I’ve just returned to Australia from five weeks in the USA with (long-suffering) friends, attending the Americana Music Conference and Awards, the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. As well there were gigs elsewhere along the journey. I visited the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and California. I saw performances in Clarksdale MS, Memphis TN, Nashville TN, Raleigh NC, Austin TX and San Francisco CA.
I estimate that I saw over 100 different performances. What were the best ones?
10. The Infamous Stringdusters – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh North Carolina
The last night in the Red Hat Amphitheatre. This bluegrass outfit from Nashville released their first album in 2007. They were on the Americana Conference bill a week before in their hometown but I couldn’t get to see them.
Unlike most bluegrass acts at Wide Open, the Stringdusters have a dobro player which suits my sensibilities. Four lead singers, aforementioned dobro, banjo, guitar, fiddle and double bass. Players with persuasive prowess. Great jamming – absorbing and captivating. The real ‘grass deal but with Americana cross-over for broader appeal.
9. John Fullbright – Cannery Ballroom – Nashville Tennessee
John Fullbright’s recent solo debut From the Ground Up blew me away this year. He performed one song at the Americana Awards the night before – “Jericho” with gusto and passion. Tonight he was playing at the Cannery Ballroom, a large venue and we were able to go right up front.
He plays with a sense of urgency and purpose. A guitar malfunction in the middle of the opening song did not faze him – he simply moved to keyboards.
Most of the material I heard was new to me, a sign of an artist on the move, never wanting to stand still. A fellow punter in the crowd told me of Fullbright performing a number of times at his house – I learned a lot from him. Apparently legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb was playing elsewhere in town and Fullbright dedicated a song to him, indicating that he rather be elsewhere to see Webb perform.
An emerging, forthright and serious artist.
8. Punch Brothers – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh North Carolina
The second and final night of the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival.
A balmy and still evening. The Del McCoury band had just finished a set and the Punch Brothers were stunningly different.
Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile assembled this all-star quintet. Many of the band seem to have had classical training as it is infused in all their material. A fascinating, talented and unpredictable outfit. Recorded output started in 2008.
Be prepared to be challenged.
7. Bear’s Den Downtown Presbyterian Church Nashville Tennessee
Jenny and I got to the church as the first act on the bill Black Prairie started. Bear’s Den were next.
Bear’s Den is a three-piece from London, beautiful harmonies – two guitars, one acoustic and one electric (or banjo) and the drummer (who also sometimes played bass at the same time!). I had no preconceptions about the band and I was captivated by their vocals, songwriting and banter. The sound in the large, square, flat-topped church was brilliant. Also, having a gig in a church has one huge advantage – no noisy bar and people talk only in whispers. It is all about the music.
I saw the band again that evening at the Mercy Lounge and was fortunate enough to see them on my return to Melbourne. One EP has been released and another about to become available. They had driven fifteen hours to make the church gig and they were out of their feet. It didn’t show. A delightful surprise.
6. Calexico – Slim’s – San Francisco
My third live viewing of this band did not disappoint.
Calexico had played at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that day, finishing just before 7. The band spent a lot of time sound-checking (presumably they had no other time to do it) and by 10.15 they launched into “Pepita”. To say their performance was a sheer joy is an understatement. Much of their set comprised about seven songs from their most recent New-Orleans-recorded release Algiers which is a fine addition to the band’s impressive discography.
Favourites such as “Alone Again Or” and “Not Even Stevie Nicks” were well received. By the time they completed a rousing encore with “Guero Canelo”, the assembled were very content.
An excellent support set from Robert Ellis as well.
5. Peter Rowan – Raleigh Convention Centre – Wide Open Bluegrass Festival – Raleigh NC
Rowan had an eight piece line-up behind him with a very strong communal and familial feeling. In fact it wouldn’t surprise if he hadn’t assembled the players from the hotel lobby – beautiful players all.
Michael Cleveland was absolutely stellar on the violin – you might like to check him out (see right). He has won the Best Bluegrass Violinist Award nine times.
The forty-five minute set was over in what seemed a flash. There’s a calm and a simplicity about this man with a glorious history. I later chatted with his mandolin player Chris and collected Rowan’s excellent new CD Old School.
4. Ryan Bingham – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival – San Francisco
Ryan Bingham is now based in L.A. His career is on a strong upward trajectory.
An Oscar-winning song for the movie Crazy Heart, the prestigious “Artist Of The Year” award from the Americana Music Association, an impressive and growing discography. Today it was Just him and a fiddle player which provided a nice variation as I had last seen him with a full band in Austin.
It was a slow and moving set – just the guitar, fiddle and harmonica. He evoked the spirit of Woody Guthrie.
An excellent set, one which convinced me that he is a roots music star in the making.
3. Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express – The Make Out Room San Francisco California
After some pretty mellow music over some of our trip (at Hardly Strictly and Wide Open Bluegrass Festivals), it was thrilling to get a high-octane rock show and even more so for me to see an artist that I have followed for many years but never had the opportunity to see live.
A privilege to be there. Another punter told me he had seen Prophet about twenty times and this was the pinnacle performance. Peter Case was a special guest.
The Mission Express comprised James DePrato on guitar, Kevin White (bass) Stephanie Finch (keyboard and vocals – nice version of “Different Drum”) and Vincente Rodriguez (drums). (The “Mission Express” is a bus line that runs through Chuck’s neighbourhood).
2. The Black Lillies – Levitt Shell – Memphis Tennessee
Now for me and my companions, The Black Lillies’ performance was a revelation, above and beyond our high expectations.
Since picking up the band’s excellent 100 Miles Of Wreckage, I have been a big fan and enjoyed their follow-up release Runaway Freeway Blues which enhances their reputation. When I discovered they were playing in Memphis in September we made sure our trip itinerary was altered to see them play.
Sensational. I have waxed lyrical about this band previously on this site – see previous entries. This night we got to see Levitt Shell where Elvis Presley first performed professionally. An outdoor venue with a gentle grassy slope for universal viewing. It was a balmy night and we managed to get a park bench right up the front. The mood was festive, families on rugs and much dancing. The band performed their distinctive alternative country material with flair. And it was free.
1. Lucinda Williams – 3rd and Lindsley – Nashville Tennessee
The gig was centred around the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of her third and self-titled album, one of my absolute favourites. The band was much the same as on her last tour of Australia – Stuart Mathis on guitarist (awesome), Butch Norton on drums and David Sutton bass.
The sound was a good as I have ever heard. Lucinda was relaxed and her voice strong and true – the great songs just kept coming, from her album aforementioned and others – she showcased a new song “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Jim Lauderdale guested on many of the songs. A cover of Gregg Allman’s “I’ll Make My Cross again” was excellent and the blistering band building to the encore Neil Young’s “Rocking In The Free World”.
The support act The Kenneth Brian Band were really interesting (“country-fried rock n roll”). The table we were on provided us with some interesting discussions at first and some revelry later.
A joy. The best concert I have seen this year. The best sound. The audience rapturous and adoring. It was a stunning night and perfect way to close the Americana Conference and Awards.