It’s all about the artists – Americana Festival, so far
In years past, I’ve come to these things with the intention of doing, seeing, and hearing Absolutely Everything. Have worn myself out running from conversation to conversation, venue to venue, hellbent on cramming as much as possible into my ears and eyes, in hopes of cobbling together the most complete picture of the essence of the thing.
This year, my tactic has been: pick one or two things a day, make it to those things, and everything else is gravy.
Wednesday night, upon arrival, my one thing was a post-awards-show party thrown by our friends (and one of my employers) at the Bluegrass Situation. It’s a website similar to this one, where great music is discussed and analysed ad nauseum. Championed by Ed Helms (of ‘The Office’ and ‘The Hangover’ fame, who also happens to play a wicked banjo) and his cohort/wonderwoman Amy Reitnouer, the Situation (or, if you’re cool enough, “the Sitch”) has been making themselves a force within the “making awesome jams happen” realm via their participation in Bonnaroo and other industry events. Here at AMA week, they threw a kicking party of Americana and bluegrass royalty, such as it is. The band I caught that night included Helms leading folks like Jerry Douglas and Aoife O’Donovan. That event apparently went until morning, spilling into the parking lot for a sunrise jam around 5am with Helms at the, uh, helm.
The following day, I tried my hand at panel discussions and conference events, spent lunch watching Canadian artists impress, courtesy of Six Shooter Records. Daniel Romano was a major takeaway from that event, as was newer-comer Joe Nolan, whose emo approach to indie roots attacked the style with a darkness somewhere between Leonard Cohen and Eilen Jewell.
I leapt from up-and-coming to mind-blowingly legendary, to skip to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where Doctor John was in conversation with American Routes host Nick Spitzer. They started the interview in old wood chairs. But, it wasn’t long before Spitzer convinced Dr. John to mosey over to the piano bench and show us what he’s made of. If you’ve never seen Dr. John live before, it’s a treat. I unconsciously leaned forward in my chair, as though getting even 12 inches closer to the man at work would help me fold myself deeper into the groove.
Dr. John plays with such complete, inimitable abandon. It looks like his hands are plopping down on the keys, heavy and directionless, but the notes come out distinct, rich, dripping in complexity. The rest of his body just kind of sits there, like the entirety of his spirit is pouring forth from his hands.
Between songs, when he was charged with answering Spitzer’s questions, his stories came out like music, via memories of “Fess” (who among us is cool enough to have a casual nickname for Professor Longhair?) and other New Orleans mainstays.
Later, I headed to Music City Roots at the Loveless Cafe – probably one of the week’s few unfortunate disappointments. I’ve been to the barn before and know they put on a high-class production with outstanding artists. This week’s edition tapped Jimmy Webb, Josh Rouse, Elephant Revival, and more. But, maybe it was the full moon or some other force. The whole show kicked off with a low-energy sleepiness that left me packing for Cannery Row far earlier than planned. Once there, I encountered some of the best new artists on the scene. John Fullbright held court downstairs with his incredibly charged band of badassery. Upstairs at the High Watt, Hurray for the Riff Raff unleashed the strongest set of the night. It was a nice place to stop while I was ahead, so I headed back to the hotel to rest up for more.
Next thing I know, it’s Friday morning and I’m locking eyes with a tall bearded Brit. “Hello,” he says, shaking my hand. “I’m Billy Bragg. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Where should we sit?” In a quiet corner of Bragg’s hotel, we spiraled into a half-hour discussion about the history of American and British folk music, their various interminglings, and his slightly absurd, hilarious, and difficult-to-entirely-contradict claims that the English invented everything in the world, from baseball to Americana music. I’ll have that interview for you later in the week.
That night saw me parked at 3rd and Lindsley for an outstanding set from Darrel Scott & Tim O’Brien, followed by an incongruous but better-than-expected set from Lisa Marie Presley. She has a sort of “Sheryl Crow meets Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in a dark alley” vibe going on, that was well received by her bevy of hardcore superfans. Who knew?
But, it was Holly Williams’ late-night set that stole that night away. Flanked by her husband Chris Coleman and an incredibly tight rhythm section, Williams delivered some of the finest tunes from her latest album The Highway. It’s telling that, though she’s released other recordings in the past, she chooses to stick instead to the tunes from this incredibly stirring new disc. The album is personal and heartbreaking at times; wrought with clever storytelling tunes at other turns. To boot, her guitar has been signed by John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, making clear the intention behind these new songs. That’s a high bar to set for anyone’s craft but, judging from The Highway, Williams is apparently up to the task.
And this is what the Americana Festival and Conference does so well: there are panels and networking events all day, for folks who have something to share or are looking for something to learn. But, even in the midst of the industry insider navel-gazing inherent in a conference setting, the place is dripping with actual performances, discussions, interviews, and contributions from the artists championed by the organization. If you want to discuss radio and social media, there’s a place for that. If you want to hear Billy Bragg talk about the rationale behind politically charged music, there’s a place for that. If you want to stay up late and let some surprising songwriter make you cry, there’s a place for that too. Or maybe that’s where my new tactic has led me – to an AMA conference and festival experience that is music-focused and closer to the actual essence of the thing: the artists themselves.