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Music for all tastes at festival; Something for everyone is a well-used expression, but the term really is appropriate for this weekend's annual Gateshead SummerTyne Americana festival based in and around The Sage Gateshead. As the profiles show, the organisers have been particularly adept at conjuring up a broad-based programme with genuine cross-genre appeal. Inclusivity is the word, writes ALAN NICHOL.


FROM noon today, the outdoor stage has a three-day line-up of talent.

Today's bill is exclusively local, then tomorrow and Sunday there is a roster of international acts.

Justin Townes Earle, Hogeye (Vera & Jock from the New Rope String Band), Scotland's John Miller and his Country Casuals, Lucky Strikes and Sean Taylor all make for a varied bill of fare.

Sunday has Louisiana's Savoy Cajun Band, Richmond Fontaine Acoustic Duo, Geordie soul/funksters Smoove and Turrell, Redlands Palominos, Charlie Dore Hula Valley Orchestra and Yorkshire's John Strong Band.

Inside The Sage are Paul Burch & WPA Ballclub and banjo star Abigail Washburn & the Village. Chuck Prophet & the Spanish Bombs re-create the Clash's Lon-don Calling album in a special feature in Hall 2 on Sunday night.

So, lots and lots of music and, if the weather is as kind as it has been in the past (mostly), it should be another highly successful venture which further establishes the festival as one of the very best in the roots music calendar.

The last point is underlined by the fact that the BBC's Steve Drayton MCs the proceedings on Sunday's Jumpin' Hot outdoor stage.

IRMA Thomas - the "Soul Queen of New Orleans" - makes a very rare UK appearance at the festival tomorrow night (Hall 1 at 7.30pm). Her only other show over here is at London's Barbican theatre.

The Grammy-winning soul singer was born Irma Lee in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, and, boy, has she a tale to tell!

Like her contemporary, Aretha Franklin, Irma sang in the church choir as a girl, however, the similarity ends there.

By the time she had reached 19, Irma had been married twice (she takes her second exhusband's name) and had four children. She worked as a waitress to pay the bills and her sometime band-leader, Tommy Ridgely, helped land a record deal with the local Ron Records. With some symmetry, her first single was You Can Have My Husband (But Leave My Man Alone) and it made the R&B chart.

She swapped labels and recorded with New Orleans main man Allen Toussaint for Minit Records, releasing It's Raining and Ruler Of My Heart (later re-fashioned as Pain In My Heart by Otis Redding).

She recorded a song by the young Randy Newman (Anyone Who Knows What Love Is) and Time Is On My Side.

The latter was picked-up by the Rolling Stones and recorded (almost in carbon copy) on the band's debut album.

Irma also had success with the Imperial label and, for a brief period, with Chicago's Chess Records, too.

Despite the fact that her records charted, the mainstream success of several contemporaries - Aretha, Etta James, Gladys Knight, for example - eluded her.

She relocated to California for a while but returned to New Orleans and opened a club, the Lion's Den (later a casualty in the calamitous Hurricane Katrina) in the early 1980s.

I spoke to Irma this week and asked her about the near-fabled start of her career, as a child singing in church and her subsequent move to recording.

"I was fortunate enough to grow up in the early stages of rhythm and blues, before they started calling it rock and roll," she said. "I heard a lot of early BB King, the Platters, all the early stars who were prevalent at the time."

Irma is modest and down-to-earth when recalling this period but the truth is she worked - still in her teens, initially - with some of the great names in the history of popular music. Cosimo Matassa - "all of my early music was recorded in his studio" - Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint were architects of the New Orleans sound and the birth of what became rock 'n' roll.

Some long-disbanded labels recorded Irma Thomas, as she explained: "I auditioned for several of them and, the first time I auditioned for Minit Records, they turned me down - they didn't take me until after I recorded with Ron Records. "I auditioned for (Art Rupe's LA-based) Speciality label but he said I was too young at 13."

Church, she told me, was at the centre of her childhood. "Always, it was what I did, part of my weekly routine. You went to school, went to church, it was part of family life." I asked her if there was any period of her recording career that she remembered especially.

"Not really. As a recording artist, you have some love or attachment to the music before you record it.

"There's very rarely a specific song or session that stands out more than any other. Maybe the one with BB King (Blues Summit - a duet on We're Gonna Make It). I grew up listening to him never thinking I'd ever get the opportunity to record with him." Irma is a keen movie-watcher and, when I asked her, if there were to be a biographical film of her life, who would she suggest in the role, she laughed: "I don't know, maybe Jennifer Kate Hudson in the early years. She can sing and do the job.

"I've never met her but, from observation, she has a down-to-earth character, like mine."

A book, not totally autobiographical, is at the midway point in preparation, so you never know, it may happen. Irma Thomas performs with her own seven-piece band - the Professionals (members have been with her for between 10 and 20 years) - and the show is opened by fellow Crescent City residents, the Soul Rebels Brass Band.

LYDIA and Laura Rogers - the Secret Sisters --have made a profound impact on the current roots music scene since they appeared on Later...with Jools Holland back in December.

I spoke to the girls the day after they recorded the show and they told me that, not only was the London trip the first time they had been to the UK, it was the first time that they had flown!

They were at the City Hall in February this year (opening for Ray LaMontagne) and brought the house down with their 50s-style close harmony singing and natural charm.

The girls released their self-titled debut album to huge acclaim and they have toured relentlessly since. This is the first regional show in which the girls headline and there is sure to be a full house in the intimate surroundings of Hall 2 tonight.

ACROSS in Hall 1 tonight is the former Mavericks vocalist, Raul Malo, now a decade into a solo career. He has been featured here recently but this show has a real difference.

Malo appears with the Northern Sinfonia in a specially-commissioned programme which sees him mix his own material - traditional and popular songs - with some well-established classics from the Great American songbook, Tex Mex, country and Latin work.

SUNDAY night's headliner is the laid-back Texas songster Lyle Lovett.

Lovett was born in the small town of Klein (now effectively a suburb of Houston) which was named after his grandfather, an immigrant weaver from Germany.

He studied German and journalism at university before embarking on a twin-track career in music and films, sometimes managing both at the same time.

His break came courtesy of renowned songwriter, Guy Clark, who was instrumental in getting Lovett a recording contract. In total, he has acted in around 20 films, performed songs in about 20 more and has over a dozen albums. He made his first record back in 1986 and had serious success with Joshua Judges Ruth (1992), Road To Ensenada (1996), Step Inside This House (1998), My Baby Don't Tolerate (2003) and It's Not Big, It's Large (2007), most of which went Gold in the US and made the country top 10 chart.

He met Julia Roberts during the making of the film The Player in 1993 and the pair were married (though now divorced) that year.

This is a rare visit to the UK for Lovett and he brings with him his acoustic line-up, one of several formats with which he tours.

ONE of the fastest-rising young performers on the roots scene is the 20-year-old Texan multiinstrumentalist, Sarah Jarosz.

She recorded her first album before she was 18 - Song Up In Her Head - and released the follow-up just a couple of months ago, Follow Me Down.

The latter record has a stellar line-up - Chris Thile (Punch Brothers), Jerry Douglas, Darrell Scott, Stuart Duncan, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and more - and Jarosz is not over-awed by any of them.

She sings, writes (and even coproduced this record) and plays eight different instruments on the album.

Most of the 11 tracks are Jarosz originals but she springs a couple of surprises with a great version of Bob Dylan's Ring Them Bells and Radiohead's The Tourist.

She may have started in the bluegrass genre but she will not be limited to that as gigs with the Punch Brothers and Mumford & Sons ("a blast to hang with those guys" ) proves.

Her talent is such that she is likely to follow the same trajectory as one of her inspirations, Gillian Welch. And she has a laudably broad range of influences, from Tim O'Brien to Wilco, Dylan to the Decemberists.

I spoke to Sarah this week as she starts her first-ever UK tour, although she did participate in the Transatlantic Sessions earlier this year.

I asked what set the multi-instrumental ball rolling. She said: "Well, I've been singing all my life, I guess you could say that, but when I was about 10 I picked-up the mandolin.

"I really like the sound of it. Both my parents - teachers - are music lovers, so there was always music in the house.

"Then I met other kids my age who were into it and I just thought it was a really cool thing to be doing."

Jarosz is half-way through a four-year college course at Boston's New England Conservatory and has to fit her touring schedule around term time. She is equal to the challenge, I'm sure, and I'm just as certain that her future in music is assured based on the calibre of her first two recordings.

Not only that, her open-mindedness is refreshing, as anyone who can write original material like she does and then do live covers of Gnarls Barkley, Tom Waits and Bill Withers deserves to prosper.

Catch this very talented lady in Hall 2 on Saturday afternoon at 2pm and then as opening act for Lyle Lovett on Sunday night.

THE album which had the music press in a complete frenzy last year was Queen of Denmark (Bella Union) by John Grant.

Almost every pundit chose to eulogise about the record of an artist who, up to that point, only a select band were aware of. Not that Grant was a newcomer to the art of making records.

His previous band, the Czars, made seven albums from his home town of Denver, Colorado, without achieving any real commercial success.

They did receive critical praise - mostly for Grant's writing - but, as we know, that does not put food on the table. Nevertheless, since then, Grant has toured like a salesman on bonus, playing shows across the continents and receiving widespread airplay.

He told me earlier in the year that he is scheduled to return to the studio (again, with his pals, Midlake) for the follow-up record in the autumn. Meanwhile, he is hugely in demand for live shows and makes a swift return to play the Sage's Hall 2 on Saturday night at 10pm.


FINDING FAME Singer John Grant GIFTED Texan multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz HEADLINE singing duo The Secret Sisters - Laura, left, and Lydia Rogers TOP ACTS left to right, Lyle Lovett, Justin Townes Earle and Irma Thomas
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:1U7LA
Date:Jul 22, 2011
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