Blue Highways Festival – Musickcentrum Vredenburg (Utrecht, Netherlands)
Mention Utrecht to most Americans, and they’d have no clue. Amsterdam, of course. Rotterdam, maybe. The Hague, probably, for its unusual name (and its frequent role in international relations). Not so for Utrecht, the fourth-largest city in Holland, despite its 250,000 residents, a prominent university, and the country’s tallest church tower, a centuries-old sentinel that shadows the winding, bustling streets and canals below.
On this day, though, American presence was prominent here. More than a dozen artists from across the pond descended upon the local city auditorium for Blue Highways, an Americana music festival running from 4 in the afternoon till 2 in the morning. Performances alternated and overlapped between a larger theater-type space with a capacity of around 1,500 and a smaller upstairs room that held a few hundred.
It’s no secret that Europeans often appreciate American roots music more than the genre’s home turf does, and that was clearly in evidence by the crowds that arrived early and stayed late at Blue Highways, hopping back and forth between the stages and snatching up scads of CDs at the constantly crowded merch table. This despite the fact that Blue Highways didn’t really have any sort of “superstar” draw among its lineup.
What it offered, instead, was a solid and diverse cross-section of Americana, leaning heavily on Texas tunesmiths but ranging far and wide, from New York to California to Carolina and even Canada (singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer pointed out that her presence qualified the festival as “North Americana”). The talent included long-established masters (desert denizen Butch Hancock, Byrds/Burritos veteran Chris Hillman), a current white-hot hit songwriter (Bruce Robison, fountain of material for Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks), fast-rising women (Harmer, who’s moved up to theater-size venues in Canada, and Tift Merritt, whose Lost Highway debut has been long anticipated), country-with-a-wrench-tossed-in outfits (Trailer Bride and the Demolition String Band), and largely unknown newcomers (Penny Jo Pullus and Autumn K. Dial).
The festivities unofficially commenced the night before at Ekko, a small club a couple blocks away from the auditorium that hosted a packed-house performance by Texas band the Gourds (long a solid draw in Holland thanks largely to their Dutch label, Munich Records). Gourds picker Kevin Russell closed out Blue Highways the following night with his side-project band Junker, featuring fellow Gourd Max Johnston and ex-Bad Liver Mark Rubin, playing songs from his new (Europe-only, so far) disc Buttermilk & Rifles.
The day began with the misleadingly named Brooklyn Cowboys (they’re actually from Nashville) rocking out in the big hall. Shortly thereafter, Harmer took the stage in the small room and charmed the crowd with sweet yet sharp songs such as “Oleander” and the new “In My Corner” (written during a recent trip to Australia).
Bruce Robison followed on the big stage and demonstrated just how fortunate Nashville is to have this Texas talent cranking out some of the industry’s best-selling songs. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill may have taken “Angry All The Time” to #1 on a country chart dominated by vapid, hollow sentimentality — but Robison’s straightforward delivery served powerful notice of just how sad, and how strong, the song is. It seemed, as Robison reeled off other highlights such as the definitive sibling portrait “My Brother And Me” and the letter-perfect novelty number “What Would Willie Do”, that maybe someone could follow in Harlan Howard’s footsteps after all.
While the Demolition String Band and Greg Trooper entertained on the smaller stage, the theater room welcomed another Austinite, Slaid Cleaves, who delivered the surprise-hit set of the night. Cleaves had a ringer on guitar in Gurf Morlix (who produced his breakthrough album Broke Down), but it was the antics of Ivan Brown, who took the term “standup bass” quite literally as he climbed aboard while picking, that really got the Dutch crowd going. As if to prove he had more than just a good stage shtick, though, Cleaves brought everyone up-front, unplugged, for an all-acoustic encore that carried beautifully into the nether reaches of the auditorium’s steeply tiered rows.
Butch Hancock followed with a mostly solo set of West Texas folk songs, taking advantage of the extended Austin community on-hand this night in Utrecht by spicing up a couple songs with guitarist Morlix (who also produced one of Hancock’s albums) and, on his signature “West Texas Waltz”, the tuba oompahs of Mark Rubin. (Hancock later admitted he once re-wrote a verse of the song to rhyme “cappucino and mocha” with “West Texas Polka”.)
Upstairs, Trailer Bride cast its spooky Southern spell on the crowd, followed by another Austin upstart, country crooner Karen Poston, while the largest throng of the night filed into the main room for Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen. The duo, whose 1996 collaboration Bakersfield Bound was arguably the best record either has done in the past decade, announced they’re teaming up again for a new album due later this year. The most boisterous response during their set came when they brought out the Blue Grass Boogiemen, the Americana pride of Utrecht, to sit in on a couple of numbers.
While Penny Jo Pullus and Autumn K. Dial kept the action going upstairs, North Carolina’s Tift Merritt played just the second overseas show of her career, having made her international debut in London two nights earlier. Though not familiar with Merritt’s songs (her debut disc isn’t due till June), the Dutch crowd seemed to appreciate the opportunity to catch her on the way up, even if she’s still learning how to work larger rooms such as this one.
A fair percentage of festivalgoers stayed till the very end to catch the rockin’ closing sets on the big stage by the Twangbangers — a HighTone Records collective featuring Bill Kirchen, Joe Goldmark, Redd Volkaert and Dallas Wayne — and Texas twangster Jesse Dayton, before the Gourds’ Russell closed things out in the small room to bring the weekend right back where it had started.
Early airport shuttles beckoned for most of the performers, but that didn’t keep several of them from gathering in the backstage area with the Blue Grass Boogiemen and continuing to sing songs long into the night, the strains of American music echoing across the heart of beautiful Utrecht.