agerstown, Md. is becoming quite the hub for culture and music. In addition to hosting the nationally recognized Western Maryland Blues Fest for the last 22 years, the Old Line State's sixth largest city is also home to the annual Boondocks Music Festival, a celebration of country music and country-inspired rock in its third year.
Following a great afternoon of music including local up-and-coming traditional country singer/songwriter Josh Morningstar and the no-holds-barred countrified rock of Reno, Nev.'s Hellbound for Glory, the festival culminated in three acts from three separate places on the country music spectrum - The Steel Woods, Colter Wall and Shooter Jennings.
A wicked mix of southern rock and big-riff metal, The Steel Woods, a Nashville-based quartet, had the crowd throwing up fists and nodding heads to the music during a set, which pulled heavily from the band's recently-released debut album, "Straw In The Wind."
Lead singer and guitarist Wes Bayliss looked the part with his vest, long beard, longer hair and a sweet wide-brimmed and feathered hat that instantly brought to mind the classic finery of the late Ronnie Van Zant. More importantly, he played the part with memorable vocals that had both the power and southern twang to perfectly complement the prowess of fellow founding member Jason "Rowdy" Cope's impressive electric guitar work and the thunder of the rhythm section.
In addition to an unexpected cover of Willie Nelson's "Yesterday's Wine," and a considerably less surprising, though equally terrific take on the Allman Brothers Band's classic "Whipping Post," highlights from The Steel Woods set included notable tracks from its album. "Della Jane's Heart," a galloping and modern murder ballad, was a captivating and emotionally charged performance, while the title track and an inspired rendition of Black Sabbath's "Hole In The Sky," provided shots of mid-tempo rock power.
The band's aggressive "Axe," one of the best southern rock originals of recent memory, was even better and more commanding in the live setting and proved to be the singular most impressive performance of the set.
Next up was the Canadian singer/songwriter Colter Wall, a complete artist who possesses both the narrative songwriting prowess of a folk troubadour and the ground-shakingly deep, lived-in vocals of a classic country performer. The young artist, donning a Stetson hat, rolled up sleeves, tight jeans and boots, captivated the audience throughout his 15-song set.
Wall wears his influences on those rolled sleeves and his set included both covers of artists who inspired him and original tunes he wrote that reflect those influences. For example, he started with a solo acoustic rendition of the Jimmie Rodgers classic "Blue Yodel #9 (Standin' on the Corner)." Wall then referenced that very song later in the set while performing his own "Thirteen Silver Dollars," with a lyric that finds the narrator invoking the name of that tune as a sly response to a Canadian Mounted Police officer's question during an arrest.
The late singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt is clearly an important figure to Wall, a point made obvious by the two Van Zandt covers from the set. The artist and his supporting crew, The Speedy Creek Band, were in fine form as they plowed through an appropriately up-tempo take on "White Freightliner Blues," featuring some excellent fiddling by Anna Blanton. Comparatively, the band's rendition of Van Zandt's "Snake Mountain Blues," which also appears on Wall's new self-titled studio album, was much more subdued and equally appealing.
Wall also revealed that Arlo Guthrie and his classic cut, "The Motorcycle Song," was the inspiration behind his own "Motorcycle," a highlight of both his studio album and his performance. Wall even name checks "old Arlo" directly in the song's infectious chorus.
"Kate McCannon," a stark and harrowing tale of love turned to murder, was the set's most powerful moment and the best showcase of Wall's narrative talents.
Based on the response, there's no doubt that Wall and his band impressed the Boondocks Music Festival crowd. So much so that you can easily picture him as the headliner here in the future.
Speaking of headliners, Shooter Jennings closed and in doing so provided a perfect summation of a day filled with diverse styles. Just as the supporting acts represented a host of genres under the Americana umbrella, Jennings's own musical bouillabaisse defied simple classification and impressed at every turn.
Those not familiar with Jennings' music and expecting to see Waylon's son taking a traditional approach to country music may have been disappointed, but fans of the younger Jennings and those willing to give something new a listen were surely rewarded by a set that reflected the depth and breadth of Jennings's artistic vision.
The hard-charging blues-rock of "Electric Rodeo" and the bass-driven groove of "Steady At The Wheel" set the stage before yielding to the sharply introspective country boogie of "The Real Me," which featured some of the slickest lyrical wordplay you're likely to find in the genre.
Jennings, decked out in a royal blue suit with sequins and stitched lightning bolts, and his band continued down the country road with "Outlaw You," a humorous and biting criticism of modern mainstream country. That same sentiment was found on "Nashville From Afar," a song that laments the current state of country music's capital. Both songs were well received by the crowd, and the latter even inspired a spirited sing-along of the latter's memorable first two lines - "God damn I hate East Nashville/God damn I love Guy Clark."
The evening's more experimental moments came in the form of a mini-suite of three songs from "Black Ribbons," a bleak concept album featuring between-song narrative dialogue by Stephen King. The dark and foreboding "Triskaidekaphobia," the somber and reflective "All Of This Could Have Been Yours," which featured Jennings on keyboard, and the heavy grunge-inspired rock of "Don't Feed The Animals" took the audience far afield from country for a spell, but the change of pace was refreshing.
Jennings' band of talented players were showcased throughout the set, especially Ted Russell Kamp on electric bass and Aubrey Richmond on fiddle. Both were locked in musically throughout, and both made for visually commanding presences - Kamp with his long and curly hair, well-kept mustache and brimmed hat and Richmond with her overcoat, heels and expressive playing. While Jennings remained rather stationary throughout, the duo, who shared a side of the stage, frequently worked the front of the stage and seemed to connect with the audience all evening.
Jennings saved some of his best for last, with a trio of crowd-pleasing tunes to close the evening. A slower and more countrified version of "4th Of July," which originally appeared on Jennings's 2005 debut album and is also the highest charting single of his career, had the crowd singing along to its catchy chorus. Next up was "The Gunslinger," a bold personal mission statement which had the kind of attitude, swagger and funk groove you expect to find on a single by The Afghan Whigs
Jennings and company then finished with a cover of "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues," a song originally written and performed by Danny O'Keefe in 1973 but performed over the years by musical luminaries such as Elvis and Shooter's father. Like a cool down lap following a race, this song with its lyrics about a performer's inner turmoil, which Jennings dedicated to his late friend and manager Col. Jon Hensley, was both a nice piece of catharsis and a fitting end to a long and enjoyable day of country music in rural Maryland.