Top Picks: Our Writer/Photographer’s 6 Highlights from Americana Fest 2018


AmericanaFest 2018: 6 shows I was glad not to miss

Attending Nashville’s annual AmericanaFest can be a bit stressful, not to mention exhausting. Spaced out over more than a dozen venues across the city, each one putting on simultaneous shows with an average of 4 or 5 bands on each ticket — not to mention scores of unofficial pop-up parties and industry events, which also showcase multiple acts — the festival requires either serious planning, logistics, and difficult decisions (Richard Thompson at 3rd and Lindsley or Ashley Monroe at the Station Inn? Lori McKenna at Nashville Palace or Amanda Shires at the Basement East?); or instead a certain come-what-may attitude, allowing the nights to carry you where they will,  with a hope that you might stumble upon something special in the process. Armed with wristband and camera, I opted for a little bit of both, staking my position for one act and then hanging around to catch the gig before, or the gig after.  So in addition to getting to see a few artists I know and love, I also discovered a few I’d never heard of who have become new favorites. I also missed quite a number of acts I would have liked to see, but that’s where the difficult decision part comes in. So I missed John Hiatt. And Jim Lauderdale. And the all-star CCR tribute. The list goes on. But here were six of the acts I was glad not to miss.
1) Fantastic Negrito (Cannery Ballroom)
There is simply no artist in the world quite like Fantastic Negrito. While you can throw a lot of comparisons out there — from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Prince, Mick Jagger, Lenny Kravitz, Skip James, Johnny Rotten, Marley at his most political — the list goes on —  you still can’t get at the hard, funky, angry, ass-kicking vibe that characterizes Negrito’s music and persona. Growing up the eighth of 15 children on the streets of Oakland, and living the hard life of a street hustler until well into his thirties, Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz taught himself to play guitar and just about every other instrument he could get his hands on, and after multiple brushes with death and a couple of failed million-dollar record contracts, Fantastic Negrito emerged in 2014 — at age 45 —  like a phoenix from the ashes of Dphrepaulezz’s life, laying down the hard truths of a hard world with a mixture of dark humor, theater, and rage, all filtered through a funky, blistering, and inventive rock and roll sound and a take-no-prisoners stage performance. He knows the persona he’s putting out on stage is a bit over the top, but that’s rock and roll, brother. It’s almost as if he’s using all the forces at his command to drive home the messages of his lyrics, which speak to the insignificance, indignity, and struggle of the poor, lonely, and oppressed, delivered by a man whose pride, self-awareness, and moral compass could never be taken away from him no matter what life threw in his way. “I’m human”, he screams desperately, “but remember first I’m a man”. His music is political, personal, and about as real as it gets. And did I mention it rocks? Yeah, it does.
2) Samantha Fish (Cannery Ballroom)Bickford_Vandoliers_Americana2018.0001.jpg
Samantha Fish is a woman on the move. Since 2009 she has released 5 studio albums and has been almost perpetually on tour. Although generally classified as a blues musician — one who can bend and wail and slide on an electric guitar with the best of them —  Samantha distinguishes herself with her tough but sweet, clear-with-a-hint-of-rasp vocal style, which plays good cop to the bad cop of her raunchy, greasy guitar licks. Add to this mix her Marilyn-Monroe-turned-rock-star fashion sense and her midwest-girl, tell-it-like-it-is songwriting approach, and you have an artist who is clearly comfortable bending genres. What is most impressive about Fish is how she can take a song recorded one way in the studio and make it a whole different animal when she plays live. Her latest album, Belle of the West, produced by North Mississippi All-Stars’ Luther Dickinson, has an intimate back-porch delta blues sound to it, with heaping helpings of acoustic slide guitar, country-gospel-style vocal harmonies, and so much air in the mix you can almost hear the crickets chirping outside; but when she hits the stage and straps on her white Gibson SG, those same songs turn into vehicles for a no-holds-barred rock and roll show, and Samantha herself transforms from a laid-back dusty blue-jean baby into a platinum-blonde string-bending head-banging guitar goddess. This girl’s savvy enough to know that extended guitar solos are great for blowing away live audiences, but her studio work is all about feel and mood. And therein lies the beauty of Fish’s writing, in that the songs themselves work just as well in either context. They can be a frank conversation on a rural back porch, or a ballsy declaration in a sold-out urban ballroom. But when she takes the stage in high heels and hoop earrings and backed by a two-piece horn section, you know she means to put on a show; and put it on she does. In an often male-dominated genre, Samantha is making a name for herself as someone who is not afraid to shake the dust off of the blues establishment and inject it with a much needed dose of glamour and swagger.
3) Delta Rae (The Basement)Bickford_Vandoliers_Americana2018.0003
I first heard Delta Rae five years ago when an old high school sweetheart sent me a link to their single “Morning Comes,” and the song sent chills up my spine. Right out the gate came a blast of one of the band’s most defining powers, a 4-part co-ed vocal harmony blend that puts them in league with acts like Fleetwood Mac and Little Big Town, but beats both of those groups hands down in terms of the sheer punch and passion of their delivery. Comparisons to both groups abound in Delta Rae’s work — and it’s not bycoincidence that Fleetwood’s Lindsey Buckingham produced one of their early singles — but they’ve got something uniquely their own to offer. While they’ve just released a single that is charting on country radio — and they tend to favor shimmering Nashville-style production in their recordings — Delta Rae is definitely not a country band. But they’re also not a throwback 70’s vocal band either. Perhaps it’s best to call their music what they themselves call it: “Southern Gothic”. Though that might sound a tad grandiose, it at least gives you a sense of the shape and scale of their aspirations. Their music weaves blues, country, gospel and folk into a big, bold concoction of orchestral pop whose lyrical themes carry the weight of history, the burden and complexity of living in the New South surrounded by the ghosts of the Old South, and the passion of being alive and in love while being surrounded by death and hatred. And if all that sounds a tad grandiose, all I can say is give them a listen. Originally from North Carolina, Delta Rae have very recently moved home base to Nashville, and to celebrate they are holding a 16-week Wednesday night residency at the original Basement, for which they have built a stage-set made to look like a one-room revivalist church. They’re only in the third or fourth week of their residency and already the shows are selling out two weeks in advance. Credit that to Delta Rae’s extraordinary charisma on stage, and the energy and intimacy they radiate out into the audience. Not to mention their sheer charm and eagerness to make new friends. The shows will continue through December, so if you’ve got a free Wednesday evening sometime this fall, pick up a few tickets and make plans to catch the biggest small show you’ll probably see this year.
4) Daniel Donato (The Basement)Bickford_Vandoliers_Americana2018.0005
Daniel Donato is a true 21st-century guitar hero, having learned his first riffs and solos from, well, Guitar Hero — yeah, that’s right, the video game.By the time he was 12, Danny had broken all kinds of records with the game and had pretty much maxed out its ability to challenge him. So Danny’s father started encouraging him to start playing a real guitar, and within months it was clear to Mr. Donato that he had a child prodigy in his house. Dad graciously surrendered his Martin D-28 to his son and began driving him down to Lower Broadway in Nashville, where Daniel would play in the streets for tips. The little guy with the lightning-fast fingers started drawing big crowds, and in short order he moved inside to become a regular on the Broadway honky-tonk circuit, blowing the drunks and tourists away with a blistering lead guitar style that would inevitably steal every show he played. Now 23, he is in high demand as both a live and studio guitarist, and has recently begun stepping to the front and center of the stage where he belongs, singing his own songs and leading his own band. I had the good fortune to catch him this past Friday night at the Basement, where he played his first ever AmericanaFest show as a front man, and I’m here to tell you he rocked that little room like there was no tomorrow. Though Donato is unquestionably one of the hottest young guitar players on the music scene right now, with a supreme command of his instrument and a flashy style that’s two parts Danny Gatton and one part Eddie Van Halen, it is his stage presence that really grabs you. You find you have no choice but to hold on tight while he takes you on a wild ride up and down the length and breadth of his fretboard, blazing through chromatic runs and octave riffs, and wringing string bends for every last drop of blues-juice. Leaping around the room like a kid who just ate three bowls of Cap’n Crunch and washed them down with six cans of Coca-Cola, twisting and bending and writhing like a white Jimi Hendrix weaned on the Grateful Dead and Guns’n’Roses and air-dropped into a country hoedown, Donato makes you feel every single sixteenth-note he plays as it courses through his body, into his fingers, and out through the amplifiers. He snarls, grins, roars, and laughs, seeming at once in total control of and perpetually surprised by the music he is making. Watching Daniel Donato onstage reminds you why you fell in love with rock and roll in the first place.
5) The Vandoliers (Bloodshot Records Day Party at The Groove Record Store)
The Vando’s have a sound that’s quite unlike any other band I’ve ever heard. I guess the best way to describe them is to say that if the Pogues were from Texas instead of Ireland, they might sound something like the Vandoliers. The Vando’s have that same fast hard-driving punk-rock energy, the same tough-minded but cinematic lyrical style; and, like the Pogues, they also steep their music in instrumental riffs pulled from the traditional music of their homeland — only for the Vandoliers the Irish accordion and penny-whistle are swapped out for a Tejano trumpet-and-violin combo that gives their sound a triumphant Old West feel, something that puts you in mind of in the closing scene of an old John Wayne film — if, say, Guy Ritchie were directing it. It grabs you by surprise, makes you think, what the hell is this? —  but three songs in you are totally into it and wondering why the hell nobody’s ever made music like this before. Fronting this Lone Star acoustic punk symphony is Joshua Fleming, guitarist and songwriter, screaming his guts out and taking you on a wild ride through the story of his life, down the dusty trails of his home state, from the highs of rolling out through fields of wildflowers in spring and rocking juke joints night after night; to getting drunk, getting arrested, and waking up on a hot hungover morning in the middle of nowhere, skin-flint in a broken-down van. Fleming is an excellent storyteller, as well as a first-rate bandleader. These days it’s hard to be a songwriter at the helm of a touring six-piece band without major label support, but somehow Joshua Fleming has managed to do just that for the last 3 or 4 years, pretty much nonstop. I’ve shared a few beers with the band the last couple of times they’ve been through town; and the loyalty, camaraderie and dedication the players —  bassist Mark Moncrieff, drummer Guyton Sanders, fiddler Travis Curry, guitarist Dustin Fleming, and trumpeter/keyboardist Cory Graves — have for Joshua and his vision are astonishing. These guys don’t just love what they do; they believe in it. Why else would six grown men — most of them over six feet tall — pile into a small Sprinter and traverse the country playing the festival and dive-bar circuit? When they take the stage and Fleming holds his acoustic guitar up in the air, strumming an opening chord, there’s a feeling that something is about to be unleashed; and when the band crashes in on a frenetic two-step vamp and Joshua howls into the microphone, you’ll wish you were seeing them in Texas, or Ohio, or anywhere that people actually dance and shout, rather than standing around with that East Nashville slump…Not that the day party that their label Bloodshot Records put on wasn’t packed to the gills and dripping with coolness despite the heat of the day. It’s just that Nashville audiences can be so serious: Everybody’s a musician so they’re either standing cross-armed trying not to look to impressed, or studying your every move so they can work some of it into their own thing. But the Vando’s don’t seem to mind; if it’s a crowd of ten or a crowd of five thousand, a gaggle of juiced-up college kids or a phalanx of jaded hipsters, they’re gonna put everything they’ve got into the music and the show. And in this day and age, well that’s just refreshing as hell. Vaya con Dios, muchachos. May you keep rolling that van down the road for many years to come.
6) Andrew Combs (The Station Inn)Bickford_Vandoliers_Americana2018.0004
Why Andrew Combs isn’t more of a Big Deal than he is is kind of a mystery to me. Were it 1975 rather than 2018, the handsome Texan with a beautifully melancholic voice and a penchant for literate tales of lovers and losers would likely be touring alongside Kris Kristofferson; having his songs covered by the likes of Glenn Campbell and Willie Nelson; and hanging out with songwriting legends like Harry Nillson and Leonard Cohen. He’s simply that good; and though he is highly respected in the Nashville writing community and a darling of music critics worldwide, he’s hardly a known entity, even among folks who like their music rootsy and just under the radar. So please, if you have a minute, and you’re not familiar with Andrew Combs’ music, do yourself a favor and look him up on YouTube. Start with his playful and innovative video “Nothing to Lose” and from there wander through live performances of “Hazel,” “Rose Colored Blues,” “Dirty Rain,” “Too Stoned to Cry,” “Tennessee Time”…there’s plenty to choose from. A few years ago when he made his first big splash on the scene, it actually did seem as if Andrew Combs was going to become a Big Deal, but it seemed nobody knew exactly where to place his music. It’s a little too intellectual for country, a little too jazzy for alt-rock, and not quite showy enough for the Michael Bublé crowd. But that ambiguity seems to suit Combs just fine. Like the many of the characters in his songs, he’s a wanderer, and a seeker; and being tied down to any kind of format probably wouldn’t suit him. His most recent effort, Canyons of My Mind, delves deeper into political, spiritual, and ecological terrain than his previous records, and sonically adds a little more noise and wall-of-sound style in its production; and though he seems to have not quite found his full voice in this new landscape, it’s a rare treat to see an artist stepping out into unfamiliar territory come what may, and I for one am looking forward to see where he takes it on his next record. A five-year veteran of the Americana Festival, Combs, having recently become a father, told the committee he wanted to do something low-key this year, so they gave him a 9 PM Friday slot at the folk mecca that is the Station Inn, just before Ashley Monroe, and he took the stage with friend and fellow songwriter Charlie Whitten, who backed him up on guitar and vocal harmonies, adding an eerie, pitch-perfect vibrato-tinged whistle solo to Combs’ dark ballad “Hazel” that gave me goosebumps. In the tradition of Nashville songwriter performances, Combs introduced each song by crediting his co-writers, and gave the audience a few behind-the-music stories between songs. It was a warm and intimate performance, and Combs and Whitten took every advantage of the wood-box acoustics of the Station Inn and listening-room attention of the crowd assembled there. It was a pin-drop kind of show, the kind of thing that only certain performers can pull off. Andrew Combs did it with ease, aplomb, and a self-deprecating sense of humor that belied his genius. An artist and a gentleman: Combs proves it’s possible to be both.

1 thought on “Top Picks: Our Writer/Photographer’s 6 Highlights from Americana Fest 2018

Leave a Reply!