Hackney Empire is one of those gorgeous spaces that hides in a city. Its exterior – completely deceiving, just another big, boxy building on a street of big, boxy buildings, but its interior – completely transporting. It’s one of those spectacular theaters that just seems to go up and up and up – shallow but tall – and where you know there’s not a bad seat in the house.
That’s where I found myself (well, me and several hundred of my Americana-loving friends) for the AMAUK Awards a few weeks ago. This was AMAUK’s first year at Hackney Empire, having previously hosted the awards show at (the also beautiful but definitely challenging) St. John at Hackney. It felt so right for the show to move to Hackney Empire this year – just another moment of elevating the experience for a festival that was clearly in a total moment of ascension.
Robert Vincent – a past recipient of AMAUK’s Bob Harris Emerging Artist Award – opened the show with a full band. I’ve seen him live a few times, but always with a fairly lean set-up – not solo, but definitely not like this. He performed “So In Love”. It was the perfect way to open the night and juxtaposed well with some of my other favorite moments – including a stirring solo acoustic performance by Emily Barker of “Over My Shoulder,” an evocative ballad from her Sweet Kind of Blue Album. (Robert and Emily were also both winners that night – Robert for UK Album of the Year for I’ll Make The Most Of My Sins and Emily for UK Artist of the Year.)
Bob Harris definitely knows how to pick ‘em, which he proved again this year with The Wandering Hearts, the 2018 recipients of his Emerging Artist Award. I’ll be honest – I was totally unfamiliar with their music and when they approached the stage I gave them a look and assumed it wouldn’t be my thing. I can’t explain it – but that feeling led to pleasant surprise which quickly escalated to totally smitten once they began to sing. (Proof: I’m actually listening to their new record Wild Silence as I write this.) Great songs, but the thing that got me was their vocals – the sweetness of their harmonies, the way their voices blend perfectly – made even more amazing when you hear what they can each do solo. Hands down, Wandering Hearts were one of my favorite discoveries of the festival.
Another favorite moment of the night was seeing Worry Dolls perform – I’ve seen these two brilliant gals a few times at AMAUKs past and at AmericanaFest in Nashville, and their new record Go Get Gone is a delight. It was wonderful to see them getting their due as nominees and performers – and just a few songs later, it was surreal to see them on stage alongside Robert Plant and Mumford and Sons!
Before I get to that very all-star jam, it bears mentioning that after Mumford and Sons accepted their Trailblazer Award, they stepped to the very tip of the stage and, with no amplification at all, performed a stunning version of “Sister.” I was lucky enough to be a few rows back the whole show, but I wondered in this moment what it sounded like in the top tiers – I imagine their voices carried beautifully throughout the venue. It was such a special moment and – like the moments with Robert Plant that came next – such an encouragement to see artists with so much success on a stage like this, so giving and generous, genuinely connecting through the music.
Lifetime Achievement honoree Robert Plant fittingly closed the show with his band The Sensational Space Shifters – and some help from the Mumfords, too. His performance really paid tribute to the roots music that has been formative for him and throughout his career: “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” a traditional spiritual, and “Gallows Pole,” which I’ll readily admit I first heard as performed by Led Zeppelin – say what you want about the influence of or the borrowing from the blues, but I (and many others, no doubt) came to a lot of blues forms and artists, Leadbelly included, through the voice of Robert Plant. Mumford and Sons joined on “Gallows Pole,” and much to my surprise, as I mentioned earlier, they all stuck around for the all-star jam. It’s no exaggeration to say that my mouth hung open through most of that song – which was Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers,” so yes, I was also weeping – because I sort of couldn’t believe it. These absolute legends were so happy to perform and make music with emerging artists and certainly plenty of artists they’d never heard of and only just met. In that moment I felt so lucky to be there to witness it – but I think that sentiment is actually my one-line review of the entire night.
I was honored and lucky to be in that audience. (And already counting down to next year!)
About the author: Elizabeth Cawein is a one-time band nerd who dreamed of writing for Rolling Stone. She’s now a music publicist and advocate in Memphis, Tennessee. She’s obsessed with Americana and soul music and connecting anything musical to its Memphis roots. You can see how she spends her days by following @signalflowpr and @musicexportmem on Twitter.