November 30, 2023

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Best Things We Saw – Rolling Stone

After a summer where many music festivals felt anticlimactic and unfulfilling (Was standing on dirt or gravel for hours on end ever fun?), AmericanaFest 2022 delivered one of its most satisfying and diverse weeks in the history of the Nashville event. While the festival suffered a major blow with the loss of its de facto home base, the Cannery Complex, to the city’s aggressive development, artists and bands found new venues at which to play and friendly audiences eager to experience something fresh. Here’s the sounds, parties, and places that moved us.

Adeem the Artist
AmericanaFest can be a little too self-serious sometimes, making humor seem like a scarce resource. Thankfully Adeem the Artist was around this year to obliterate those notions during their set at Exit/In before Sarah Shook and American Aquarium were set to play. A non-binary, pansexual singer-songwriter based out of Knoxville, Adeem sang funny, poignant songs like “I Never Came Out” about gender identity, sexuality, and religion, then told searing stories about leaving the evangelical faith tradition of their childhood behind. Backed by a full band including fellow singer-songwriter Jessye DeSilva, Adeem’s warm voice was as singular as their vision, one that confronted the idea of eternal life (and its absence) beautifully in “Live Forever”: “Just sing one of my songs from time to time.”

Jon Langford
All throughout AmericanaFest, but especially Saturday, one could throw a rock on either side of the Cumberland River and hit a daytime party worth attending. With day turning to night and summer to fall, Windy City-via-Wales singer-songwriter Jon Langford’s pop-up gig at Julia Martin Gallery —  a frequent showcaser of visual artists with music-scene ties, right in the heart of Nashville’s Wedgewood-Houston ‘hood — offered convivial vibes, city views, and a killer soundtrack of ragged rock & roll. That came courtesy of the thick-accented Mekons mensch and a loose, joyful backup band featuring local institution Paul Burch (The WPA Ballclub, Lambchop and more) behind the kit.

James McMurtry
They may have somehow misspelled his name numerous times throughout the festival (McCurty? Nope. McMurtury? Try again), but there’s only one James McMurtry. The candidate for America’s best living songwriter destroyed a Thursday night crowd at Riverside Revival with a strummed 12-string, his gruff voice and ornery disposition, and songs off albums like last year’s The Horse and the Hounds and 1997’s It Had to Happen. “Let’s go chase tornadoes, just me and you,” he sang in “Peter Pan,” “you don’t often catch ‘em, but man when you do.” Those lucky enough to be in attendance caught the tornado.

Miko Marks
Miko Marks is enjoying a long overdue revival some 17 years after she first came to Nashville to sing country music. These days, the California performer is mixing together country, soul, folk, gospel, and more — a joyful mix that emanated from the stage during Marks’ late set on Wednesday. A stacked late-night block — Angel Olsen, Taj Mahal, Charley Crockett — made it that far too few people were in attendance, but it was their loss. With infectious energy, Marks and her band tore through scorchers like “One More Night,” “Ancestors,” and “Trouble,” playing every song like it was the last one they’d ever get to play. On Oct. 14, Marks will finally get to make her Grand Ole Opry debut, a milestone for a performer who’s finally getting proper recognition.

Polka Friday with Oh Boy Records
To mark their re-release of John Prine’s German Afternoons on vinyl, Prine’s Oh Boy Records threw one of the Prine-iest events of all time. Held at the newly refurbished Emerson Hall in East Nashville, the Friday afternoon hang offered beer, beer cheese pretzels, and (what else) hot dogs and bratwurst, along with a pop-up vinyl store for the many collectors in the mix. It was a relaxing break from the educational, networking-heavy aspects of the conference, soundtracked by a polka band that were once the house performers at shuttered Nashville restaurant Gerst Haus. Because nothing says Americana like a man in lederhosen honkin’ on an alpenhorn.

Dropkick Murphys
Seeing one of punk’s loudest, most intense bands on the AmericanaFest schedule was a head-scratcher unless you knew what the other bad boys from Boston have cooking: a new album of songs by Woody Guthrie, a godfather of Americana music. Singer Ken Casey led the Murphys through songs off This Machine Still Kills Fascists, out Sept. 30, and spoke about the timeliness of Guthrie’s lyrics with a representative from the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa — despite the hardcore matinee performance, this was technically an AmericanaFest panel after all. Casey joked about how a punk band infiltrated an AmericanaFest ballroom, but their high-energy stage-crashing was the festival’s gain.

Dropkick Murphys at AmericanaFest. Credit: Jay Westcott

Austin Lucas
Southern Indiana songsmith Austin Lucas made the eight-hour round trip from his home base in Bloomington for a pair of shows Saturday, following a backyard shindig at East Side record emporium the Groove with an encore at Cornelius Chapel Records HQ, which released the 43-year-old’s Steve Albini-engineered 2018 LP Immortal Americans. Though the loquacious guitarslinger’s songs and banter meandered, the small-yet-tuned-in crowd loved the set’s nonconformist slant — and Lucas ended on a high note with “Alone In Memphis,” ruminating on the loneliness of solo touring and honoring the mighty Mississippi, both the river itself and and the run-down yet resilient towns alongside it.

Peter Case: A Million Miles Away
From Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me to The Devil & Daniel Johnston and A Band Called Death, enough documentaries about cult-fave musicians leave the viewer waiting for the inevitable tragedy that kept the subject from going further. Nerves co-founder and Plimsouls frontman-turned-solo artist Peter Case’s career in rock has had its peaks (like the 1983 Plimsouls classic the film takes its name from) and valleys (health scares, dire financial straits, killer records that fell on deaf ears). Thankfully the 68-year-old power-pop savant is still with us, doing all he knows how — crisscrossing the country and bashing it out on acoustic guitar. A vivid look into the mind of a true music lifer, Fred Parnes’ biopic shares mind-boggling footage of a young Case busking on the streets of San Franciscorecontextualizes him as an unsung missing link between New Wave and alt-country, and mounts a compelling argument for historic-landmark status for McCabe’s —  the Santa Monica guitar shop, music school, and venue Case has played more times than anyplace else.

Concord’s Americana From All Sides Party
If there was one lineup that delivered from start to finish, it was at Concord’s Americana From All Sides Party, a Tuesday night oysters-and-burgers shindig hosted by the label’s Grammy-winning producer Shooter Jennings. Caroline Spence, Early James, Bella White, and Logan Ledger, whose upcoming California-cool album Jennings produced, were all exceptional, underscoring the scope of Concord’s roster and teeing up a pair of show-stopping performances. Katie Pruitt proved yet again to be among the best singers in the genre with songs off her Rounder Records LP Expectations and some catchy new material addressing her Catholic upbringing, while Sierra Ferrell validated the buzz surrounding her live show with both airtight harmonies and a guy spinning a lasso and cracking a bullwhip onstage. It was impossible to look away.

Riverside Revival
Expectations of a more streamlined post-pandemic musical landscape never materialized, with seemingly more bands than before and fewer venues than ever. Nashville (and AmericanaFest) lost three in one go when the Cannery Row multiplex on the edge of downtown — home to the 1,000-capacity Cannery Ballroom, mid-sized Mercy Lounge, and intimate High Watt — assumed new ownership in May 2022. For the fest, Exit/In — anchor of Elliston Place (the Rock Block, colloquially) for a half-century — hosted the likes of Jaime Wyatt, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers and others, but has nothing on the books past November. All this to say that Riverside Revival, which sits in a mostly-residential corner of East Nashville and was the site of several talked-about sets including Angel Olsen’s vibrato-heavy torch songs and S.G. Goodman’s brutalist punk blues, sure would be a great addition, scoring high for sight lines, sound, and atmosphere. Here’s hoping for more shows there sooner than later.

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