Voice of the people

A timely reminder that there has always been another, more gentle, United States

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On the day after Barack Obama promised in his inauguration speech to begin the work of remaking America, a group of artists took to the stage in the Barbican Centre to show that this work has already begun. Or better still, they reminded us that there have always been many different Americas, quietly going about their business despite being maligned and misrepresented by those rats in the White House.

These artists were sincere; they were funny, moving and dazzlingly diverse. Nobody talked politics; they didn't have to - the music and the joy with which it was received said it all.

The host for the evening was Seasick Steve, a Californian bluesman and former hobo who has improbably washed up living in Norfolk. His role was principally to lend his name to the event - he has picked up a substantial British following playing summer festivals, and for many in the audience he was the only familiar artist on the programme. Sitting at the side of the stage on a battered armchair surrounded by rustic-looking bric-a-brac, he often seemed as surprised as the rest of us at what he was seeing and hearing. "I didn't know all this was happening in America," he said after the first act, scratching his shaggy beard. "Young people picking up these old traditions and taking them on." And then as the evening wore on: "Tonight was a little bit special, don't ya think?"

The first act was the least impressive: Allison Williams, on banjo and vocals, and the fiddler Chance McCoy performed a couple of rollicking country numbers, accompanied by some impressive leg-swinging dance moves from the guitarist Danny Knicely. They somehow never fully inhabited the music: Williams was a late convert to country from punk, and had the harsh vocal tone to prove it.

A whiff of artifice also hung around the second act, the otherwise very entertaining C W Stoneking. Decked out in a snappy white suit, bow tie and black fedora, Stoneking looked like a plantation owner of the Twenties and sounded like a grizzled southern black man singing on a scratched 78 record. In fact, he grew up in Australia and his tales of hoodoo doctors and shipwrecks were less convincing than his music, with its drunken-sounding horns and slurry, growled vocals.

The evening really got under way with Cedric Watson and Bijoux Creole, a cajun band from Texas and Louisiana featuring fiddle, accordion, a washboard (imagine, if you can, a giant cheese-grater worn as a vest) and vocals in French Creole. Their lilting, percussive music was a rich cultural gumbo combining African and Caribbean rhythms with French-influenced accordion. It conjured up all-night whiskey-fuelled Mardi Gras parties, damp heat, spicy chicken cooked by somebody's grandma.

The following act, Diana Jones, could not have come as more of a contrast. Blonde and sweetly dressed, country-girl style, in fringed boots, Jones stopped the audience in its tracks with her first lines: "If I had a gun, you'd be dead/One to the heart, one to the head." Delivered in a clear, deep voice, Jones's songs were touching without tipping into sentimentality. She was the most political of the acts: one track told the story of a mining disaster, and the heart-stopping "Pony", told from the perspective of a native American boy, succeeded against all the odds in avoiding clichés.

The tempo picked up again with the Wiyos, a foot-stomping, trilby-hatted collective performing "vaudevillian ragtime blues, hillbilly swing and old-time country", before Steve himself took the mike, delivering a homespun recipe for cheese-topped apple pie ("apple pie without the cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze") and launching into "Chiggers", a heartfelt tirade against the flesh-eating bugs that make their homes in Texan cornfields.

By the time all the hollerers, stompers and ramblers took to the stage for a collective encore, my Bush-years blues had been banished. Mission 2009: to sleep on a hay bale under the southern stars and eat blueberry pancakes for breakfast.

Pick of the week

Richard Thompson: 1,000 Years of Popular Music
3 February, Barbican, London EC2
A musical history of the last millennium, presented by the acclaimed English guitarist and songwriter.

4 February, Cardiff International Arena, and touring
Who'd have thought weepy piano-rock could be so popular?

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling