- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
They say that thieves come in the night. And apparently, they do. At this year’s opening day of the Moon River Festival, the thief came in the guise of a scruffy haired singer-songwriter playing in the pre-closer slot on the event’s smaller stage. Sandwiched between the day’s two biggest draws, Josh Ritter used a twenty year catalog of incisive songs and a crack band to show how an hour-long set should be done.
But first up for us on a scorcher of a day was the dynamic Lady Wray. Her four-piece combo got things cooking in the mid-day sun, going from a solid funk beat to a jazzy passage before Wray took to the stage. Dressed from head to foot in a sheer white overlay, Wray playfully introduced herself as the Tooth Fairy before launching into ‘Bad Girl’ – one she dedicated to the bad girls in the audience including all the bad grandmothers out there! Wray was comfortable going from a swampy blues to vocals soaring over screeching guitar on ‘Do It Again’, but the set highlight came with her ultra-soulful single ‘Guilty’.
Playing at the main stage, Iowa based rocker Lissie garnered an enthusiastic crowd with her straightforward lyrically driven songs. Ranging from blues based rockers like ‘Shameless’ to the anthemic ‘Oh Mississippi’, her smoky vocals carried the set. Apparently, with more of a following in the U.K., she no less made the most of her slot with plenty of enthusiasm. She closed out with her biggest hit to date ‘When I’m Alone’.
New York’s Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, led by singer Arleigh Kincheloe, gave the day the push it needed with her seven-piece band. The baritone sax anchored ‘Bad Love’ stretched into a nearly ten minute jam, closing in a full-on blues shouter. The Stax flavored ‘Can’t Get You Off My Mind’ gave Kincheloe the opportunity to let those not paying attention know that she was 8 1/2 months pregnant. With last year’s late-stage stage appearances by Ellie Holcomb (fest inspired Rivers was born the next day) and Mandolin Orange’s Emily Frantz, mom-to-be is in vogue at this family-friendly fest. The group’s stirringly soulful cover of ‘To Love Somebody’ gave trumpet player Phil Rodriguez his moment to shine and the booty-shaking boogie of ‘Sugar’ was another set highlight towards the close.
Festival organizers Drew and Ellie Holcomb were up next on the main stage with a fully acoustic set, which lent itself well to their mid-tempo folky songs. With a huge crowd on hand, early set highlights included the pedal steel and stand-up bass flavored ‘Another Man’s Shoes’ and a cover of ‘Fields of Gold’ that had more in common with Eva Cassidy’s heart-rending take than Sting’s original. Ellie’s husky-voiced lead on her ‘Red Sea Road’ was another strong moment and the sing-along of ‘Family’ slipped in a line about heading to the festival. The Lone Bellow’s Zach Williams (who surfaced with a few different artists) joined Drew for a newer and popular song ‘Dragons’. Not surprisingly the Holcomb’s closed on a crowd-pleasing paean to the local environs - ‘Tennessee’.
One of the most inspired performances of the day came from Nashville’s Devon Gilfillian. With a backing band of keys, drums, and bass, Gilfillian led with powerfully smooth vocals and impassioned guitar playing. Opening song ‘Full Disclosure’ was a hallmark of the set with the combo creating a mini wall of sound that hit the EDM equivalent of a drop at just the right moment of tension. ‘Here and Now’ had a similarly inspired approach while the band settled into an extended jam for the celebratory ‘The Good Life’. The ever-present Zach Williams and Drew Holcomb were on hand for a playful run through of TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ including a rapped out verse by the keyboard player, Carson Cody. Gilfillian closed on his best known song, ‘Troublemaker’, and also dropped the news his first full album will be out in January.
One of the bigger names on hand was Nashville’s Moon Taxi. Almost every act seemed to have their own throng of fans, and Moon Taxi’s was out in force. The band easily filled their slot with recognizable hit after hit. Opening with ‘All Day All Night’ and closing with ‘Morocco’ there wasn’t much that didn’t spark a memory of having heard the song before. Led by Trevor Terndrup, the band managed to find time for a cover of 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up?’ and even left time for a drum solo by the self-proclaimed Best Cat Dad, Tyler Ritter.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch much of The Oh Hellos late afternoon set, but their brand of intellectually inspired and passionately played folk-rock would appeal to fans of The Decemberists. Led by siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath, their large scale band always brings an energetic show. Another act that always brings the goods is the Paul Janeway led St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Appearing in a blue sequined robe, Janeway continually claims his soulful crown and certainly deserves his own night at the Apollo. Early on Janeway’s screaming falsetto was flying on ‘All I Ever Wonder’ and he showed a mellower yet no less soulful range on ‘Grass Is Greener’. Covering his head mid-song with the robe or pacing while the band played around with Beck’s ‘New Pollution’, Janeway is a force to be sure. The group capped off their inspired performance with Van Morrison’s ‘I’ve Been Working’ followed by their own ‘Call Me’. Eminently entertaining!
With a recently reinvigorated career at the hands of the Jason Isbell produced, Fever Breaks, Josh Ritter gave us the set of the day as night fell on the smaller stage. Backed by a fiery version of his Royal City Band, Ritter ripped through one inspired take after another from his deep catalog. A piano and brushed drum version of ‘Good Man’ presented a different tempo, but a no less solid song. ‘Walk On The Water’ from the new album also stood out with tasteful organ fills. But most importantly, Ritter’s lyrical storytelling was in top form and fully captivated a hushed crowd that only partied along at the right moments. From the murderous ‘Henrietta, Indiana’; the bunkered-in romance of ‘The Last Temptation Of Adam’; to the sparkling ‘Girl In The War’; Ritter could do no wrong. Singing the full set with eyes closed and legs in motion, Ritter is present with his audience but clearly on another plane somewhere at the same time. And if it seems out of place to quote lyrics in a festival review, the line “an alibi, a box of wine, and the hunger in her eyes” from ‘Homecoming’ stood stark in the nighttime air. Unable to make a misstep, Ritter closed things out with a jaunty and crowd-pleasing sing-along of ‘Getting Ready To Get Down’; a full acoustic take of the early ‘Kathleen’; and a quickly finger-picked ‘All Some Kind Of Dream’; which had his fingers flying twice as fast as the song seemed to unfold. One of the best hour-long festival sets I’ve ever seen.
Saturday’s closer Jason Isbell is also a wizard with words and a sure-fire performer to cap off any festival. Starting off with a slide guitar flavored rendition of ‘Last Of My Kind’, while also giving a shout out to those watching on from the bridge over the park, was a lump-in-the-throat opening salvo. Isbell suddenly stopped mid-song on ’24 Frames’ for a medical emergency up front and re-set at the beginning after all was cared for. Isbell demoed a new song in ‘Overseas’ and also made time for ‘Maybe It’s Time’ – his contribution to the A Star Is Born soundtrack. Things got fiery on ‘Super 8’ and one from his time with Drive-By Truckers, ‘Never Gonna Change’, gave him a moment to trade licks with long-time guitar accomplice Sadler Vaden. A stretched out acoustic version of ‘Cover Me Up’ was another highlight and a punched-up take on the earlier Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’ made for a powerful close. A hot but heavily rewarded day of music to be sure.
All photos: Christa Joyner Moody