Best Music Experiences – USA Trip 2013

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 have already offered my favourite gigs for the trip – see previous entry.  As well as a host of specific performances, there were a number of other experiences that were forever memorable on the trip.  Here are my top picks.

8. Paul Kelly – Film, Interview and Songs – Nashville TN

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Emma Swift interviews Paul Kelly

The recent documentary on Paul Kelly, Stories Of Me, was screening at the Nashville Public Library, along with an interview and a short live performance from Kelly.  The film was excellent (I had not seen it before) and it filled in a lot of gaps for me about this iconic Australian.  Journalist and performer Emma Swift conducted the interview and there were a few familiar faces in the audience – Damian Howard, Anne McCue and Kim Richey.  Paul sang three songs from his most recent album Spring and Fall.

The event provided us with an opportunity to examine the impressive Nashville Public Library as well.

7. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Day #3 – San Francisco CA

It was my first Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  It took a while to get used to the layout of Golden Gate Park, how to manage the large crowds and get good vantage points and getting to and from each day.  But on day 3 it clicked in beautifully.

One song from the impressive The Deep Dark Woods on the way in, with sets from the exciting duo Shovels and Rope and favourites Kane, Welch and Kaplin to follow.  Ryan Bingham was a revelation with a solo and acoustic set that I have enthused about in my Best Gigs post.  A Kate McGarrigle tribute was next with Martha Wainwright, Sloan Wainwright, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III.  All the gang joined in for a fitting finale.  A quick peek at Pieta Brown and Bo Ramsey on the way out.  An action-packed day of musical highlights.

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Martha Wainwright and Maria Muldaur

6. Wide Open Bluegrass Festival (Overall) – Raleigh NC

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At the Red Hat Amphitheatre

The two-day Wide Open Bluegrass Festival that I attended was an eye-opener.  It was only a part of the World Of Bluegrass event which spread over five days, but our two days there were difficult enough to take in – there was:

  • the Awards show on the Thursday night
  • sixteen prime performances at the Red Hat Amphitheatre during the day and night on Friday and Saturday .
  • over fifty bands playing free street events within a few blocks of each other and the Red Hat
  • artist workshops and industry stalls
  • almost two hundred performances at the Bluegrass Ramble at various venues around the city
  • street stalls and impromptu jamming everywhere
  • everything within easy walking

It was pretty challenging to choose what to do and who to see.  But challenging in a really nice way.  The level of musicianship was stunning as was the sheer depth of talent in this one music genre.  Simply thrilling to have a first look of such an event.

5. Bishop Al Green’s Church Service – Memphis TN

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Bishop A.L. Green aka Mr Al Green.

This man today lead the service for 90 minutes – preaching, singing and bringing joy and laughter.  A twenty-odd choir, a full electric band – keys, guitar, drums, base and bongos, as well as a grand piano and three other preachers.

When Al sang “Amazing Grace”, I was so moved – never have I heard the song in such an emotion-charged setting, sung with skill, beauty and elegance.  Never I believe will I hear that tune again with such emotional resonance.  During the plate collection, he sang “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and I was a true believer.  So uplifting.  So optimistic.  So soothing.

At the end of the ceremony, many went up for a blessing – he put his hand on their head and then prayed and sang, other preachers gathered around in case the recipient might fall in a trance-like state.

What an experience and we were lucky that Bishop Green was in Memphis and led the whole service. Praise The Lord.

4. Rodney Crowell Session – Nashville TN

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The Country Music Hall of Fame

As part of Americanafest, there was an interview with Rodney Crowell at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Auditorium.

I say an interview but it was just Crowell taking questions from the audience and playing whatever songs fitted in with the conversation flow.  When, in response to an enquiry about the songwriting craft, Crowell mentioned his experiences with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, I knew we were in for a special experience.

The questions from the assembled were pretty good and we learned an enormous amount – the high standards of Clark and Van Zandt, the perspiration and commitment to songwriting, the influence of the death of his mother on his superb The Houston Kid.  He played the last track he wrote for that album, one that he penned after a dream in which his mother and father said to him that he needed something else to finish the album – that song was “I Know Love Is All I Need”.  You could hear a pin drop.

He also played a new song, I think called “These Houston Blues”, quite a departure from his work with Emmylou Harris on Old Yellow Moon.  The hour and a bit went in a flash – heady stuff.

3. Wayne Jackson Tour Of Stax Museum – Memphis TN
I have waxed lyrical about our experience with Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns and his lovely wife Amy.  A personal tour of Stax Museum and a visit to their home.  Just search “Wayne Jackson” on the home page and you’ll find all the details.  Unforgettable.

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Wayne Jackson in front of The Memphis Horns Exhibit – Stax Museum

2. Americana Music Association Conference and Awards – Nashville TN

This one is pretty simple choice.  In a little over two hours, we witnessed at the Ryman Auditorium:

  • Performances by Delbert McClinton, Holly Williams, John Fullbright, Shovels and Rope, Lennon and Maisy Stella, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, Richard Thompson, JD McPherson, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Milk Carton Kids, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Robert Hunter, Dr John, Dan Auerbach
  • An encore featuring all the above plus Tift Merritt, Joy Williams and Roseanne Cash
  • Lifetime Achievement Awards presented to Hank Williams, Robert Hunter, Chris Strachwitz and Dr John
  • Presenters Jerry Douglas, Ken Burns, Billy Bragg, Chip Esten, Ry Cooder, Nicki Bluhm, Bob Harris, Alejandro Escovedo, Langhorne Slim, Sam Bush, Wilco pair John Stirratt and Pat Sansone,
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The American Honors and Awards finale

1. Americana Music Association Honors and Awards (Overall) – Nashville TN

I’ve already mentioned parts of the Americana Music Conference – the Paul Kelly and Rodney Crowell sessions, as well as the Honors and Awards ceremony.  Three of the great side shows were “Best Gig” performances by John Fullbright, Bear’s Den and Lucinda Williams (see Best Gigs post).  On top of these were:

  • numerous wonderful night-time Showcase performances at various venues around Nashville
  • the Conference sessions featuring some exceptional artists and insights into industry issues
  • other captivating side gigs during the day – the Downtown Presbyterian Church and the Bluebird Cafe
  • Sounds Australia had two key events which exposed many great Australian artists and provided a touch of home
  • all in the beautiful city of Nashville where are lots of other music-related activities

So many highlights.  So many acts not able to be seen because of constant schedule clashes.

An amazing event.

Author: Rob Dickens

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