- one of those gatherings where you feel the heart and soul of the Americana community.

Portland’s Jeffrey Martin on the other hand is a brand new talent coming over to tour the UK over the summer, including three shows at Maverick. His latest album, One Go Around, was released late last year. “I think he’s a great songwriter,” Spencer told me simply. He’s going to lead one of the sessions at the AMA Songwriters Circle this year … We’re creating these sessions which will be led by different people - Jeffrey Martin is a great songwriter and a good raconteur.”

Always working on something, Martin has new projects brewing. “But I guard them closely, mostly out of superstition.  I'm afraid if I talk about new songs, or a new album too much before it is fully formed, I'll somehow undermine its creation.  I do feel like I'm on the verge of catching another wave of songwriting though, which is always a good feeling.  There are a lot of quarter and half songs floating around in my head and I just need to find the time to let them cook fully.    

“I toured last year in the UK for the first time,” he recalled. “[I] loved it so much I had to come back … There’s an attention to lyrics here that I find is pretty rare.  It's encouraging, to say the least.”

With this in mind he will be hitting the stages at Maverick to “play a few songs solo, some older tunes, some brand new unrecorded tunes, and then I'll have the amazing Anna Tivel join me with her violin on a number of songs as well. I don't like to stick to a certain album, or only my most recent songs in a set--  so I'll most likely be playing songs from all over the past 8 years or so.  Who knows, a cover tune might find its way in there also.  I don't write set lists, so it's as much of a surprise to me as it will be to anyone else what I play.”

From Cordovas to Hans Chew, Southern Avenue to Gwenifer Raymond check out the full three day Maverick Festival line up - 6th- 8th July 2018.