Americana 2011: The Sounds

Detroit may have by Motown and the Funk Brothers, but Alabama had Muscle Shoals. Side-stepping which was the better musical factory, it is impossible to ignore the impact that Muscle Shoals has had on American music. This performance provided irrefutable evidence to the greatness of this legacy.

The set was loose and fun, with 14 musicians crowding the stage. The fact that many of the original players participated only added to the excitement for both musicians and audience alike. In fact, at times it seemed as if the musicians were having the most fun.

And the performances? Some were a bit rough around the edges but all were spectacular. Among the artists who rose to fame in Muscle Shoals were Dan Penn, performing his composition “I’m Your Puppet,” and Candi Staton, who sang her 1971 hit, “He Called Me Baby.”

Contemporary performers who jumped at the chance to sing with the Muscle Shoals band included Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price, who captivated with her take on the classic “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” and Gary Nichols of the SteelDrivers covering Wilson Pickett covering the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”

Soulful singer Mike Farris stole the show with a stunning take on Etta James, “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall, the poor soul who had to follow Farris, summed it up best, “I don’t know why I have to sing after Mike Farris. He put a hurt on me.” Amen, Brother Jimmy, amen.

Alas, there is no video of Farris, but here is Gary Nichols take on “Hey Jude.”

James McMurtry is one of those artists that I don’t think about often, but when I do, I am immediately reminded that music can be both entertaining and meaningful. Which is to say that it can rock with a social conscience.

He joked that with the limited time he needed to get right to the hits. But the comment isn’t as funny as it seems when you consider the depth of his catalog. And McMurtry was in fine form as he mined it for some gems. “You Can’t Make It Here” and “Levelland” were stand-outs among many.

And his between-song quips are hysterical, but more on that later this week.

I’ve long been a fan of Will Kimbrough, both for his exceptional Americana pop songs as for his outstanding musicianship. He’s even made it up to the Northeast, where I live, a few times as a solo performer.

Seeing him with a band, however, and on his home turf, no less, was a special treat. And the Mighty Kimbrough didn’t disappoint. He sampled songs from throughout his career all the while proving why he is the go-to guitarist for artists from Rodney Crowell to Jimmy Buffett to Emmylou Harris. He has a great sense of melody that permeates both his songs and his solos.

Miller and Lauderdale took advantage of the Americana Conference to do something that they had never done before – co-headline a gig together. While feigning a lack of rehearsal time, the duo led their talented crew through an enticing set that leaned heavily on classic country covers. “If you don’t believe me, then listen and you’ll believe me,” laughed Lauderdale on their limited preparation. To celebrate George Jones’ 80th birthday, the boys pulled a few gems from the Jones songbook.

The set ended with the two promising to work together on a proper release. Judging from how well they sounded together and the ease at which they performed, it will undoubtedly be a release to savor.

One of my pleasant surprises for the week was Saskatoon, Canada’s The Deep Dark Woods. They are one of those bands whose music has a distinctive feel to it, strong songs that create their own ambiance. Their live show brings these songs to life with extended solos from the band’s two guitars and keyboard player. The show took place in the aptly named venue The Basement, a room that added an additional dark feel to the music.

And standing next to me were Buddy Miller, Gurf Morlix and Greg Liesz. If that isn’t a testament to the quality of the music, I don’t know what is.

The Bottle Rockets were the only band whom I sought out twice during the Conference, first at the Mojo Nixon Radio Performance and then for their own official showcase. It was a testament to how much I enjoy their music and that they rarely make it to the Northeast when touring (hint, hint gentlemen).

The band performed as a predominantly acoustic trio, recreating the sound of their recently released live acoustic album. Perhaps because of the acoustic feel or maybe because they were performing before a rapt audience of fans and fellow musicians, the set had a warm, laid-back feel to it. They mixed it up between their prepared set list and some choice audience requests.

There are artists that are musicians and there are artists that are entertainers. Hayes Carll straddles the line with skill and grace. His songs blend intelligence and humor while his live show fills the time between songs with uproarious banter.

Carll’s mid-set performance by his “other” band the Ego Brothers was a great example. “For the longest time, I was labeled as Americana because I wrote all these depressing songs,” he explained, “I was always jealous of those rapper who wrote all those happy songs.” With that background, Carll and co-conspirator John Evans introduced the comically narcissistic “There Ain’t Enough of Me to Go Around.”

The rest of the set was loaded with more entertaining moments. In the absence of duet partner Cary Ann Hearst (of Shovels + Rope), Carll sang both parts of “Another Like You,” turning his head left or right depending on which role he was playing.

A cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” was just icing on the cake.

Here’s a previously recorded performance by the Ego Brothers.

And because their set was so darn good, here’s a bonus video from Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale.

For more Twangville coverage of the 2011 Americana Music Conference: Americana 2011: The Scene and Americana 2011: The Awards.

About the author:  Mild-mannered corporate executive by day, excitable Twangville denizen by night.

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  • Melisa Askew

    Yes, there are more videos from the Muscle Shoals Tribute show.  I just in the last few days uploaded them to my youtube account (imworking4fun), including the one of Mike Farris and Jimmy Hall.  Enjoy!