Monday, September 22, 2014

AmericanaFest 2014: The Avett Brothers, The Lone Bellow, Shakey Graves, and Angaleena Presley @ Riverfront Park (Concert Review)

The Avett Brothers - Erika Goldring/Getty Images
The Avett Brothers – Erika Goldring/Getty Images
(This article originally appeared on CMT)
“I know what Americana is,” Scott Avett told the packed-in, elbow-to-elbow crowd gathered at Nashville’s Riverfront Park Saturday night (Sept. 20) for this year’s Americana Music Festival.
“Americana is something that allows us to be what we want to be, allows us to be what we need to be and allows us to be what we are,” he said.
With countless definitions applied to the seemingly boundless genre, the thunderous applause his sentiment received seemed to indicate that this one just might be the best one offered so far.
The truth of this interpretation is certainly embodied in the sound and the spirit of the Avett Brothers, one of Americana’s most dynamic and diverse acts. As they transported the audience through a two-hour-plus set of lively originals and tasteful covers, they drew from classic country, traditional folk, bluegrass, rock, punk, ragtime and doo-wop. While no two songs sounded the same, they all still managed to sound like the Avett Brothers.
The Avett Brothers - Erika Goldring/Getty Images
The Avett Brothers – Erika Goldring/Getty Images
The show’s cinematic opening involved a drum-led quartet of stringed instruments, filing out one by one, playing the melodic introductory lines of “Satan Pulls the Strings.” By the time brothers Scott and Seth joined the fray and added their banjo and acoustic guitar to the gypsy folk bounce, the audience was in a full-blown free-for-all. Even though this song only debuted earlier this summer and has yet to appear on any of their albums, the audience responded as if it had been in their catalog for years.
The note-for-note sing-alongs to practically every song proved there was no discerning between longtime fans and brand new converts. The band played older songs going as far back as 2003’s A Carolina Jubilee for “The Traveling Song” and the kazoo-led “The D Bag Rag,” while last fall’s Magpie and the Dandelion was represented with “Morning Song” and “Vanity.” However, for the bulk of their set list, the Avett Brothers pulled heavily from their Emotionalism and I and Love and You albums with each uproarious response signaling audience approval of this decision.
With so much audience engagement, the quieter acoustic songs like “Laundry Room” and “Murder in the City” turned into campfire choruses, while the rapid-fire hopscotch lyrics of “Distraction #74,” “Talk on Indolence” and “Slight Figure of Speech” tripped up only a socially-lubricated select few. In fact, the only time the audience showed a revered restraint was when Scott and Seth joined bassist Bob Crawford for a one-guitar, three-part-harmony take on the hymn “In the Garden,” introduced with a touching word from the brothers: “Here’s an old gospel song we learned from our father.”
Appealing to both the Americana atmosphere and the Nashville locale, the Avett Brothers even threw in a few choice covers, including George Jones’ “The Race Is On” and the traditional folk covers “Old Joe Clark” and “Little Sadie.” They closed the show with a straight-on doo-wop standard, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite,” with the familiar refrain being sung by the attendees long after the Avett Brothers had left the stage.
The Lone Bellow - Erika Goldring/Getty Images
The Lone Bellow – Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Earlier in the night, the Lone Bellow opened their portion of the show with “You Can Be All Kinds of Emotional,” a song that perfectly describes the vocal aura of lead singer Zach Williams. Whether he was softly crooning through the tender ballad “Tree to Grow” or hollering like an old-time preacher in “Bleeding Out,” Williams held both his voice and the Riverfront audience in his complete control for the entirety of their 11-song set.
As shamanesque as Williams can be though, the truly unique sonic secret of the Lone Bellow lies in the way his voice and energy unite with mandolinist/vocalist Kanene Pipkin and guitarist/vocalist Brian Elmquist. No matter how boisterous one of their songs can get — the percussive gallop of “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold” comes to mind — the powerful sound created when the trio sings together unquestionably outshines everything else going on. This was never more evident than when the three joined around one microphone with just an acoustic guitar to harmonize on the gospel-tinged number “Watch Over Us.”
Pipkin and Elmquist were equally vivid in their individual contributions as well. Pipkin drew a flood of approving cheers during her first solo verse in “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” and Elmquist — sporting the best untamed hair-flop this side of Jerry Lee Lewis — transformed the crowd into a congregation during his speedy Sunday morning stomper, “If Heaven Don’t Call Me Home.” With a couple of unreleased songs like this showing up on the set list, it was no surprise when Williams mentioned they were in the process of making a new record.
Shakey Graves - Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Shakey Graves – Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Prior to the Lone Bellow’s set, Texas troubadour Shakey Graves got the Riverfront crowd clapping, stomping, and singing along with his countrified garage rock concoction that features elements of Delta blues, country folk and psychobilly energy. Backed only by his buddy Boo on drums, the kinetic duo debuted songs from their next album, And the War Came (out Oct. 7), as well as a few old favorites thrown in for good measure.
While the rowdy railroad shuffle of new songs “Hard Wired” and “Big Time Nashville Star” got the crowd up and dancing, it was the two older songs Graves played by himself that garnered the most connective moments. With his right foot pounding out a beat on a makeshift kick drum and his left foot playing a tambourine, Graves rattled off his road song “Built to Roam” and the dirty waltz of “Word of Mouth” to rambunctious applause.
Angaleena Presley - Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Angaleena Presley – Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Kicking off the evening’s festivities was Angaleena Presley, affectionately known as “Holler Annie” to fans of her platinum-selling country music trio Pistol Annies (along with Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert). Presley was finishing out a busy Americana Fest week that also included appearances at Tuesday night’s kickoff bash at the Basement, Wednesday night’s Americana Music Awards show (where she and Kacey Musgraves presented Loretta Lynn with a Lifetime Achievement Award) and Thursday night’s official showcase at the High Watt.
In only her second show fronting her four-piece band, Presley seemed right at home treating the attentive crowd to songs from her upcoming debut solo album,American Middle Class (out Oct. 14). One charming moment of fan interaction occurred just as Presley was finishing up “Better Off Red,” her wistful ode to her hometown of Beauty, Kentucky. After one enthusiastic fan’s homespun howl, Presley called out, “Who yelled, ‘Yee-haw’? You’re my favorite.”
From the Southern thump of the title track, “Pain Pills” and “Knocked Up” to the slow burn blues of “Ain’t No Man” and “Grocery Store,” Presley smiled, smirked and snarled her way into the musical hearts of those who were already her fans and those she was adding to the list with each new song she played.

Friday, September 19, 2014

AmericanaFest 2014: Amy Ray, Angaleena Presley, Trigger Hippy, Sean Rowe, Buddy Miller, and Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear (Concert Review)

(This article originally appeared on CMT Edge.)

While a handful of talented performers made their Americana Music Festival debuts on Thursday night (Sept. 18), introductions were rarely necessary. That’s because more than a few of the artists playing the High Watt/Mercy Lounge/Cannery Ballroom compound had the shared experience of previously being involved in such much-loved and well-known bands as Indigo Girls, Pistol Annies and the Black Crowes. To try and capture so much musical magic under one roof, the three-in-one venue proved to be the ideal locale for the task. 

The first standout of the night was the unmistakable molasses-rasp of Amy Ray and her traditional country mountain songs filling the walls of Mercy Lounge. While Ray is mostly known for her time as one-half of the platinum-selling folk duo Indigo Girls, her Thursday night showcase was focused on her most recent solo album, Goodnight Tender. It seemed the enthusiastic crowd couldn’t get enough of her full-band Americana aura, with the opening blast of “The Gig That Matters” and the tremolo sweep of “Oyster and Pearl” both drawing explosive applause. Ever the consummate professional, Ray flawlessly restarted “Hunter’s Prayer” after a mid-verse technical glitch by saying, “Now you know the first five lines, so it should be a sing-along now.” 

Holding court across the hall in the High Watt was Angaleena Presley, affectionately known as “Holler Annie” to those familiar with her country trio Pistol Annies (which also features Ashley Monroe and Miranda Lambert). However, just as with Amy Ray, Presley kept the spotlight on her current solo material. Decked out in a sleeveless STP T-shirt and a flashy red Gibson guitar, Presley played the embodiment of her upcoming debut album, American Middle Class. The diary-like honesty of Presley’s lyrics is shouldered in equal measure by the striking mix of barroom country swagger and moonlight slow dance sway. “Life of the Party,” “Grocery Store,” “Drunk” and the smirky “Knocked Up” all garnered boisterous cheers from the charmed crowd. 

Those who attended the euphoric Trigger Hippy set in Cannery Ballroom were tastefully treated to a few new songs from a few familiar faces. Featuring the guy-girl vocal interplay of Joan Osborne and Jackie Greene, the incendiary guitar work of Tom Bukovac and the rhythmic propulsion of bassist Nick Govrik and drummer Steve Gorman (Black Crowes), Trigger Hippy turned the Cannery floor into a dance hall with their feel good, R&B-infused, Southern rock vibes. Their mix of gospel-soul vocals and funky fire-and-brimstone guitar solos provided the perfect soundtrack for a roomful of attendees interested in cutting loose. 

Also making his Americana Fest debut to an appreciative audience was alt-folk troubadour Sean Rowe. With a booming baritone and an impressive one-man percussive playing style, Rowe spun stunning sonic yarns from his new album, Madman and his first album, Magic. While his original songs were jaw-dropping enough on their own, his moving covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (complete with all of the fleet-fingered runs) really drove his set into “kick yourself if you missed it” territory. 

Going against the “first-timers club” theme of the night was a pitch-perfect roots rock set from Buddy Miller, the elder statesman of Americana cool. After a busy Wednesday night leading the house band at the Americana Music Awards (even taking one home himself for instrumentalist of the year), Miller blazed through a slew of his original songs like “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” and fan-favorite “Gasoline and Matches.” However, Miller really lit the crowd up when he brought out Lee Ann Womack to sing with him on two classic country duets — Tammy Wynette and George Jones’ “Golden Ring” and Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s “After the Fire Is Gone.” 

Also contributing to Thursday night’s array of Americana abundance were Parker Millsap and Israel Nash. Millsap showcased songs from his self-titled debut record and received quite a rowdy response to the gospel grind of “Mansion Over the Hilltop” and his bluesy nursery-rhymed drug fable, “Quite Contrary.” Nash just released Rain Plans last month, and the High Watt crowd was treated to almost the entire album of blissful psych-folk triple guitar jams (two electrics and a pedal steel). Nash’s calm croon to banshee wail vocals were beautifully supported by the swampy Southern rock meets Pink Floyd atmospherics of his band. 

I started my evening at Third Man Records for a surprise set by Kansas City’s Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear. I was absolutely blown away by this unique mother-and-son duo and their homespun acoustic back porch blues. Their interactions with each other and with the intimate crowd were engaging, warm and welcoming. I really enjoyed the waltzy stroll of “Alligator Fish and Chips” and the folk spiritual feel of “Dead Daffodils,” but it was a murder ballad, “Hell Better Make Room,” that brought the crowd in close for a better listen. Even though the Americana Music Festival is only halfway through, it’s safe to say that Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear turned in my favorite surprise set of this year’s festivities.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

AmericanaFest 2014: Sturgill Simpson @ City Winery (Concert Review)

(This article originally appeared on CMT Edge.)

Fresh off accepting the Americana Music Honors’ emerging act award on Wednesday night (Sept. 17) in Nashville, Sturgill Simpson took the City Winery stage to a palpably amped-up room ready to hear what he and his three-piece band were going to do. In the weeks leading up to the festival, all signs were pointing to his set at the brand new venue as being one of the hands-down, not-to-be-missed showcases of this year’s festival. In fact, credentialed attendees were asked to RSVP several days before the show. Simpson has certainly earned the attention with the release of his Metamodern Sounds in Country Music album, while the two standing ovations during his blazing set of honky-tonk rockers and heartbreaking ballads signaled that those who attended his showcase had chosen wisely. It’s worth noting that the night’s three-time winner Jason Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires were both in attendance for Simpson’s set. 

Right out of the gate, Simpson launched into a blistering “Sitting Here Without You” that dared his band (and the audience) to keep up. He would return to this breakneck energy multiple times throughout the night on songs like “Poor Rambler,” “Railroad of Sin” and “You Can Have the Crown” — a song he introduced tongue-in-cheek by saying, “Here’s a song I wish I had never written.” One of the most compelling things about Simpson is the equally impressive sad and tender side to his songwriting. All of the cheering he and his band incited during the barnburners were met with identically intense expressions of respect and rapt attention during songs like “Water in the Well,” “Voices” and “Old King Coal” — a song the Kentucky native touchingly dedicated as “a song I wrote about my hometown … that’s not there anymore.” 

 Throughout the night, Simpson also wove in a third songwriting thread that he’s quite fluent in — a sound I refer to as the classic country slink-and-thump. It’s that not-too-fast, not-too-slow 1970s-era mix of Tele-twang and shuffle drums found on songs like Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time” and Waylon Jennings’ “I’m a Ramblin’ Man.” While Simpson’s deep drawl and conversational delivery don’t exactly dissuade those constant comparisons to Jennings, you can hear an authenticity in his drug-and-drink ditties like “Life of Sin” and “Turtles All the Way Down” that shows appreciation over imitation. 

Simpson’s final inventive ingredient of the night was his excellent choice of cover songs, from his achingly gorgeous cover of When in Rome’s “The Promise” (introduced with a sly “This one’s for the ladies”) to Buford Abner’s “Long White Line” to the Osborne Brothers’ “Listen to the Rain.” The latter song showed Simpson holding true to his promise that “we might sneak a little T. Rex into this one, as well.” For the few individuals in the crowd who may not have been familiar with his original songs, these covers allowed them a chance to join in on the singalong that had been going on all around them. Getting to see a cool, relatively new artist in a brand-spanking new venue proved to be a recipe for an incredible night of music. Although Simpson’s “Life of Sin” contains the lyric, “The boys and me are still working on the sound,” it was clear to everyone in attendance at City Winery that Simpson has clearly already found it. 

Also playing at City Winery on either side of Simpson’s set was Portland, Oregon’s own Caleb Klauder Country Band and Tennessee-by-way-of-Toronto desert rock songstress Lindi Ortega. Klauder’s traditional country/bluegrass hybrid band wowed the audience with virtuoso playing and hollow-worthy harmonies, and now they also carry the distinction of being the first band ever to play on City Winery’s stage. Ortega wonderfully wrapped up the night in her signature red boots and her twangy, south-of-the-border sound that defies her north-of-the-border Canadian roots. Her playful cover of the Bee Gees‘ “To Love Somebody” was a fantastic closer to the bombastic opening night of Americana festival showcases.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Local Show: Sandra McCracken, Don Chaffer, Randall Goodgame, and Eric Peters (Concert Review)

Being that Nashville is a town built on the monetization of music, it’s remarkably refreshing to watch talented songwriters who are more concerned with community than commerce. A roomful of lucky listeners got to experience that very thing last night at the inaugural kick-off of The Local Show – a recurring songwriter showcase series put on by Andrew Peterson and his creative collective known as the Rabbit Room. From the opening reading of a Wendell Berry passage that spoke of broadening the membership of your life, to the partnership with local non-profit Show Hope, to the borrowed capos and guitars on stage, the theme of community ran deep throughout the night.

The first night of The Local Show featured some of Nashville’s best kept singer-songwriter secrets: Sandra McCracken, Don Chaffer (Waterdeep), Randall Goodgame, and Eric Peters. What was immediately noticeable about this foursome – and what makes The Local Show such an immediate standout from the typical songwriter rounds that take place all over the city – was the spirit of creative camaraderie between all of the artists. Not only are they all professionally intertwined through a variety of album recordings and concert appearances, but they are all friends and fans of each other’s work as well. This was none more evident than on the constant chorale of “ghost harmonies” that wandered in and out of every song – even the new, unreleased ones. The friendly interactions that took place before, after, and during the songs showed evidence of a group of people that were fluent in each other’s lives. During normal songwriter rounds, you can usually spot the feigned interest of the performers as they wait for their spot to come back around. Whether they are thinking about their next song or the errands that they need to run the next day, the vacant gaze and forced banter always give them away. However, this was not the case at The Local Show, where each artist was fully engaged during each other’s songs – possibly even more so than during their own offerings.

From a musical perspective, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining and enriching collection of songs packed into a single setting. There were lyrics crafted from the perspective of an abandoned, rusty Schwinn and a pre-suicidal cancer patient, as well as hymns of timeless modernity sung alongside humorously instructional odes on how not to get eaten by bears. The songs were all beautiful, haunting, resonant, accessible, and undeniably life-affirming in equal measure. These were not three-and-a-half minute pop ditties ephemerally meant to lighten a moment, but instead were carefully crafted refrains meant to help soundtrack a lifetime’s journey. With meditations like “Will we choose the noise of our desire or the hope that makes no sound” and simple reminders that “the sky must be enjoyed,” The Local Show reminded that there are good musical companions to walk with you along the way.

Being a fan of all four artists, it was really nice to hear familiar songs in such a relaxed, intimate setting. The Well Coffeehouse provided an incredible atmosphere for the songwriters to sing their songs and tell their stories, while the lightening storm flashing through the wall of windows provided an arresting backdrop. At a point where technical glitches threatened to sidetrack the mood, Don Chaffer simply unplugged his guitar, rested a foot on the front row of chairs, and sang a gorgeous break-up ballad to a pin-drop quiet crowd. One of the bonus benefits to relaxed settings like this is that new songs usually see their first light of day. On this night, Randall Goodgame debuted a new song called “Cellphone Jones,” Eric Peters introduced “Nobody,” and Sandra McCracken played “God’s Highway,” “We Will Feast,” and “Gracious Light” from her recently-recorded-but-not-yet-released next album. Don Chaffer even read a stunningly wistful prose poem of his called “On the Iron Bar and the Price You Pay, James Dean” that had everyone simultaneously laughing and introspecting at the same time. All four artists set the precedent that you never know what might be in store for you at The Local Show but you can rest assured it’s going to be good.

The Local Show will be looking to recapture the communal spark every other Tuesday in September, with plans to move to every week in October. The next show will be September 16 and will feature Jill Phillips, Andy Gullahorn, Andrew Osenga, and Jeremy Casella – another foursome whose professional/personal DNA mix together in a way that should provide the same uniquely communal atmosphere as the first show.

You can find out more about The Local Show and purchase advanced tickets for the next show here:

September 16 @ 8pm
Andy Gullahorn, Jill Phillips, Jeremy Casella, and Andrew Osenga
The Well Coffeehouse
690 Old Hickory Blvd, Brentwood, TN 37027

Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 at the door