(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.