Tag Archives: Robert Plant

A Bigger Tent: Jams & Mississippians Make A Mark at Americana Fest

Americana Music Festival & Conference Award Show - Show, Audience & Backstage
Valerie June appeared at the Americana Music Association Awards show. Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty images

For the most well attended event in it’s 13-year history last week in Nashville, the Americana Music Association’s Conference and Festival succeeded in large part due to the broadening of its tent, and a sense of inclusivity that has eluded the organization and its events in the past.

When it began, the Americana Music Association sought to codify a style of roots and country music that was thriving outside of the Nashville mainstream of manufactured pop acts. It was an attempt by the music industry to redefine alt-country (whatever that is) and roots music under one umbrella. Under their auspices, they created a new radio chart, and a new but necessarily vague genre that would help artists reach their audiences via radio play, publicity and record sales. An industry event from the get-go.

But over the past 13 years, the effort has at times seemed insular—the same artists, most of them coming from the same sincere songwriting school of the folk music world, or from what was then called alt-country, populating the showcases and awards ceremony year after year. A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n roll, with a dash of bluegrass and a healthy dose of folk. That approach eschewed otherwise valid musical forms that fit their mission statement. Blues, for example, was relegated to one or two artists, save for the blues elements that seeped into everyone’s music. Gospel was unheard of. And in the land of the tightly constructed and serious as hell three-minute songs, the word “jam” was virtually verboten.

But this year, the event kicked off with Leftover Salmon performing at the Ryman Auditorium with a slew of guests on hand to celebrate the anniversary of their Nashville Sessions recording, which came out in 1999. That record featured a who’s who of Nashville talent who joined in to celebrate that band’s country and bluegrass roots— the same roots that they synthesized into their self-styled “Poly-Ethnic Cajun Slamgrass” style. Poly-ethnic Cajun Slamgrass? As perpetual awards show host Jim Lauderdale would say, “Now that’s Americana!”

So it was fitting that this band, a mainstay of the jamband circuit since it was a thing, would help to establish the inclusivity of the weekend. On stage with them, there was Taj Mahal bringing the house down.  There was mandolin wizard Sam Bush, blazing and leading a trio of mandolin players. There was former Little Feat keyboardist and new band member Bill Payne. There was Widespread Panic’s lead singer John Bell belting out “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Other guests ranged from bluegrass legends like Del McCoury to jamband godfather Col. Bruce Hampton.

This collaborative affair set the tone for the awards show the following night, and for the next five nights of artist showcases in different music clubs around town. The tent was all of a sudden bigger.

Despite the sometimes narrow atmosphere, the Americana tent has been an ever expanding one that ebbs and flows to bring in, and sometimes shun, certain artists. It’s a fluid term, not a strict genre.

The Leftover Salmon example exuded into the rest of the weekend, with the event showcasing artists who represent the jammier side of the equation and also expanded the “membership” by parading more musicians coming from outside of the realms of folk and country music to include more blues, gospel, and latino music.

It helped that Ry Cooder, who has long been a champion of varied forms of Americana music and what could come to be known as world music, was a part of the stellar house band that also included Buddy Miller and Don Was.

Americana Music Festival & Conference Award Show - Show, Audience & Backstage
Taj Mahal. Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

What also helped was the inclusion of two lifetime achievement award winners. With renowned accordionist Flaco Jimenez the association rightly brought Latin styles like tejano and conjunto into the fold. Taj Mahal provided the most rousing song of the night, showing that his lifetime of blending blues with forms from around the world belongs in the Americana tent. Given this broader palette, tunes like “Coal Miner’s Daughter” performed by the Loretta Lynn were afforded even more gravity, a stronger pillar due to the additional support whereas it might have been just “old Nashville” in another setting.

Other guests that night included Jackson Browne, Robert Plant singing along with Patty Griffin, soul sounds from St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Sturgill Simpson bringing his psychedelic infused update of outlaw country music to the fore, Valerie June and her bluesy twang, and of course Jason Isbell, who swept the awards by winning best song, best album and best artist of the year.

Part of the insular nature of the event in the past has been its tendency to focus on the Nashville and Austin contingent. That’s natural, because those two locales, each of which loves to claim the “music city” title, are home to the most of the industry players who make up the organization—the record companies, publicists, managers, and yes, a lot of the artists.

This year, though, it didn’t seem so polarizing. Musicians from Mississippi, in particular, made a major impact.

Meridian, Miss. native Jimmie Rodgers was honored at the awards ceremony with the President’s award, presented by Philadelphia, Miss. native Marty Stuart. Stuart proudly showed off a lantern that had once belonged to Rodgers.  Tupelo, Miss. native Paul Thorn gave an impassioned speech lauding Mississippi artists that same night.

The next night featured a showcase entirely dedicated to Mississippi artists. Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band showed that ancient grooves were still alive and well, and safe in her stead. Then 83-year old Leo “Bud” Welch brought downhome gospel blues that seared with authenticity. Luther Dickinson performed solo, but brought out Thomas to play drums for much of the set. Later T-Model Ford’s grandson Stud did the same. Dickinson has made his mark as lead guitarist for the North Mississippi Allstars and one-time member of the Black Crowes. But lately he’s been delving deeply into producing other artists and has released a pair of solo records, one of them consisting entirely of instrumental tunes. The most recent, Rock n Roll Blues, provided the material for much of the set.

In between songs, Dickinson regaled the audience with stories of growing up with his father, the legendary Jim Dickinson. His set was like a master class in Mississippi music history, as he explained how he learned about music hands-on growing up in a musical family.

Marty Stuart and Webb Wilder (a Hattiesburg, Miss. native, who also served as emcee) turned in their sets before the show closed out with Paul Thorn, who jumped into the crowd to close the showcase with a rousing hug fest among the fans that reached the fevered pitch of a tent revival. It was a showcase that showed almost all of the branches of Americana, that just so happened to come from one state. Blues, rock, country, gospel and folk all bubbled up in the musical stew that night.

 Just as Leftover Salmon infused the week with some improvisational workouts early on, other bands took the stages and sounded like they owed as much to the Grateful Dead as Flatt & Scruggs as well. And that’s only natural; the Dead were “big-tent” Americana long before industry executives cooked up the term.

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Hard Working Americans’ Dave Schools and Todd Snider. Photo by James Martin

Todd Snider’s new band The Hard Working Americans were nominated for Duo or Group of the Year and performed at the awards show. But the real show came later that night at the sprawling Cannery Ballroom. Billed as “Todd Snider and Friends” the group was essentially the Hard Working Americans, sans guitarist Neal Casal. Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools was the guardian of the groove all night, and undoubtedly the instigator for the chooglin jams the collective swept through over the course of an extraordinary long-for-a-showcase set of about an hour. The band’s best tunes were old classics that even in their selection exuded the definition of Americana—Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” JJ Cale’s “Crazy Mama” and, fitting for the circumstances, Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”

Given Snider’s songwriting pedigree, it’s odd that their debut album consists almost entirely of cover tunes. But at times Snider, masked behind large sunglasses and a floppy hat, would gleefully float to the side of the stage and sway and watch his compatriots as they spaced out, seemed as if he’s trying on a new suit himself.

They were joined by special guests too. Vince Herman of, yep, Leftover Salmon joined in for “Georgia On A Fast Train” and former Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin furiously added to “Is This Thing Working?” Elizabeth Cook, and her hairdo, sat in all night on background vocals and various percussion instruments.

It was an Americana showcase, but there was…well, dancing! For an audience that is usually satisfied with some vigorous but thoughtful head nodding, to loosen them up  spoke to the fact that Snider and company were doing something right, and that the Americana family is maybe more diverse than once believed.

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Trigger Hippy’s Joan Osborne and Jackie Brown. Photo by James Martin

In the same space a few nights later, the unfortunately named but fantastic anyway Trigger Hippy brought similar rootsy blues jams to the stage. Fronted by Joan Osborne and guitarist/keyboardist Jackie Greene, Trigger Hippy hit some of the same notes—loose limbed roots rock with notes of blues and country. In other words, Americana. That Osborne has toured with The Dead and Greene has played with Phil Lesh and The Black Crowes was evident as the band was as comfortable creating space as recreating songs, and they even belted out a Grateful Dead cover with a rousing “Sugaree.”

There were of course lots of singer-songwriters on hand, a few really good bluegrass bands, some earnest roots rockers. Those folks were already in the family. But to allow some of the freakier cousins a seat at the table was a welcome accomplishment for this year’s fest.

 

 

 

Robert Plant Releases Documentar​y of Travels to Mali, Begins Work on New Album

In 2003, Robert Plant travelled to Mali to perform at the famed Festival in the Desert alongside Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen and many others. He wanted to document this unique journey by personally filming his life-changing experiences in that beautiful Robert PlantWest African country. Also on the trip were band members Justin Adams and Skin Tyson, as well as his son Logan, who acted as cameraman at times. Plant finally edited the footage into an evocative, personal documentary film entitled Zirka, which has been segmented into eight episodes that will be unveiled every Monday, on Plant’s official youtube channel, beginning November 18. Rolling Stone premiered the first episode HERE.

 

Plant now calls the trip “A journey of revelation…one of the most illuminating and humbling experiences of my life.” He continues, “[It was] a journey that took us from the scurry and bustle of our world into the homeland of the Tuareg, the Sahel of Mali, Timbuctu and north to Essakane; A journey that could only reinforce the power and the great gift of music across and between cultures. Sharing outside of language. A world where, for awhile at least, borders, boundaries and barriers once again fell away…as it was long ago.”

Plant just completed a yearlong world tour with his Sensational Space Shifters, which received raves at every stop. He’s currently in the studio recording his follow up to 2010’s Band of Joy. No release date has been confirmed.

Review: 2013 Forecastle Music Festival in Louisville, KY

In the decade since it”s inception, the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky has grown from a single small stage in the park into one of the premier music events of the year, with host band the String Cheese Incident joined by rap superstar Big Boi, rock gods The Black Keys, local hero Jim James and so many more. Born from founder J.K. McKnight”s wish to unite live music and the spirit of activism on the community level, this annual get together has found a home on the banks of the Ohio River with a widely varied slate of acts on the four stages from the biggest rock bands in the land to the homegrown sounds of bluegrass and everything in between. Partnering with Ashley Capps, one of the founders of Bonnaroo, the massive concert spectacle against which all other fests are measured, McKnight saw his seeded dream grow beyond his wildest imaginings and truly become a showcase for the city he loves, the causes he believes in and the music that has given his life joy.

Since its humble beginnings Forecastle”s focus has been squarely on giving a voice to roots and national level causes, in an effort to demonstrate what could be accomplished from working together. The music was the bait, but illustrating how easy it is for us all to pitch in and steer our lives away from the environmentally and philosophically self destructive course on which we have blithely followed for far too long. Environmentalism, fairness and a wide range of political causes from both sides of the aisle are given prime space along the main concert area, each booth filled with eager minds sparked by the exposure to new ideas, musical and social. With the largest attendance on record for the 2013 edition of Forecastle, more people than ever had the opportunity to learn about responsibility and the rewards of joining in to make the world a better place, and it”s hard to think of a better reason to gather together.

Friday

The Pimps of Joytime

To draw as wide a variety of souls as possible, nearly every musical taste was catered to over the three days of fun in the cities resurrected downtown and it”s green-space jewel, Waterfront Park. Slinky, percussive funksters Brooklynites The Pimps of Joytime opened the Mast Stage on Friday with a dancey sound that had the five o”clock on a Friday crowd ready to shake off their work week doldrums and boogie down.

On the second stage, DIY legend Bob Mould showed why, from his days of founding punk icons Husker Du to today”s hard charging solo work, he is a force to be reckoned with. Prowling the stage like a caged tiger, barely contained rage at the microphone Mould was constantly exploding into wild guitar bursts as he broke free from any tether and let his soul blare from his instrument.

Old Crow Medicine Show

Local rising stars Houndmouth, from just across the river, showed the songwriting and performing skill that earned them slots on the David Letterman show and top tier playlists across the country. While Moon Taxi showed that there are quality rock bands still forming across the country, Dj acts like Salva and Griz illustrated the power of modern machinery in the hands of minds that can compose and create in and of the moment, making reactionary beats that fed off the crowd.

Old Crow Medicine Show, known for their Americana feel and tight live performances brought the first taste of the Bluegrass state”s signature music, and had the crowd twirling an tapping their toes from front to back of the packed lawn at the main stage. Meanwhile Young The Giant poured every iota of energy the possessed into each and every song they played on the Boom Stage, amping the crowd into a frenzy just in time for the weekend”s host band, The String Cheese Incident.

Hailing from Colorado, the String Cheese Incident is a musical chameleon that perfectly represents the modern festival dynamic with a range of styles and influences that make each song both unique and somehow still of a whole. From wide open ballads, dense jams and even a organic homage to the modern dub/electronica movement, Cheese nimbly darts wherever their combined muses take them. The six members of the band, Billy Nershi on lead guitar, multi-instrumentalist Michael Kang on Mandolin, violin and guitar, Kyle Hollingsworth on piano, keyboards and organ, Keith Moseley on bass and the one-two percussive punch of Jason Hann and Michael Travis.

With each member actively involved in creating distinct music of their own, Cheese has become almost a clearing house for ideas distilled from each player”s personal sensibilities. The range of a modern SCI show features an almost relay race dynamic, with each member stepping up to lead tunes that showcase their personal sensibilities, which the rest of the band doing all they could to make each song as rich and diverse as possible. The final product is a blend of music that has led to the String Cheese Incident”s amazing enduring popularity which led them to being asked to play the role of “Host” over the weekend. Playing an epic closing set on Friday, performing a after show at the storied local venue the Louisville Palace, then bringing forth their bluegrass roots for a special Sunday set, Cheese owned the city and the festival itself over the weekend, and under their stewardship people reveled in a state of musical bliss, the best feeling in the world.

Saturday

The 23 String Band

With one of the strongest public radio platforms in the nation, Louisville is blessed to have three stations of music and information operating around the clock, with the wide ranging WFPK leading the way. Home to dozens of programs that showcase everything from blues to punk, as well as free ranging hours left up to their DJs, WFPK regularly hosts one of the stages, giving up and coming artists a chance to show the crowd what they do and how well they do it. Local bluegrass act The 23 String Band drew an impressive crowd to Saturday”s Port stage, some their faithful fans and some just eager to see what the buzz was about. Freakwater and the always artsy Rubblebucket added to their loyal following with fresh converts, all thanks to a station that works around the clock to keep the spirit of music alive in a time of commercialization and homogenization, a truly noble endeavor for which their listeners and the festival patrons thanked them with cheers and out stretched arms.

Alabama Shakes

All around the rest of the festival, Saturday”s line up featured everything from current music darlings like Dawes and Alabama Shakes, Kurt Vile and the Violators, and The UK”s The Joy Formidable all showed why those worried about the state of modern music should not be too concerned. While prepackaged pop does dominate the charts, original bands are working their way into the hearts and minds of the listening public, enticing them to go beyond the norm and seek out the new and original. And, closing out the Boom stage was a band that somehow, even after almost two decades, remains the newest and most original outfit on any platform…the Flaming Lips.

With a long history of epic shows full of weirdness, any chance to see the Flaming Lips perform is an opportunity to peer into the raw, creative world of the band”s off-putting but heartfelt vibe. Their music is a wild mish-mash of crashing drums, layered synthesizers and effect, sub sonic bass and melodic acoustic guitars. The legends and lore that have sprung up around them and their challenging presentation, including entire shows performed to short wave broadcast”s only listenable on headphone, recording a CD that was sectioned off and could only be heard by listening to four separate sound systems at the same time, precede them and make the anticipation build to a fever pitch for their devoted followers.

The Flaming Lips

Eschewing what has, of late, become their trademarks, such as the dancing girls, confetti and day-glo insanity, the band toned down not only their visuals, but offered a few stripped down versions of their songs as well, notably their most anthemic tune, “Do You Realize.” “Realize” went from a bubbly pop ditty with a deeper meaning to a plaintive begging…urging the crowd to make the most of every moment. Tracks from their new release, The Terror were prominently featured in the set list, and were as well received as classics like “She Don”t Use Jelly.” For the initiated true believers who lined up as soon as the gates opened and held down their spots all day to the interested onlookers who wandered towards the show to see what the hype was all there was a wide variety of reactions, from instant love to disdain. From a darkened, mirror ball and smoke filled stage a sense shredding overload was emitted, and those who observed it were changed for the experience, a result provacateurs like the Flaming Lips couldn”t help but appreciate.

Sunday

Tift Merrit

It would be hard to find two more different opening acts than the home spun rock stylings of songstress Tift Merrit and Nigerian born Goumar Almoctar”s Bombino. Though born worlds apart, both acts shared a spirit and underlying theme of overcoming adversity that linked them philosophically, if not musically. NYC rapper El-P and his partner Killer Mike led the folks at the Ocean stage into a furious state, fists pumping in time to their serious rhymes about the state of the world.

Due to an unfortunate cancellation, the schedule for Sunday was remixed, and a more natural paring of styles resulted with masters of the new breed of modern, rock influenced bluegrass Greensky Bluegrass no opening for festival hosts String Cheese Incident”s much hyped instrumental “Bluegrass Incident” set on the Boom Stage. Greensky has built themselves into one of the most well regarded bluegrass bands in the field through their mastery of their respective instruments, with Anders Beck leading the way on his drop steel guitar, heart felt and emotive songwriting by mandolinist Paul Hoffman and a willingness to explore the darker territories of the musical spectrum.

The Bluegrass Incident

You”d be hard put to find any band willing or capable of following the show put on by Greensky Bluegrass, but, as luck would have it, the guys from String Cheese brought a few friends along to help them in their cause. True pioneer of the seventies wave of mixing modern music with classic bluegrass trapping, Sam Bush joined the Incident, banjo player and all around happiest guy at the festival Andy Thorn from Leftover Salmon, along with multi-year award winning “Mandolinist of the Year” Ronnie McCoury and fiddle virtuoso and Kentucky born and bred Jason Carter. Running through classic from both Cheese”s catalog like “Rivertrance” and the bluegrass songbook, the joy of sharing one of the oldest traditions in music, the picking party, was plain to see and a joy to watch, as well as a testament to the competence and confidence of the band. A fitting tribute to the state and the music it has spawned.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals

Over on the main stage, we were treated to a burst of old school rock with a heap of sex appeal, with the next two acts. First up was Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, bringing their high energy mix of classic rock stylings and satisfyingly original takes on genre conventions, all while being fronted by one of the most beguiling figures to lead a band since the likes of Tina Turner and Janis Joplin. Grace Potter”s charisma and beauty belie her talent, and her comfort onstage in any situation, be it at her organ, with a guitar in her hand s or simply belting out her songs from some unknowable depths kept all eyes riveted to her, a power she used to playfully toy with the fans with a smile and a wink. Potter was following in the wake of a classic archetype, that of a singer using a mix of raw sex appeal and talent to take over a show that was perfected years ago by the man who followed her on the main stage, rock and roll legend Robert Plant.

Robert Plant

Robert Plant“s career is as storied and well known as any in the modern era of music. From fronting Led Zeppelin to his solo career in the eighties, small scale reunion tours with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page, to recent collaborations with Allison Krauss and his current band, The Strange Sensation Plant has shown a longevity that defies logic. Tales of his partying in the past have moved into folklore territory, while his new clean living lifestyle has shown him to be in a healthier state than men half his age marking him as a man more than capable of delighting crowds beyond simple nostalgia. Though Zep classics were on hand, they blended seamlessly with hits from his solo career, world music infused new material and a playful smile and spirit that echoed his most famous of questions…”Does anyone remember laughter?” Forecastle closed with a short rain delayed set from the Avett Brothers, another of many returning acts like the Black Keys, who in the past were part of the daytime festivities now grown to the point of headliners. McKnight openly remarked that bands enthusiasm for returning to the festival made him positive he was doing something right, and the filled sign up sheets in the variety of activists booths bode well for the next generation and their commitment to taking the reigns in the fight to make the world a better place.

Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the show by Rex Thomson…

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: What’s Old Is New Again

PlantKraussWeb.jpgPhotos by Pamela Springsteen 

When talk began to spread of an impending musical collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, it seemed to some an odd pairing.  Plant, the rock-n-roll icon with an infamous flair for excess during his heyday with Led Zeppelin, and Krauss, the sweet and angelic leader of bluegrass band Union Station, would seem to have little in common.  Yet, both possess a deep-rooted love for Americana music, and a kindred spirit when it comes to taking the old and making it new again.

Before kicking off their initial tour on April 19 in Louisville, Krauss was quoted as saying, “When my manager first phoned and told me Robert wanted to speak to me, I thought, ‘What does he want?’ Then when we met I was real surprised at how passionate he was about all kinds of music.  He loved the great bluegrass banjo player, Ralph Stanley.  Robert talked about driving through the hills of east Tennessee, listening to Ralph on the radio.”

The project began quietly, with Plant and T Bone Burnett joining Krauss at her Nashville home. Burnett lined out chord changes on guitar, while Plant and Krauss started to sing, sitting side by side, with no microphones and no effects.  “The idea,” Burnett recalls, “was to take them both out of their comfort zone, to take us all out of our comfort zones.” 

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