Pull on your cowboy boots, put on your Stetson and hitch up your jeans for four days of honky-tonkin’ country music deep in the heart of… New York City. Tim Cooper previews this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival, taking place on September 19-22.
The old-time sound of fiddles and mandolins will be heard all along the Brooklyn waterfront when the fifth Brooklyn Americana Festival kicks off on the banks of the East River later this month.
One of the city’s best-kept secrets (at least until now), the four-day free festival from September 19-22 is just a short – and spectacularly picturesque – walk away from the tourist hot spots of Manhattan.
It takes place across seven indoor and outdoor stages in the lesser-visited areas of Dumbo and Red Hook at the southern end of Brooklyn, and showcases the roots music of America – folk and country, blues and jazz, bluegrass, honkytonk and Western swing.
Once a wilderness of derelict warehouses and wharves where The Sopranos dumped the bodies, these now-gentrified neighbourhoods bustle with bars, restaurants and art galleries today, making them well worth a visit in their own right.
And when the walk there from downtown Manhattan involves crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the most iconic structures in the world, there’s no excuse not to mosey on over and enter a very different world from Times Square and Central Park.
Much of the festival takes place on the shore right beneath the bridge’s iron girders, offering the best views of the downtown New York, the Statue of Liberty and the bridge itself – a panorama apparently second only to the Eiffel Tower on Instagram – and in the recently gentrified riverside park.
What’s more the festival is all the work of an Englishwoman. Jan Bell, a self-described “Thatcher runaway” and staunch country music enthusiast with her own band, The Maybelles, left her native Yorkshire mining village for New York in the late 1980s.
Initially planning only to spend a summer teaching children in the city, Jan stayed on to volunteer at a camp for terminally ill children in upstate New York and, encouraged by her fellow volunteers, ended up moving permanently to New York, finding a home in Dumbo before the tech start-ups began moving in in at the end of the century.
Today, Dumbo (an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass)is the most expensive district of Brooklyn (and the fourth-richest in NYC), following a 20-year transformation. “Back in the late 1990s Dumbo was a sleepy backwater full of derelict warehouses,” Jan recalls. “Visual artists took over entire floors of massive turn-of-the-century buildings: places with tall ceilings and lots of light. We all helped carry sheetrock upstairs and learned how to build bathrooms and kitchens.”
Today’s festival is the culmination of 20 years of putting on live music events in Dumbo for Jan, beginning in the summer of 1999 when the Superfine Restaurant Bar and Art Space (one of the participating venues) took over the kitchen in a bar called Between The Bridges, a century-old watering hole for the ironworkers who built the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
When artists (including Jan) began to move into the neighbourhood in the 1990s, they began organising an open studios weekend and Jan’s band, The Maybelles, performed on the back of the Superfine chef’s 1964 Ford pick-up truck. In 2000 she began putting on bands at the Dumbo Art Festival (originally Dumbo Art Under The Bridge Festival) in a large loading dock that could be used as a natural raised stage.
When that festival came to an end in 2014 she decided to keep the live music element going by starting the Brooklyn Americana Festival. “My stages at Dumbo Arts Festival were in an old tobacco warehouse with no roof – now home to the world-class theatre St Ann’s Warehouse,” she adds.
“A couple of times we performed under the cottonwood tree when the park was just one little area between the bridges, now occupied by Jane’s Carousel”– a historic wooden merry-go-round built in 1922 for an amusement park in Ohio and moved to Brooklyn Bridge Park when it closed down in the 1980s.
This year more than 50 events will be taking place across seven stages at venues ranging from the beautiful old Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook – venue for the opening jamboree – and nearby neighbourhood bar Sunny’s, to bars and restaurants in Dumbo and stages beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Performers range from established and emerging Brooklyn bands to rising stars from Austin, Texas, New Orleans and the American heartland. The festival is supported by Brooklyn Arts Council, New York State Department of Cultural Affairs and New York State Council on the Arts, along with some discretionary funding from the local council through Dumbo Business Improvement District. “But it’s the pioneering small local businesses that are the backbone of the festival,” stresses Jan, “especially Superfine, 68 Jay Street Bar and many local individuals.”
Sponsors include Coney Island Brewery and the bigger Sixpoint Brewery has come on board this year. Notably, the NYC Ferry, which has made it much easier to get from A to B along the East River that divides Brooklyn from Manhattan, has stops at all the stages and supports the festival with onboard signage and listings on its website.
Tell me more about the Brooklyn Americana Festival: September 18-22
Venues: The Dumbo Archway – Superfine – 68 Jay Street Bar – Jalopy Theatre – Powerhouse Books – Sunny’s Bar – Liberty View Stage at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park
Opening Night Gala – Thursday (Sep 19) at The Jalopy Theater. Women artists from Black Oak Roster hosted by Jan Bell & the Maybelles. 8pm
Liberty View Women’s Stage featuring female only bands Saturday and Sunday (Sep 21/22) in Brooklyn Bridge Park on Pier 6 from 2pm – 8pm.
Superfine Restaurant-Bar And Performance Art Gallery Pioneering artist-owned and operated establishment Superfine enter their 21st year in the neighborhood. Recipient of the Mayor’s Award for women in business.
Friday (Sep 20) at 8pm: SABINE Mccalla and the Dew Drops
Saturday (Sep 2) at 8pm: Jackson Lynch and friends
Sunday (Sep 22): Green Chile Bluegrass Brunch (longest-running bluegrass brunch in Brooklyn): Noon Annie Ford Mercury (Portland, OR) & 1:30 pm Tiger Alley (Austin, TX); 4pm Storytime with Melanie Hope Greenberg.
After Party: Sunday (Sep 22) 6pm – 10pm featuring Tiger Alley, The Troubadours of Divine Bliss (Louisville, KY) and Megan Palmer (Nashville, TN by way of Bkln)