Soundland 2011: A Retrospective

When a music festival changes its name and wants to let their audience know they mean business, they pull out all the stops.  That’s exactly what happened Wednesday night when M Ward headlined a show kicking off Soundland 2011, held at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, TN.

Jonny Corndawg opened with his uniquely personal and hilarious country jams. Dawes was already on stage lending their California flare. The combination of Corndawg’s crass Southern stories worked perfectly with Dawes’ sentimental sounds. Corndawg referred to the combination as “Corndawes” and gave reason to believe this might be the sound to expect on his next release. When Corndawg left the stage, Dawes picked up with their heartbreakingly honest ballads. Their melodies and gorgeous key work had the audience of this enormous Nashville landmark hanging on every word.

Finally, M Ward cast his charismatic net in a way only he can. One man with a guitar on a stage seldom has the effect that Ward has perfected.  He has proven time and time again that while he can work with more major names such as My Morning Jacket or Zooey Deschanel, he doesn’t have to. His voice carries that whispery, paper thin quality you’d expect from a sober Elliot Smith gone folk. Joined by Dawes and half of Lambchop, their velvety jams each felt like a soft, personalized serenade.

In short, the first night of Soundland was incredible.  If you weren’t there, it’s hard to even articulate what you missed. I was skeptical about Thursday’s Block Party Stage, and the first band, Reptar, wasn’t very reassuring. After a few songs, the crowd started to mill around looking for fun elsewhere. It was too early in the day and way too late in the game for Reptar’s lowest common denominator dance pop.

Fortunately, Cults championed the stage to the theme of Twin Peaks and smiles swept the block. Their live performance more than fulfills the promises their self-titled debut makes. Packed with reverb and xylophone, the whimsical mythology of their songs poured from the stage causing even the tired staff who had previously been slouching, head in hands, to sway along. Next up was Foster the People. While there really isn’t much to say about these Los Angeles natives that you couldn’t learn from their recent commercial or your local pop radio station, the production was perfect; bright and colorful lights complimented the impeccable instrumentation to create what would have been an amazing show… if they hadn’t seemed so entirely disinterested. The audience seemed to enjoy it for a while, but with that same lethargy embodying the band. Eventually they droned off and disappeared with the most enthusiasm they mustered all day.

Soundland peaked Saturday afternoon outside an abandoned slaughter house. There could not have been a more fitting location to gather the innovators of Nashville’s new sound than here, nestled between the ruins. If you made your way past the giant inflatable dragon slide, there was a lot worth seeing.

The Royal Bangs led with their crisp, loud, and organic brand of ethereal, dancey, indie rock. This is a three piece that comes alive during their live performances; the keys were violent, the guitar was crunchy, and the drums were increasingly imaginative and flourishing.

Jessica Lea Mayfield has an intimate relationship with the road, so it was no surprise to see an enormous reaction when her tiny figure took the stage and filled the venue with that unique soulful energy you’d expect from the likes of June Carter Cash. Richie, another Soundland artist, backed her scorned, yet gentle voice with a cavernous and rueful guitar tone that demanded attention throughout their entire set. As her appearance has evolved, her romantic disdain has grown into its current manifestation: an aura that envelopes the audience with a slow, lingering sadness.  Needless to say, she is still an artist to keep an eye on.

Mayfield is a tough act to follow, but The Apache Relay burst to life with a clear proclamation that they are not to be outdone. This is the kind of band fans of southern indie rock have wet dreams about. I sat down with Michael Ford Jr., their frontman and bass player, and he explained how the band was formed from two other projects to create their current six piece bluegrass infused wall of sound. When they embark on their East Coast tour with G. Love and Special Sauce this October, you’re going to want to check them out.

Nashville local Tristen drew the crowd close when it started to rain. Their ominous guitar riffs and surf rock energy fused wonderfully with their gentle soulful vocals and the proof was that, for the first time at Soundland, the audience was singing along. When she began No One’s Gonna Know with a playful, “I’m gonna tell you a story,” the crowd cheered and clapped along. This is another young, captivating lady backed by a powerful band that truly does have a story to tell.

Speaking of ladies, Black Belles stormed the stage next in their full black attire to play their Bikini Kill drunk on bourbon tunes. This is the sort of fun you would rightly anticipate from a group of four young women brought together by Nashville’s Music Ambassador, Jack White. While the gothic attire and repetitive nature of their songs was a little tired, the Black Belles are still a new arrival who exude confidence.

Those Darlins, another female-led band, followed with a not so polished act of “please pay attention to us” throw-back rock. At this point, it was clear that the show was over. Thankfully, there was plenty of Firefly to be drank out back while we waited for JEFF the Brotherhood, this stage’s headliner. They worked the stage and the audience into a frenzy, but from where I stood, it still sounded like a couple of kids wailing on Peavey guitars plugged into Crate amps. While lost on me, they’re doing something right.

All in all, Soundland had a lot to offer. There were so many gems hidden in this years lineup that next year is a no-brainer.

– Phillip Stewart