The timing was appropriate: The opening night of AmericanaFest, landing on Patriot Day, with a who’s who of Americana music gathered together at the Basement East in Nashville to sing songs of protest and political discontent. Mostly, though, they were all there to have fun.
An unofficial kickoff to the week’s festivities, the Tuesday night party has become an annual tradition for the Music City festival, but this year’s event — with Whiskey Wolves of the West, Chuck Mead and the Grassy Knoll Boys, and Andrew Leahey and the Homestead splitting house-band duties — put musical activism front and center. Even the name of the party, Better Together: Show Up and Sing!, was a play on those who want artists to “shut up and sing.”
“Isn’t it fucked up how these political songs are so relevant now? What the fuck,” said Mother Station singer and longtime Afghan Whigs collaborator Susan Marshall, as she prepared to sing Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” with Leahey during the opening portion of the show, presented by Guitar Town, Sin City, and 14 Inch Fringe.
Marshall, in town from nearby Memphis, was onstage as much as anyone not playing in a backing band last night. She popped back up to sing a bristling version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” with Will Hoge, took the lead on a group rave-up of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” during Whiskey Wolves’ closing set, and joined together for the all-star sing=along finale of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
But she was hardly the only one doing the rounds, with a guest list that included 30 additional artists for a marathon jam session and love-in that stretched more than four hours. Carlene Carter dropped in to sing Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” Jaime Wyatt and Sam Morrow teamed up on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle,” and Drivin N Cryin’s Kevn Kinney ripped through an extra scuzzy version of the Clash’s “Clampdown” with Audley Freed and Tim Easton.
Several artists came back for second or even third turns at the mic, like Hoge, who tackled Warren Zevon’s “Laywers, Guns, and Money” later in the evening. Brian Wright of Cafe Rooster Records played guitar on the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” during Mead’s set and then came back to sing lead on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” with Whiskey Wolves. No one, however, played with extremes as much as Allen Thompson, who first did a dead-on Michael Stipe on R.E.M.’s “Orange Crush” and then came back for a convincing Bob Marley reggae on “Get Up Stand Up,” assisted that time around by the Watson Twins.
Sticking to the script of what does or doesn’t constitute Americana music wasn’t really the order of the night, as this show was largely an excuse for friends to get together, a fact reflected by how often musicians introduced one another by recalling how they first met or the influence one had had on the other. Much of the material skewed toward canonized protest material of the Baby Boomer generation, which could have easily devolved into a self-important kumbaya had it not been approached with a cheeky sense of humor.
Credit for a lot of that goes to the house bands, who kept things more camp than campfire singalong. Leahey and the Homestead brought a distinct Eighties vibe to their set, both with the anthemic heartland rock the group is known for (Leahey’s back-to-back, head-on-your-shoulder moment with Jon Latham during Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” was peak BFF level) and a far more unexpected cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Leroy Powell and Tim Jones of Whiskey Wolves came out during Mead’s set, reveling in the good ol’ boy humor of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.”
The sillier things got, the better, and Mead and his band threw curveballs like no other. Particularly hilarious was his bassist, Mark Miller, diving into the sharp political commentary on Schoolhouse Rocks! classic “I’m Just a Bill,” complete with some ad libbed (and very not-kid-friendly) F-bombs while Mead played a perfect straight man. That may be the funniest thing that happens all week during AmericanaFest, but it already won’t be the most surreal; that honor goes to Aaron Lee Tasjan, who took the stage shortly thereafter in a sequined women’s jacket to sing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” — and damn well pulled it off.
Tonight, AmericanaFest hosts its centerpiece event — the 17th annual Americana Honors & Awards — at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.