By Brian Wise.
Americana Report #3 – The Gigs
It would seem impossible to top the Americana Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday September 21 and nothing really did, for me at least. Plenty of people, including ATN’s Rob Dickens, were raving about the John Prine gig on Thursday evening but the ballot and other duties made it impossible for me to be there. (Those who did get allocated a seat for Prine had to be at The Station Inn by 6.30pm to claim it).
The consultation prize, however, was pretty stunning. And remember the cost of all these shows was only US$60 for a wristband, making this probably the best value festival of the year (beaten only by the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco this coming weekend).
First off on Thursday it was Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at The Union Station Hotel playing songs from their new album together, Shine A Light: Songs From The Great American Railroad. The setting, in the old lobby of the former railway station, was quite stunning and the music had that real ring of authenticity to it. Like Richard Thompson, Bragg has been quickly accepted into the Americana fraternity and his empathy towards the music is obvious, starting with his Woody Guthrie project Mermaid Avenue and now this latest album. He talks about the songs, which range from Guthrie and Leadbelly to Gordon Lightfoot (‘Early Morning Rain’) and John Hartford (‘Gentle On My Mind’), with great knowledge and affection. They ended with Dylan’s ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.’ The shows they will be doing in Australia next year will be fascinating. [I had the chance to talk to Bragg at length and it was a delight].
Then it was a Uber ride over to the Cannery complex, with its three venues, to see The Cactus Blossoms from Minnesota at The Mercy Lounge. Talk about an Everly Brothers revival! If you closed your eyes you would swear you were listening to Don and Phil but this is Jack and Page. The harmonies were superb. They should knock people out at Melbourne’s Out On The Weekend in a couple of weeks.
Downstairs in the Cannery, Dori Freeman was creating quite an impression with her allotted 45 minutes, which gave enough time for everyone to realise that they were watching a huge talent who, at the age of 24, would seem to have a massive career ahead. Teddy Thompson, who produced her debut album, arrived as special guest for one song while the standout was ‘Go On Lovin’, a song destined to become a country classic.
Rodney Crowell then closed the night for us in the Cannery with a short, sharp brilliant set with a hot band (if not The Hot Band) and a great selection of songs from his latest album. After all these years in the business Crowell seems to be at his songwriting peak.
Friday (September 23) started at The Filming Station, one of the many new venues on the roster, with the Aussie lunch featuring some of the higher profile acts including Kasey Chambers and Russell Morris. Each acts was restricted to two songs which lead CW Stone king to utter after one song, ‘Well, we’re halfway through our set.’
The rest of the afternoon was taken up at Southern Ground Studios recording Off The Record with a stream of mainly Australian guests. Kasey Chambers was absolutely compelling, as she had been earlier in the day, with her rendition of ‘Ain’t No Little Girl,’ which will possibly rank alongside her best of all time.
Later that night we were to see Chambers again at 3rd and Lindsley, where she was on the bill with Tony Joe White, Jim Lauderdale and William Bell. To say that the audience loved Chambers is somewhat of an understatement – they adored her and showed it. Later, she said it was her favourite of all the shows she has done in Nashville over the years.
It occurred to me that the reason Jim Lauderdale is not more commercially successful in his own right is that he is too good at too many styles and not as easy to pigeon hole as people might like. he can write songs in the straight country being but he is also adopt at country soul – and he switches between both styles with ease.
After seeing his knockout appearance at the Awards on Wednesday I felt compelled to see William Bell and he finished the evening off in brilliant fashion. It is difficult to believe that he is 77 years old, especially when he sings because his voice remains remarkably undiminished. His ‘comeback’ album, This Is Where I Live (produced by John Leventhal) is one of the year’s great treats and his stage show, thought a brief 45 minutes, was spine-tingling. Backed by an eleven-piece ensemble Bell sang from the new album, with the standout being ‘The Three Of Me’ (another soul classic if ever I heard one) and threw in some of the old hits including and extended ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ (‘for the ladies’) and a funky reworking of ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ (also on the new album). No, ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water,’ but what we got was thrilling. Someone has to bring this legend out to Australian – soon!
On Saturday (September 24) there was another Aussie BBQ at the Five Spot in East Nashville with many of the musicians who didn’t get a chance to showcase the previous day and some who did. This was to run all day and proved to be popular. While we were there, Jordie Lane and Suzannah Espie were impressive – but is impressive enough to cut it in this town where brilliant is the norm rather than the exception.
That evening it was off to The Family Wash, another new venue, to see Russell Morris do a punchy set and try to explain to an American audience what his recent trilogy of albums is about. Sharkmouth has just been released in the USA and it will be interesting to see how it goes. Maybe the Australian theme will offer just enough difference to make it appeal; certainly the songs come up well live.
My Americana Music Festival finished with an outfit that I never thought I would see performing: Eggs Over Easy. Actually, it was just two of the original members – Austin DeLone and Jack O’Hara – but that was enough. This set would fit under the heading of ‘relaxed.’ Neither veteran musician has nothing to prove so they could enjoy themselves. Eggs Over Easy held start the pub rock movement in London in the early 70s and Yep Roc has just released a 3-CD compilation. Delete has recently released and album with Bill Kirchen and is a staple on the San Francisco music scene. (The benefit concerts for his son who suffers from a rare disease, are legendary). O’Hara has a laid-back self-deprecating humour. The duo were joined on this, only their second gig in 35 years, for a couple of songs by Alex Call, former member of Clover, the band that backed Elvis Costello on his first album. As a somewhat rabid fan of the pub rock era and a hopeless one of Brinsley Schwarz this was a rare treat for me.
The final night proved once again that the Americana Festival can throw up some very special and unexpected highlight and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be the superstars who provide them.