Every fall, The Americana Music Association gathers members, artists and music fans together in Nashville for its annual conference. Starting with the annual Americana Music Awards and continuing through four days of showcases and panel discussions, it is a tremendous celebration of Americana music. Here are my highlights among the many live performances I saw over the 4 days I was there. You can also check out Mayer's favorites.
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. I've written about how good Stuart is in a live show before. But he'd kind of drifted off my radar the past few years. Then I scored a ticket to a taping with Stuart and his band for Mojo Nixon's SiriusXM radio show. What an incredible hour of entertainment. From trading jabs with Nixon, "stand up Mojo...if you still can", to country rapping about the weekend, to playing along note for note with every song on Outlaw Country while waiting for the show to start, Marty entertained us at every point. Oh, then there was his actual set of music. Drawn mostly from his new album, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, it covered everything from rock and roll to gospel a cappella. Along the way we also were reminded just how fine a guitar player Stuart is.
Carlene Carter. I also caught a taping Carlene Carter did for SiriusXM. With a career that stretches from her early teens in the 60's to present day, she has a rich heritage of just her own musical path. Then throw in the Carter family experiences and it's a microcosm of country/Americana music. The highlight was when Jeff Hanna, of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and half a dozen other musicians who had gathered in the XM studios reprised 1972's seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Trigger Hippy. Joan Osborne and Jackie Greene. You don't really have to say anything more to know it's going to be a good show. And yet that generates expectations with many that would be hard to meet. Yet they and the other band members put together a potent combination of virtually every style of music you can imagine and blasted right through those expectations. The worst thing for me is realizing this might be a one-time-only project.
Cory Chisel's Soul Obscura. I was leaving a venue with a vague plan for the evening when I ran into a couple of friends just coming in. When I told them I was leaving because I hadn't heard about Cory Chisel, they gave me that are-you-really-that-stupid look. So I turned around and went back in and got the surprise of the week from Cory Chisel's Soul Obscura. In case you're like me and not familiar with this project, Cory and his band do covers of obscure 60's soul songs. And dare I say improve on them all.
Bradford Lee Folk. Another fortuitous decision on my part. Without a particular next destination in mind I stuck around for a set from Folk and his Bluegrass Playboys. With a brain full of heavy lyrics and indie sounds from earlier in the day, the old school bluegrass from these guys was a breathe of fresh air. Flawlessly executed and with a focused sound, I have no doubt they replicate that experience regardless of your frame of mind.
Joe Fletcher. Without his band on his latest album and tour, Fletcher underscores his songwriting ability. His gravelly voice and almost laconic stage presence somehow work in combination to pump excitement into the room. His was the last set I saw of the weekend, and put a proper exclamation point on all the great music I heard the previous 4 days.
Six one, half dozen another. That old saying is supposed to be all about things being the same, but I think there's a perspective difference that gets lost. As an example, many bands have a wide range of genres on an album in part because they're still looking to find their sound. A few, relatively few in my experience, do it because they're so adept at such a wide range of styles they're just looking to keep things fresh and open it up a bit. Clearly the latter situation applies on the debut album from San Francisco Bay-area band Front Country, Sake Of the Sound. The band started as an impromptu gathering of acquaintances to play a few sets at a local club. They didn't officially form until last year, when they took the Colorado high country by storm, winning best band competitions at both Telluride and Rockygrass. That high country sound really comes out on the aptly named Colorado, and Glacier Song, featuring banjoist Jordan Klein on vocals. One Kind Word and Like A River, a Kate Wolf tune, also have a classic bluegrass sound. There are a couple of really nice instrumental numbers, including Daysleeper, that starts out a bit like bluegrass chamber music. And guitartist Jacob Groopman takes vocal lead on a speedgrass verison of an obscure Dylan song, Long Ago, Far Away. When the album really kicks into high gear, though, is when you add lead vocalist Melody Walker's voice to the pickin' and shuckin'. The title song just soars over the instruments and sets Front Country apart from mere mortal bluegrass bands. Rock Salt & Nails lays out an emotional charge and a steely determination that original author Utah Phillips couldn't possibly have imagined, as talented a songwriter as he was. And then there's the opening cut, Gospel Train. My description is going to be mundane--it starts out with an a Capella gospel chorus, and then kicks into a traditional bluegrass arrangement. But it is so well executed, when you listen to it again after hearing the full album, it's like the band is just showing off. Because they can. You should go listen to Front Country.
Several good EP's have crossed my listening desk over the summer, and while individually there wasn't quite enough material in each of them for a full review, they're all worth a listen. First up is the latest from Lost & Nameless, When You Walked Into the Room. I first ran across this group early in the year when their Empty Spaces EP came out. I noted at the time they had a fun and diverse sound, and their new release continues down that path. The title cut opens the EP with an up-temp0 commentary on love-at-first-sight that will give you a chuckle, "you turned your head in my direction and my future was planned out." Say Goodbye features the youngster in the band, Kimberly Zielnicki, on vocals along with guest Todd Phillips. Have We Lost has a definite new grass sound, while May I brings in a touch of gospel. The EP ends with an acoustic, fiddle-drive piece, Matthew's Reel/Reel a Levis Beaulieu. I'd comment on who plays what, but with just about everyone in the group playing half a dozen instruments, you'd need a scorecard. So instead just sit back and enjoy a really fine band with roots from Ireland to Austin. Next, I'll call your attention to Strikes And Gutters, the latest release from Brian Pounds. Pounds is perhaps best known as one of the contestants on last season's The Voice. A couple of tunes on this EP, Hold My Head High and Sunday Dress, certainly reinforce the idea of a pop country crooner. Somewhere, Maybe Carolina is a little more old school country. Keep My Hands To Myself, my favorite on the disc, has a clear soul sound to it. The EP finishes with Jesus, Don't Let Me Die (On My Feet) that's part prayer and part assessment of a situation familiar to all too many folks. The last EP is not exactly Twangville material. The only twang you're going to hear out of The Nightowls is if someone breaks a string in a live show. An Austin band by way of 60's Detroit, with some Bootsy Collins thrown in for good measure, The Nightowls have dropped an EP of "B-sides" from their album last year, Good As Gold. If you're old enough to know what a B-side is, you'll remember that it was no reflection on the material, more just a commentary on what the label liked, and this set reflects that. The Feel Good gives you a taste of Funkadelic-style soul. Nobody Ever Wants To Leave was chosen as the official song of the Austin Convention & Visitor's Bureau. After All has some old school Stevie Wonder sounds to go with the Motown vibe. Either Way finishes the EP on a high note with the horns asserting themselves in all the right places.
[caption id="attachment_19971" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Ryan Adams[/caption] When the e-mail arrived confirming my press credentials for the Newport Folk Festival, I did a little dance around my living room. Not only is this the holy grail of music festivals (you may remember an incident with Bob Dylan and an electric guitar in 1965...), but I have been not-so- patiently waiting 12 years to photograph one of my favorite musicians: Mr. Ryan Adams. I'm sure that many other photographers during this set got a kick out of the huge smile that was plastered to my face like a small child. Going through these photos was especially exciting because even though I was crammed into the pit, the lighting was great, and I was able to shoot from many different angles. Here are some of my favorites! [caption id="attachment_19972" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Jenny Lewis[/caption] [caption id="attachment_19973" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Lake Street Dive[/caption] [caption id="attachment_19974" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Shovels & Rope[/caption] [caption id="attachment_19975" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Deer Tick[/caption] [caption id="attachment_19976" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Sara Watkins- Nickel Creek[/caption] [caption id="attachment_19979" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Nickel Creek[/caption] [caption id="attachment_19978" align="aligncenter" width="450"] Ryan Adams[/caption] All photos by Suzanne Davis Photography (www.facebook.com/suzannedavisphotography)
By the late 60's and early 70's bluegrass had evolved from Bill Monroe's radical take on old-timey music to a relatively known and expected performance and sound. The Stanley Brothers, the Foggy Mountain Boys, The Osborne Brothers, and many of their peers followed a set framework and style with matching dress and choreographed solos. It's hard to fault anyone for the conformance because it had actually become possible to make a living as a musician on the moonshine circuit and harbor dreams of national exposure on The Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw. And as any student of innovation can tell you, that made it ripe for disruption. Along came New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, and John Hartford, among others, bringing elements of jazz, blues, rock, and even classical music to vault bluegrass into a golden age of improvisation. The newest album from Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Cold Spell, seems to be a paean to that era. For those of you who've been spending time under a bluegrass rock lately, Solivan and his bandmates are one of the hottest acts around. In a live performance, they tear it up, no other way to describe it. Cold Spell manages to capture a lot of that intensity. I think some of that is an all star cast of guests including John Cowan, Rob Ickes, Sam Bush, and Megan McCormick pushing an already incredibly accomplished set of musicians to new limits. Ickes in particular, his dobro adding a tenor element that really rounds out of the sound of several tunes on the disc, leaves more space for Solivan and Dirty Kitchen to show off their chops. Betrayal is a murder ballad of the finest heritage--upbeat music, but dark, dark lyrics. No Life In This Town bemoans the leaving of a lover and the realization the town you used to know is gone. Yeah Man is an instrumental number where everyone gets a chance to stretch out. My favorite on the album is Country Song, a tune with a nice lyrical hook, but more importantly a 5 minute--or-so instrumental vamp in the middle that takes me to my happy place. In this day and age a lot of bluegrass music is exploring the bookends of the genre. It's either a throwback to the early days or an exploration of the indie sound with Americana instrumentation. Cold Spell crashes squarely through the middle of the style, with excellent instrumental skills and lyrical hooks that keep you swaying to the music when you aren't dancing to the jams.