Sometimes you can get lucky. Last year at Americana I missed Ry Cooder and John Hiatt playing with the Haden Triplets. Last night I could have missed the great Donnie Fritts had a friend not insisted on staying for the 11.00pm show at the City Winery. At first, my jet lagged brain thought he said Jonny Fritz but I stuck around. Lucky I did because I got to see one of the great Southern songwriters, a man responsible for some of my favourite songs!
Fritts was brought into the spotlight for this year’s Americana Music Festival by John Paul White (Civil Wars) who has produced a new album for Fritts after meeting him during the filming of the excellent Muscle Shoals documentary. Kudos to White, who played guitar this evening and sang the classic ‘Breakfast In Bed’ which Fritts wrote with the late Eddie Hinton (who Jerry Wexler declared as the greatest white soul singer ever).
White told of how he had come to work with Fritts and during the set managed to get the songwriter to explain some of the songs as they swapped stories. Fritts said that he was most proud of ‘We Had It All,’ which Ray Charles recorded (as well as Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings). He also sang Arthur Alexander’s ‘If It’s Really Got To be This Way,’ explaining that Robert Plant had also recorded it for a tribute album, then played a co-write with John Prine, ‘Oldest Babe In The World’ and threw in a song about ‘Errol Flynn’ (a reflection on his early life).
In the short 45 minute set Donnie Fritts proved that he well and truly deserved his place in the songwriting pantheon of greats. The great Spooner Oldham was in the audience, acknowledged by Fritts from the stage, and nodded approvingly. It was a fine end to a day that had started in Melbourne 30 hours earlier.
The evening had been a choice between going to the City Winery or out to the Bluebird Cafe to see a bunch of the Aussie acts here. The lateness of the arrival and the fact that my friends were at the City Winery made me opt for that venue. The opening acts didn’t augur well. JD & The Straight Shot were okay in a kind of folkie 70s way. Jewel seems to be trying to reinvent herself, as the cut off blue denim shorts suggested, and some of her stories were longer than the songs she was explaining! I wondered if a lot of former pop artists will be embracing Americana as a career option when the chart hits dry up.
JD Souther is a writer who has had plenty of chart success and his set with a small ensemble that included piano and saxophone was impeccable. It might have veered into that So-Cal easy listening rock at times, especially when he did ‘New Kid In Town’ (that massive hit for his buddies in The Eagles). But I confess to a soft spot Souther’s work in the ’70s and his voice is still amazingly well-preserved. To balance things out he also did a version of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’.’
Last time I saw Souther here he was at The Mercy Lounge and younger audience members wondered why he was performing Eagles’ songs! No such problem this time with the more mature audience the City Winery draws. (Last year the venue was not quite finished during Americana but now in its final state you can understand how it has quickly become one of the city’s prime venues).