AmericanaFest 2015 Finds The Groove

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 15: (L-R) Chris Wood, Jano Rix, and Oliver Wood of the Wood Brother's perform at The Basement during the 16th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference on September 15, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images for Americana Music)
NASHVILLE, TN – SEPTEMBER 15: (L-R) Chris Wood, Jano Rix, and Oliver Wood of the Wood Brother’s perform at The Basement during the 16th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference on September 15, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Opening Night – The Wood Brothers and the Late Night Windup at The Basement

Videos by American Songwriter

The first night of Americana Fest is always a challenge. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, after all, and you can’t use all your juice (or more realistically, drink it all) before the festival even officially begins. The festival folks don’t make it easy on you, however, packing a lot of great acts into a Tuesday night kick-off that also conveniently serves as a time to pick up your credentials. The evening’s lineup began with sets from Patrick Sweany and Della Mae, and by the time we got there Della Mae were wrapping up to a packed house.

The Wood Brothers took the stage shortly after and shared a lot of new material from their upcoming LP Paradise, which releases October 2 via Thirty Tigers. Other highlights included “The Muse,” “Postcards from Hell” and “Honey Jar.” Punch Brothers’ Noam Pikelny took the stage next to introduce The Bluegrass Situation’s Late Night Windup, a yearly tradition that brings an all-star group of musicians together for cover-laden jam. Guests included Kelsey Waldon, Caitlin Canty, Rayland Baxter, Eddie Berman, Leigh Nash, Jefferson Hamer, and more, as well as a return to the stage from both Della Mae and the Wood Brothers. Covers ranged from Bob Marley (“Stop That Train”) to Paul Simon (“You Can Call Me Al”) with a little thing called “Mandolin Armageddon” thrown in for good measure. While it was, as the name suggests, a late first night, the evening was a great sampler of they myriad talented acts to come throughout the rest of the week. -BRITTNEY MCKENNA

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 16: Singers/Songwriters Patty Griffin, Rhiannon Giddens and Host Ann Powers attend the 16th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference - Day 2 - NPR hosts "SONGS WE LOVE: at RCA Grand Victor Studio A on September 16, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)
NASHVILLE, TN – SEPTEMBER 16: Singers/Songwriters Patty Griffin, Rhiannon Giddens and Host Ann Powers attend the 16th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference – Day 2 – NPR hosts “SONGS WE LOVE: at RCA Grand Victor Studio A on September 16, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)

Patty Griffin, Rhiannon Giddens and Shakey Graves at NPR’s “Songs We Love” Event

The line around Nashville’s historic, recently rescued RCA Studio A started forming two hours early for an event every hopeful attendee knew would be special: NPR Music’s first official AmericanaFest offering, featuring critic Ann Powers and artists Patty Griffin, Rhiannon Giddens and Shakey Graves, weighing in on the topic “Songs We Love.”

Right away, Powers noted just one element of what made it special when she said, “Can you feel the history?” The elegant Music Row studio, nearly lost to a wrecking ball, almost echoes with the many rich voices of those who have recorded within its walls, from Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton to Tony Bennett and Willie Nelson. Big enough for a full orchestra, the room’s five grand pianos, various uprights and a Wurlitzer were rearranged to accommodate the crowd of perhaps 150 who sat in white folding chairs, enjoying pastries and morning beers while Griffin, Giddens and Graves — aka Alejandro Rose-Garcia — revealed their influences and song sources, and delivered stunning versions of covers and originals.

Griffin’s passion, Giddens’ sense of history and Rose-Garcia’s well-honed sense of humor were in evidence as each offered anecdotes about their upbringing and inspirations.

Griffin, who learned to project her voice at 12 by practicing in a closet, mentioned the Staple Singers as an influence, and joked that her sister gave her an Aretha Franklin song and said, “If you could sing like this, it would be awesome.”

“I love how this song came about,” Griffin said as she introduced “There Isn’t One Way,” from her new album, Servant of Love. “It came about in the middle of the night after having a seven-hour conversation with an Irish friend of mine.” Augmented by David Pulkingham’s biting electric guitar, the song’s lyrics flip from sounding nearly angry to expressing wonder. But it was her piano rendition of the title song, in which her mesmerizing voice filled a space made for such sounds, that left listeners in total awe.

Giddens, who co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops and released her first solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, in February, cited Sister Rosetta Tharpe, among others. “Every song has a heart,” she said. “I just go for that. Aim for the jugular.”

She plucked her banjo for an Ollabelle Reed tune and belted a rendition of “Mal Hombre,” by Tejano star Lydia Mendoza, that was so strong, Rose-Garcia commented, “I don’t know how to follow that.”

But he did just fine with “Word of Mouth” and his cover of the Cardigans’ “Lovefool.” “I’ve always liked re-appropriating flashy songs into slow songs,” he said, adding, “The Swedes — they know their pop music.” (Ironically, Powers missed the opportunity to note he played a character named “the Swede” on the TV show Friday Night Lights.)

After perfectly executing his cue to insert a kazoo into Giddens’ mouth as she turned a Junior Brown song into a jug-band raveup, he performed a hypnotic version of Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall.”

When he finished, Powers breathed, “I can think of no better testament to the bare, beautiful power of song than that.” – LYNNE MARGOLIS

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