Six (of 8) days on the road – a fan perspective on the Americana Music Association, Bristol Rhythm and Roots, and Black Swamp Festivals
Early September packs three of our favorite music festivals into a span of slightly more than a week. Here is a music fan’s recap, serving primarily as a brain dump of memories before they are forgotten, but potentially of interest to others as well.
Black Swamp Arts Festival
The Black Swamp Arts Festival in Bowling Green, OH starts the ball rolling. Although nowhere near the size of the two festivals to follow, Black Swamp punches way above its weight. Past acts have included some pretty heavy hitters (e.g. Del McCoury, BR-549, Buddy & Julie Miller, NRBQ, Alejandro Escovedo) along with countless performers previously unknown to us who ultimately became favorites. On the one day we were there, we saw three acts who would be playing the Americana Festival later in the week, one who will likely be playing it soon, and two others well known outside the Americana genre.
One nice feature of Black Swamp is that performers typically play at multiple venues, including a big stage and an intimate acoustic (although now better characterized as “lightly amplified”) stage. This year has added a third performance for may acts, consisting of a midnight performance at one of the downtown bars.
Our Saturday started off with Joshua Panda at the acoustic stage, and added another name to the previously unknown – now a favorite list. Here’s a sample:
Next up was Eilen Jewell on the main stage. We’ve seen Ellen and the band numerous times since they first played Black Swamp and haven’t seen a bad (or mediocre) show yet. They may be the quintessential “Americana” band, deftly mixing country, blues, and roots rock. More on them later. We left the main stage to catch the last bits of Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside at the acoustic stage. Didn’t get to see much, so more on them later, too. Eilen and the band followed on the acoustic stage, and continued their string of stellar performances.
It was time to head back to the main stage to catch Booker T. Jones. When Booker came out in a jogging suit and tennis shoes, I was beginning to worry that the man just didn’t care anymore. An explanation (the airline didn’t misplaced his luggage, and when his wife called to complain, they sent it to Tulsa instead of Toledo) and a few notes into the first song quickly dispelled those notions. Alternating between keyboards and guitar, he tore through old classics like Green Onions and Born Under a Bad Sign, and newer work like Everything is Everything and multiple cuts from the Grammy-winning Potato Hole. It was definitely a treat to see a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer still at the top of his game.
Next up on the main stage was Charles Walker and the Dynamites. Although they were putting out some burning soul music, we realized that we better partake of some burning soul food if we were going to make it through the wee hours, so we headed out for dinner and missed the latter half of the set as well as the Sierra Leone All Stars.
Midnight rolled around and it was time to move down the block to a bar to catch Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside. Nate and Wally’s Fishbowl is a college bar (in a town hosting its home football opener), and a friend had warned me that Eilen Jewell’s Friday night performance was diminished by a large portion of the audience being uninterested in the band and talking over the quieter numbers. Sallie Ford and the band got around that issue by: 1) not playing quieter numbers, and 2) winning much of the crowd over. Exhibit A:
<iframe width=”420″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/NLw9oL2UUjI?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
All in all, we heard eight hours of exquisite music during the ten hours we were there that day (leaving two out for dinner), and the whole thing was free. Amazing.
Americana Music Association Music Festival
The following Wednesday saw us piling into the car at 6:30 a.m. to head to Nashville. We made it to Grimey’s to get our wristbands and got to the Station Inn before the doors opened. One underrated pleasure of early arrival at events like this is meeting people from around the country with similar (and similarly rabid) musical interests. The Carper Family opened the evening in fine form. This is the first time we’ve the band since the earlier incarnation of Jennie and the Corn Ponies, and the addition of Melissa Carper to the mix takes them to a completely different level. One of my few regrets of the trip was losing my camera’s memory card at Robert’s later that evening, along with all of the videos and pictures of their set.
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson came on next. It stuns me how they transition back and forth from hilarious between-song banter (Kasey, on the the trials and tribulations of working together: “Shane calls it ‘creative tension’; I call it ‘He’s f—king wrong.’”) to heavenly harmonies. They played several songs from the upcoming Wreck and Ruin CD, and they sound like a more than worthy follow-up to Rattlin’ Bones. We agreed that this set alone, in the intimate confines of the Station Inn, made the trip worthwhile. Riding a musical high, we closed out the night listening to Sarah Gayle Meech at Robert’s Western World.
Thursday started off with a live performance of Phil Madeira’s Mercyland project at the downtown Nashville Presbyterian church. There were too many highlights to mention them all, but Buddy Miller and Shawn Mullins stood out from the first half. The show ended on highest of high notes with Kasey and Shane performing From This Valley, followed by Emmylou Harris, followed by the entire cast.
We scurried from the church to The Basement to catch Lydia Loveless sing about a slightly different relationship with Jesus, among other things. After she released The Only Man a few years ago, my comment was “How can someone that young be that talented?” With last year’s Indestructible Machine, there is no longer a need for the age qualifier and the comment can be condensed to “How can someone be that talented?” She played a couple of new songs and talked about writing others which is encouraging news to those of us anxiously awaiting another CD to add to the mix.
Next stop for the evening was at the Mercy Lounge to see Billy Joe Shaver. The place was packed, which was gratifying to see for a (somewhat under-appreciated) legend like Billy Joe, but the sardine-like conditions were a bit of a shock to the system after the ideal conditions of the previous few venues. Left early and went next door to catch a couple of songs from Nikki Bluhm and the Gramblers, waiting for Paul Thorn to start. My only complaint of the entire festival was the sound quality at The Cannery. As much as we enjoy Paul Thorn, it was tough to hear much over the bass so we left half-way through the set. That wasn’t all bad, as it allowed us to catch Eilen Jewell next door at the High Watt. Her set started off with the melancholy Only One and I sensed a little restlessness in the crowd, but they picked up the tempo after that and had the crowd rocking. Jerry Miller, who always provide tasty guitar fills, had more latitude than usual and was drawing hoots of appreciation from the crowd throughout the night.
The night ended with the stylings of David Tanner at Robert’s. One of the reasons we enjoy Nashville and Austin so much is there is a larger percentage of young folks attracted to the Honky Tonk music we love compared to most other cities. God love the Vandy girls, even if they crowd the dance floor at times. Another advantage of hitting Robert’s was the chance to see Chris Scruggs play there each night, since we would be leaving Nashville before his AMA showcase. An additional shout out to the food at Robert’s.
The Nashville leg of the tour ended with a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame to see the new Patsy Cline and Bakersfield exhibits, where we ran into Baron Lane from Twang Nation. The author of the new Dwight Yoakam book was about to give a talk downstairs; Baron was currently reading the book and recommended it, so we headed down hear him. The talk was interesting enough to purchase the book, now its a matter of finding the time to read it.
Bristol Rhythym and Roots Reunion
We left Nashville and headed to Bristol, thinking that we had an hour buffer before Lydia Loveless went on. Early on in the drive, we realized that there was a time zone change, which not only removed our buffer but got us into Knoxville in the teeth of rush hour. Junior (and Jimmie) Johnson would be proud of the rate at which we covered the remaining distance. We made it in time to catch Lydia’s set, which was again stellar, although the new configuration at this particular venue was our first experience of less than stellar sound quality at Bristol. Zoe Muth, back in Bristol on the strength of her performance last year, was up next. She apologized at one point for borrowing a Johnny Cash line for a new song of hers. She should listed to Crescent City Blues (where Johnny did some borrowing of his own) and she won’t feel as bad. The night ended with Shovels and Rope at a small bar venue. We had heard a lot about the band but had never seen them before; they more than lived up to their reputation with a high energy show. It was a perfect combination of raucous crowd and raucous band; I’ll be curious to see the band’s reception next month at the staid listening room The Ark in Ann Arbor.
We bounced around among 8-10 different bands Saturday early afternoon, most were good but none stood out except Carrie Rodriguez. The evening started out mellow, but appropriately twangy, with another set from Zoe Muth. Then all hell broke loose. We’ve been to hundreds of shows across the country, but I can say with complete certainty that I’ve never had a better evening of honky-tonking than what followed from Dale Watson and JP Harris. Dale played an outdoor stage and, after starting off with a couple new songs, spent the rest of the set playing requests shouted out from the audience. That was immediately followed by JP Harris playing in a new venue, 620 State, that provided the perfect marriage of stellar sound system, generous bartenders, and a wood dance floor. My old saying “People look at you funny in Tennessee if you get up to dance; in Texas, they look at you funny if you don’t dance” was happily inaccurate for night. People were getting it on.
Sunday brought us fine performances by Slaid Cleaves and Chris Thomas King, and then a repeat of JP Harris and Dale Watson. The specter of a ten hour drive home hanging over our head had us a little subdued (and limiting alcohol consumption), so it was quite a bit mellower than the previous night.
I’ve given up trying to decide whether I like Americana or Bristol better, they are both bring in exceptional talent at great venues for a phenomenal price. Americana always has stellar side events (e.g. Mercyland, programs at the Hall of Fame, Americanarama at Grimey’s); Bristol has a more rabid audience and deeper selection of traditional country acts we enjoy most. It was a blessing and a curse having them the same weekend this year. We didn’t have the resources to make two trips from Michigan, so this allowed us to sample both festivals even if it meant missing the last two days of Americana. Thank goodness for Black Swamp, as well. Being only an hour away, the question is only “How many days are we going this year?” rather than “Are we going this year?”