- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
A sensible person would avoid an early launch into another day of cloudless mid-90’s temperatures. But somehow the lure of an endless morning spent lounging in a frosty hotel room with unlimited trips to the powdered egg buffet starts to lose its appeal. Thoughts of “maybe I do need to see all eleven bands” begin to creep in. And the possibility that the craft beer line could be shorter at 1pm than it was last night is just the nudge that is needed.
Crossing the bridge that spans Coolidge Park, the opener The Brook And The Bluff sounded solid but was wrapping things up by the time we fully wound our away into the park. Only about an hour after opening gates, it's interesting how everyone already there knew what the exact arc of the Sun would be in order to snap up any potentially shady spot. Spots we seldom use but feel compelled to claim. The first full set caught was by Birdtalker whose fans were out full force early to sing along with the energetic and mandolin colored ‘Gravetalker’. The band tackled the second Sting cover of the weekend with a nearly indistinguishable and super slowed down ‘If I Ever Lose My Faith’.
Most pedigreed and furthest travelled at the festival was Cedric Burnside. Grandson of blues guitar legend R.L. Burnside, he had performed in Oregon the day before and caught the redeye to Nashville. No doubt there was quite a bit of driving on either side of that flight. Burnside performs with only a drummer, Reid Watson. A true bluesman and understated guitar slinger, Burnside thumbs a bass line, forms a lead guitar part with his index finger, picks away at the remaining strings and manages to sing as well. Leading with the lively pulses of ‘We Made It’, which could have been in response to his itinerary, it was hard to take your eyes off the relaxed skill on display. Burnside also gave a tip of the hat to his forebears by playing Junior Kimbrough’s ‘Keep Your Hands Off Her’.
Houston’s The Suffers either weren’t given ample time for a pre-set soundcheck or just took their time cutting about twenty minutes of their set time. When singer Kam Franklin took her warm-ups you knew some vocal firepower was on its way. The band plays their own brand of percussion heavy funk and soul, colored with more than a little bit of psychedelia. Franklin was straight into whirling dervish mode on the opening ‘Gwan’ with a fully flowing lime green gown. Franklin dropped to a lower register for the horn punctuated ‘Everything Here’ and got a bit sultry on the self-sacrificing ‘Giver’. Franklin’s vocal range is truly impressive to go along with a heck of a fun set.
Representing another couple pairing Johnnyswim members Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano have to keep their distance on stage lest they spontaneously combust. To say the two have a bit of chemistry would be a bit of an understatement, and in order to prove the point Amanda took the lead on the atmospherically smoldering ‘Bridges’. ‘Say What You Will’ had a gentler pulse while Amanda put on a vocal showcase on set highlight ‘Live While We’re Young’. The couple made their way mid-crowd for an impromptu acoustic take on ‘Home’ that morphed into Johnny and June’s ‘Jackson’. The duo made clear why they are crowd favorites.
After a short break in the action, we were back for merry folksters The Wood Brothers. Led by Oliver Wood, the group mixes in traditional songs like the opening ‘Loaded’ with originals that sound like they are classics. I never had the opportunity to see Little Feat’s original line-up, but The Wood Brothers sound like what I imagine Lowell George and Co. would have sounded like at their peak. Songs that stretch and wander, but never evolve into jam band boredom. ‘Sparkling Wine’ was a prime example of that approach while ‘Postcards From Hell’ made for an extended ramble. Closing with the vampy ‘Luckiest Man’ the group's laid back pace made their set feel longer than its hour running time – in a good way.
Nashville’s Rayland Baxter knows how to get the crowd ready for his set. Tossing out dozens of t-shirts and copies of your latest album is sure to win over a few fans, though most on hand seemed primed and ready for Baxter’s set. In a first for me, Baxter’s drummer has his drum kit facing away from the audience and plays with his back to the crowd precariously perched at the front of the stage. Guess it makes it easier to work out the rhythm parts with the bass player and they were certainly accomplished at it. Opening with the bluesy ‘Bad Things’, like Johnnyswim, Baxter had his eye set on burning down a bridge. For a mid-day act, Baxter drew a huge gathering that was locked into his just off-kilter groove. ‘Hey Larocco’ was a tasty stoner jam and ‘Yellow Eyes’ landed perfectly as the sun was finally starting to set.
No doubt a highlight of the day, Drew and Ellie Holcomb, Johnnswim, and the not yet heard from Penny and Sparrow convened on the main stage as Goodbye Road (named for the group’s EP of last year - and pictured above). They led with the title song of the EP, giving each of the acts a chance to take a verse, closing with a strong finish from Penny and Sparrow’s Andy Baxter. In addition to performing together, each of the subgroups had their own stage time. Johnnyswim took the time to play ‘Annie’, which was missing from their main set, but Penny and Sparrow were given a little extra stage time given they didn’t have their own slot (they played a rain shortened set the prior year). Given the limited time, the duo focused on some of their best songs - a fantastic sounding ‘Don’t Wanna Be Without Ya’ and ‘Gold’ were standouts. The latter was interrupted by a backing forklift beep, which they used to their advantage. All members were back on stage for a cover of Tom Petty’s ‘Won’t Back Down’ and a raucous close on ‘Ring The Bell’.
The last set on the smaller stage was ably handled by The Lone Bellow. The ever-present Zach Williams and Kanene Pipkin took turns trading vocal duties. Relatively early in their careers, the group has established a great set of songs to pull from. Pipkin’s soulful approach on ‘Is It Ever Gonna Be Easy’ led to some beautifully ragged harmonies. Handing off bass duties for ‘Time’s Always Leaving’, Pipkin’s vocals were elevated even further. A mandolin anchored ‘You Never Need Nobody’ was particularly soulful, and likely their most known song, ‘Green Eyes And A Heart of Gold’ was powerful as well.
Most expletives are grossly overused, but ‘holy shit’ is usually reserved for something truly awe inspiring. So when Brandi Carlile stepped on stage for her closing set, her reaction was right on point. It seemed like an extra horde of fans were somehow on hand and the bridge that spans through the park was packed along the rail. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, piano, and her ace in the hole duo of Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Carlile both entertained and devastated the crowd. The early ‘Wherever Is Your Heart’ gave the trio a spot to showcase their tight three part harmonies. Carlile’s self-deprecating wit was on hand throughout the set and an early story about busking in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and ravioli restaurants playing Indigo Girl songs was both funny and touching. With only Tim playing guitar, their performance of ‘The Eye’ was likely the emotional highlight of the entire festival. Carlile did a solo piano take on Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’ in preparation for an upcoming full run through of Mitchell’s Blue album. With Carlile’s country/folk supergroup Highwomen’s album having come out the day before, she was joined on stage by Natalie Hemby as well as Lone Bellow’s Pipkin for two tracks from that album. Engaging to the end of an extended set, Carlile closed with covers of John Prine and Led Zeppelin to touch all the bases. Carlile put on an amazingly tight and entertaining set to close out another solid year for this growing festival.
All photos: Christa Joyner Moody