AmericanaFest 2015 Review

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Thursday

I recently relocated to Nashville after spending the better part of my life in Macon, Georgia and have spent most of my time around my apartment, rearranging plants and vacuuming. Needless to say, I welcomed the opportunity to get to know the city during AmericanaFest.

Thursday started slow for me, nursing a slight hangover from The Black Lips show the previous night but Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck at Downtown Presbyterian set me right. The married duo was welcomed with a massive applause, which concluded with Washburn chiming, “Well, Fleck, you better not suck”, before breaking into a moving version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”. I made note the number of English accents I heard in between songs, something I’d hear quite often through the rest of the evening, and the high point of the set came when the hotshot a row ahead decided to take off his massive hat so my neighbors and I could see. After a few more numbers, including one dedicated to their child, I headed for Cannery Row.

On the walk, I hopped on Instagram to look at band’s pages, and came across a potential marketing opportunity after being suggested “Shake Shack” when searching for “Legendary Shack Shakers”. Their rousing set in the near-capacity High Watt was a delight for those in attendance, with animated frontman J.D. Wilkes dancing around the stage, not stopping to comb his hair or, at one point, take a hat from an audience member and shove it down his pants before giving it back. It made the guy’s night, I think.

The Stray Birds, an immensely talented trio from Lancaster, PA, were on stage in Mercy Lounge and provided a pleasant contrast to Wilkes and company. After stirring covers of “Loretta” and “Blue Yodel #7”, they closed with the title track from their recent album, The Best Medicine. Harmonizing “If the body is a temple, the soul is a bell and that’s why music is the best medicine I sell”, it was a sentiment shared by the room.

Ahead of the Lighting 100 announcer, Ray Wylie Hubbard ambled out on stage of the Ballroom during the intro of “Elenor Rigby” as the house music and as the lights dimmed, it made for a slightly comical scene, completely appropriate for his set. Hubbard took time to mention his upcoming book, “A Life…Well, Lived” before a rousing version of “Snake Farm”. It’s a bold claim to make, but the man is easily one of the best performers in town this week.

The night ended with a jaunt over to the Basement East (“The Beast”, or do people actually call it that?) to see Luther Dickinson and band tear through searing blues numbers, a few that included fife accompaniment from drummer Sharde Thomas. It set the bar high for T. Hardy Morris, who followed Dickinson, but Morris and his Hardknocks were right at home as they blazed through songs from Drownin’ on a Mountaintop, their recent release. After a few of the beers designed by Morris and Blackstone Brewing Company, a different kind of medicine, it was time for sleep.

Friday

My second full day of AmericanaFest started with a 4pm walk down Broadway to get to Acme Feed & Seed. I definitely could have gone a different way, but the novelty of it is still pretty amusing to me. Wide-eyed and sporting an impressive backpack-shaped sweat stain (straps and everything), I pushed my way past countless “Southern flavored” bros cat-calling bachelorette parties struggling to gain momentum on their beer bike journey and finally settled in at Acme, a few minutes before Cicada Rhythm was set to take the stage.

Unfortunately, there was more focus on happy hour specials and group photos than the band because the Athens-based duo-turned-full-band delivered a special performance, their first in the city since expanding the lineup. Recent signees to New West Records, the band kicked off the label showcase and received an enthusiastic applause when they announced the upcoming release of their self-titled album in late October. I’ve enjoyed watching them the last few years, so I took a personal delight at the number of attentive music business types in the room.

I attempted to play catch-up with my Broadway neighbors, but struggled and then failed. All for the best, as the walk back to my apartment was exhaustingly hot.

My night picked back up after arriving at Cannery to find that Pandora was sponsoring the event, which meant complimentary drink tickets for everyone. Which meant the room was already erupting with conversation. Things quieted down as Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear took the stage, treating the crowd to a powerful acoustic number before being joined by a full band. Led by Madisen Ward and his mother, Ruth, the group’s soulful folk made quick fans of the packed Ballroom, with a number of people heading to the merch table mid-set to pick up their Glass Note Records debut, Skeleton Crew.

Corb Lund and his Hurtin’ Albertans played to a packed Mercy Lounge, charming audiences with the songs like “Gothest Girl I Can”, but also showcasing songs from his upcoming record, Things That Can’t Be Undone. As Lund’s set wound down, the near-capacity room became even more packed with people eager to hear John Moreland’s heartbreakers from High on Tulsa Heat, his critically-acclaimed recent release. Moreland’s admirers were as serious as he was, raising index fingers and hushing the bar crowd between songs. Despite his somber appearance most of the set, Moreland grinned as he made the stage for an encore and didn’t seem to mind most of the room singing along with him.

At this point most of the Cannery complex was near capacity and I intended on seeing Josh Ritter, but felt past the point of struggling to enjoy his set in an incredibly noisy room, so I decided to call it a night and wake up refreshed. I definitely felt the FOMO on Steelism and Great Peacock, but.. life happens.

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