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Americana fest moves beyond borders

Nashville, September 17, 2014

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

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It's the final night of the 2014 Americana Festival and Conference, and the final event of a spectacular five-day run. Lucinda Williams is about to begin a last minute invitation-only performance at the newly opened City Winery in Nashville, but first, Americana Music Association Executive Director Jed Hilly walks to the microphone.

Americana is now a very real, living and breathing genre that finally found true context, he declares. It's a statement that's obvious to all who attend, as evidenced through the music, through the bonds of fellowship, through the shared experiences that ebbed and flowed throughout the festivities.

Yet, what Hilly doesn't point out, but what is equally true, is that the term Americana may have finally outgrown its initial meaning. For what had begun as a broad patchwork of singer/songwriters with a feel for the heartland and a scrappy roots rock, alt-country sound has now found a larger audience, one that embraces artists from all over the world -- from the U.K. and Europe to the far realms of the Pacific. Indeed, the very term "Americana" seems something of a misnomer now, especially considering the international evocation.

And yet, even characterizing this festival and conference as "international" seems something of an understatement. It's like describing Nashville - wonderful, wonderful Nashville - as a bastion of great music. Well, yeah, y'all. Forget those gracious and soothing southern accents. We heard the sound-speak of Aussies, Brits, Canadians, Norwegians, French and those from near and far. Ironically, the most difficult accents in terms of interpretation were those of the cab drivers, many of who seem to hail from regions even further removed.

That universality is one reason why Americana now bears such strong purpose. On Wednesday, the opening night of the festivities, the much anticipated Annual Americana Honors and Awards Show - held at the fabled Ryman Auditorium - demonstrated how a wellspring of common emotion can run so deep.

There was the heartfelt appreciation for lifetime achievers Loretta Lynn, Flaco Jimenez, Taj Mahal and Jackson Browne. There was delight in seeing Ry Cooder make his presence known as part of the all-star band guided under the musical direction of the steadfast Buddy Miller. There was joy shared with Jason Isbell, Hard Working Americans, Milk Carton Kids and Sturgill Simpson when they won honors for up and coming accomplishment.

And, of course, there was the appreciation for the genuine country gentleman Jim Lauderdale who steered the entire program with his usual finesse and humility. Likewise, where else can you catch a legend like Robert Plant making an unannounced cameo, singing in the company of his former paramour Patty Griffin while maintaining such a unobtrusive demeanor? One can only imagine the mutual nods shared in that all-star backstage gathering.

Still, the Americana Festival is mainly about more unassuming encounters. Consequently, our day began with the enjoyment of some intimate performances and complementary hotdogs at the headquarters of Compass Records. It was there that we were offered the chance to enjoy music and conversation with label boss Allison Brown, the Duhks, Jim Oblon, John Cowan, and Mike Farris. It was great to see the digs belonging to one of Nashville's most industrious record labels. the heart and soul of Nashville's thriving music industry was brought home in a way that's best described as up close and personal.

Later, after the awards show, the festivities began in earnest, manifest in a progression of shuttle-traveled venues which illustrate the essence of Nashville's stellar live music scene. It was the beginning of a nightly series of difficult choices that pitted opportunity to see one rarified band or artist against another, seemingly impossible decisions that encompassed logistics, crowds, the preference of companions and a dizzying array of motivating factors.

The decisions mostly proved most gratifying. For example, Wednesday night we were urged to go to the Mercy Lounge to see Del Barber, a relative unknown, but a rollicking performer regardless. On the other hand, some concert picks proved less favorable, as we found out when we swarmed to the adjacent Cannery Ballroom to catch Todd Snider and friends... only to find the friends but no Todd Snider.

Snider, who had earlier appeared at the awards show dressed in a white undershirt sans shoes before inexplicably exiting the stage in mid way into his designated performance, earned the distinction of being the unofficial bad boy of the event, courtesy of his no-show and evidence of erratic behavior.

To its credit, the Americana Music Festival and Conference puts as much emphasis on the second half of its branding as it does on the first. Hence, there was a wide variety of seminars, panel discussions and educational opportunities that tackled subjects like marketing, airplay, management, career development, and navigating one's way through the vast realms of cyberspace.

The discussion of most interest was a discussion of the Everly Brothers' influence on Americana and pop music in general. The observations from a panel of experts that included Rodney Crowell were especially astute, but it was the vintage film clips depicting the Brothers in their various stages of progression that drove the point home - that point being that without the Everlys, the future progression of rock and country music might have been inextricably altered forever.

The name given the Outlaws & Gunslingers Luncheon on Thursday proved something of a misnomer. Hosted by Six Shooter Records and Starfish Entertainment, it was a showcase for a gathering of Canadian artists, among them NQ Arbuckle, Oh Susanna and Sean Rowe. A fondness for Canadian music was fully affirmed, and the opportunity to chat with the Arbuckle's namesake (at least as far as its two initials are concerned) provided some terrific comic repartee.

Still it was the stars that littered the stages that made for another great night of music. Following a return to Soulshine Pizza for the Plowboy Records Party, the Cannery hosted the electrifying Lee Ann Womack, before venturing upstairs to enjoy Amy Ray's terrific country band and a performance by Robert Ellis, winner of numerous kudos at the awards ceremony the night before. Buddy Miller and Trigger Hippy, Joan Osborne's impressive new jam band conglomerate with Jackie Green, attracted attention next.

However, the highlight was far removed from the crowds and the chaos. The newly christened City Winery, opened mere days before, was the site for solo sets by Joe Henry and Robyn Hitchcock, both of whom held the crowd wowed and rapt throughout. The beauty of Henry's intimate compositions was countered by Hitchcock's off kilter psychedelia and a set of songs ("My Wife and My Dead Wife," "Madonna of the Wasps," "Queen Elvis" and a sterling take on the Psychedelic Furs' lovely "Ghost in You"). A welcome cameo from Grant Lee-Phillips further added to the star-like assemblage.

Friday at Americana would prove equally auspicious. The day began with the Sounds Australia Taste of Australia" luncheon, a gathering which featured not your traditional cuisine from Down Under but rather pizza. An outstanding array of Australian artists - Immigrant Union, Falls, Brooke Russell & the Mean Reds, the Mae Trio and the Audreys - offered short but spectacular sets of wistful Americana music done Aussie style, further affirming the fact that the physical reach of this particular genre is indeed worldwide. Hosted by the inimitable Dobe Newton, an erudite entertainer himself, the fest attracted none other than Robyn Hitchcock, who did his best to blend with the crowd and enjoy the sounds... despite some pestering by diehard fans.

That was all the more obvious when we achieved another one of those once in a lifetime moments, the result of an invitation to go backstage at the Grand Ole' Opry, a place of incredible iconic glory and great music all wrapped in one magnificent historical setting. Artists play short 10-minute sets, while backstage guests sit in church pews and observe the performances as well as the comings and goings of musicians, back-up singers, stage hands, a radio announcer and, of course, the performers themselves.

On this particular evening we were treated to an array of both stalwarts and up and comers, from old guard artists like John Conlee Jean Sheppard and Jeannie Seely to the rambling teen and pre-teen combo Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, the spectacular Steep Canyon Rangers, the omnipresent Jim Lauderdale and the artist that literally stopped the show, Mo Pitney. Pitney was the only one who appeared truly nervous, but he went down a storm, even to the point of being asked to come back for a third song, the only artist of the night to receive such kudos.

Still, more than the music, being backstage at the Opry offered the opportunity to actually find ourselves in this breeding ground for so many country music legends.

While it might have been enough to end the evening at the Opry, a trip to 3rd and Lindsey led to catching the tail end of Hayes Carll's set, followed by the old time mountain revelry of the Howlin' Brothers and a full set by Lauderdale who indeed he seems to be everywhere.

With all that potential revelry in store, the joint was packed as usual. Much hyped band The Bros. Landreth delivered an exemplary set that included a pair of Wings re-dos, "Let 'Em In" and "Let Me Roll It." Hearing such reverence made the Brothers endearing.

There was one more stop to make, that being the High Watt, located in the same complex and only a few steps away. The evening ended with the melodic strains of Truth & Salvage Company. All in all, it was a fortunate choice, but given the array of decisions that confronted us earlier in the evening, those that we passed on instilled some regret.

The array of choices for Saturday proved even more daunting, offering further proof that the ability to be in more than one place at once would be a most valuable asset if such a thing were possible.

The first stop of the day brought us to Americanarama at Grimeys, an actual real record store, the sort that's all too rare these days. It was there that we witnessed a short set by Ian McLagan.

From there, it was off to the Bootleg BBQ held at another renowned record retail spot, The Groove, where an outstanding array of British bands held court in the store's backyard. Those in attendance included Pete Molinari, Emily Barker, Danny and the Champions of the World and non-Brits Israel Nash and Austin Lucas.

The next destination was the Riverfront for the night's big show, featuring Lone Bellow and the Avett Brothers. The setting was ideal; instead of the usual uncomfortable setting most outdoor venues have to offer, there were sloping verandas and terraced seating providing an ideal vantage point that was unhindered by those bobbing to the beat near the stage. Both bands effused a remarkable amount of energy and showmanship, but the Avetts' perpetual motion and constant kinetic activity kept the crowd mesmerized and thoroughly enthralled. It's no wonder those boys are rapidly riding a wave towards superstardom.

Still, the evening wasn't finished quite yet. At the surprisingly sparsely attended 3rd and Lindsley, the Steep Canyon Rangers put on a spirited performance despite a less than packed house. From there, it was back to the High Watt for the evening's final performance, this by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings who, as it turned out, were solely represented by Colin Linden. Still, he succeeded in representing his missing comrades admirably, and when Lucinda Williams popped onstage for a cameo appearance, Linden's solo stature was all but assured.

Sunday brought the traditional Gospel Brunch, full of a spiritual sustenance in the form of the reborn Elizabeth Cook, the mighty Fairfield Four and the regal, rollicking McCrary Sisters. Even nonbelievers devoured their chicken and waffles with renewed fervor. The relocation to the City Winery meant no more waiting in lines or fighting for seating for what's become one of Americana's most popular gatherings.

Later, it was off to another of Nashville's iconic locales, the famous Bluebird Cafe where noted photographer Henry Diltz held court to discuss the stories behind some of the more famous photos that have graced so many classic album covers and now populate his Morrison Hotel Gallery, which currently claims the Bluebird as its Nashville home. Located in an otherwise unassuming strip mall, the Bluebird is surprisingly compact, but the photos -- supplied by Diltz and partner Peter Blachley -- reinforced the star power that's made this esteemed venue such a venerable destination on many an artist's road to prominence. Later, Diltz, Blachley and special guest guitarist David Mansfield entertained a packed audience with a selection of original material and selected covers. The combination of imagery and allure was breathtaking.

By the time the evening - and the festival itself - concluded with that invitation only performance by a now suddenly secular Cook and a famously feisty Williams, Hilly's heartfelt sentiments seemed to be echoed by everyone there. As the event drew to a close, it was hard to escape the sense that everyone was a part of an exclusive but ever-growing community sharing a common bond and a common purpose.