By Rob Dickens.
Americana Report #2
It has been an incredible few days.
The Americana Music Conference Festival and Conference this year has been crammed with so many highlights that will resonate with me for years to come.
This is my fourth consecutive festival and about my eighth visit to Music City. The weather this year has been hotter and, for me, the festival comes at the end of a five-week music trip across the South. You do need to come here with plenty of stamina, as the music on offer is both magnificent and plentiful.
The city of Nashville continues to be going through a jaw-dropping building boom. Massive cranes are in view wherever you go and high-rise apartments sprout continually. Every year seems to bring a new landscape and I pity the struggling singer-songwriters trying to keep up with escalating rental and house prices.
I recall my first visit to the iconic Station Inn in The Gulch in 2009 seeing Jim Lauderdale. After the show, you felt the need to walk back to the hotel pretty quickly as the area was dark and relatively deserted. Now, that world-famous venue is dwarfed by towers and surrounded by new retail and eateries for the relatively well-heeled. I suspect that by next year, someone will have built OVER it!
The Festival has expanded this year – in days, performers, sponsors and venues. Places like The Filming Station, InDo, 12th and Porter have hosted some great events.
Performers and sound engineers do not muck around here. No encores, extraneous sound checks, elongated set-up times or anything other than the tightest of sets. Forty minutes is a pretty standard show length, and twenty minutes later the next performer has cranked up, with pristine sound.
The list of who I could not manage to see is long – The Black Lillies, LAU, Robbie Fulks, Bottle Rockets, Dwight Yoakam, Bruce Hornsby, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, The Steel Wheels, John Paul White, James McMurtry…impossible to fit them all in.
My highlights are many and varied and start with probably my constant musical peak each year – the Honors and Awards show, which was tightly managed and vast in A-list talent. Where else would you get on the one night – Alison Krauss, Joe Henry, Steve Earle, Bob Weir, Nathaniel Rateliff, Shawn Colvin, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam, The Milk Carton Kids, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires, Billy Bragg, John Moreland, The Lumineers, Parker Millsap, William Bell, Lucinda Williams, George Strait, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? Earle’s thunderous rendition of his recently deceased friend Guy Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’ with Miller’s band was breathtaking.
John Prine at The Station Inn was on the Thursday night where choices were ridiculous, but I selected well. This show was at the end of a bumper bill at this venue – Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones, Larry Campbell and Theresa Williams and Amanda Shires (with Jason Isbell). Interest was so high in this show that organisers instituted a ballot for selected Conference badge-holders. Two riveting sets – one which featured his first album front to back with a second set of songs around his new duets release and some of the greatest songs from his extensive catalogue. A terrific band, with the addition of the sublimely-gifted Fats Kaplin (pedal steel, accordion and violin) and guests Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires.
William Bell received an Americana song-writing award two nights earlier – he released great songs when the Stax label ruled Southern soul, including ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ and ‘Everybody Loves a Winner’. His material has been covered by Albert King, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Idol, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James and Warren Haynes. In 2016 he released This Is Where I Live (produced by John Levanthal) on a revitalised Stax label. At 3rd & Lindsley he had a twelve-piece band, the sound was brilliant, his voice amazing, with the new material standing up very well. Stax is back and Southern soul reigns again.
Her sound is stripped back and measured, but Kaia Kater (In Do) has a lot to say, delving into issues faced by African-Americans today and reflecting on her own heritage duality. Only twenty-three years of age, her voice is rich and low, part Rhiannon Giddens and part Nina Simone and, armed with just a banjo, she speaks with quiet authority.
Deering & Down are Canadian-born chanteuse Lahna Deering and rock and roll journeyman Rev Neil Down and the mix I witnessed as part of a Memphis showcase at The Filming Station is unusual and compelling. The merging of Deering’s strong belt-it-out voice, and Down’s quirky guitar playing is a creative joy. I had their CD while the set was on, but could not guess one song they were playing. Nor could I tell when the song was going to finish. I like that.
Somehow, I missed the whole Grateful Dead thing. Not by design, but back in the day things were not as easily accessible and information travelled by word-of-mouth more than anything else. Buddy Miller interviewing Bob Weir at the Country Music Hall of Fame was a music education, talking about Weir’s new cowboy songs album Blue Mountain (some of which he played) his guitar styles and Dead history. Oh, and of course Buddy knew which questions to ask.
Chanting, jaunty, great harmonies, some Eastern mysticism and just about anything else goes into the heady mix of River Whyless (12th & Porter). This Asheville, North Carolina outfit really impresses. They jumped into the middle of the crowd at the end and performed a beautiful rendition (sans mikes) of Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’.
Other great shows were Jim Lauderdale at 3rd & Lindsley where his tribute to the musical histories of Memphis and Nashville included brass and country r’n’b. His emotive vocals were a treat. The show of Tim O’Brien at City Winery was also terrific.
Australian performers were here on mass, either with the support of Sounds Australia or under their own steam. It was the strongest contingent I can recall – Russell Morris and his band rocked hard, Kasey Chambers’ new single was a show stopper, CW Stoneking and Ruby Boots continue to impress.
Each year I come to Americana I meet old and new friends and, combined with some of the best and most diverse music you’ll see, it is simply intoxicating.
The Americana Music Festival and Conference is highly addictive and I cannot imagine not being here next year.