The annual Lincoln Center Out Of Doors free concerts at the Damrosch Park Bandshell, situated alongside the Metropolitan Opera, ended the 2014 season with an AmericanaFest series. What is Americana? It is a culture that is difficult to define, but its music draws from ageless sounds that are native to the country’s heartland. Country music, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, blues, rhythm and blues and American folk music have roots, cadences and melodies that often cross genres and form hybrids. Blend a few of these together in varying balances and the result is Americana.
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell/August 6, 2014
Country music purists Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell first met and began collaborating in 1974. They often spoke about recording a duet album. Nearly 40 years after those talks began, their duet album, Old Yellow Moon, was released in 2013 and won them Grammy and Americana Awards in 2014.
At Damrosch Park, Harris sang lead on most of the songs, but Crowell sang many and harmonized alongside Harris on most of the other songs. The hidden star of the night, however, was their guitarist, Jedd Hughes, who lit up the opening song, “Return Of The Grievous Angel,” with the first of many fluid rockabilly leads throughout the evening. The Harris and Crowell shimmery harmonies became more evident in the second song, “Wheels,” a country highway tune, and were plentiful thereafter. The rest of the 17-song set proved that Crowell is a gem of a writer (although not all songs were written by him) and Harris is a master stylist, as they interpreted lilting hard-luck tales as in “Love Hurts,” slow country waltzes including “Old Yellow Moon” and country stompers like “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.” Hopefully it will not take 40 years to regroup the sterling pair of Harris and Crowell in another duet set.
The Lone Bellow /August 9, 2014
Zach Williams’ wife was injured while riding horseback in his native Georgia. Physicians initially told Williams that, at best, she would leave the hospital a paraplegic. After months of rehab she regained the ability to walk. Throughout the ordeal, Williams scribbled his journey into a diary. A friend suggested he turn his writing into songs. Williams met with a fellow Georgian guitarist and college classmate, Brian Elmquist, at the Brooklyn diner where Elmquist worked. Williams then invited mandolin player Kanene Pipkin to jam. The trio named itself The Lone Bellowand released a self-titled debut in January 2013.
Opening for Rosanne Cash, The Lone Bellow gained a new, larger audience. Performing original songs ranging from the quietest, tightest three-part-harmony-into-one-microphone acoustic songs to rip-roaring barn-burners backed by a band, The Lone Bellow embodied the earnest, ambitious and hope-filled spirit of 20-something Americans. The homey wardrobe and the casual demeanor of the musicians and the rich feel of the emotive lyrics, soaring melodies and soulful harmonies echoed the world beyond the skyscraper-laden metropolis behind the stage; they nearly transported the listeners to Southern small town life. Many in the audience responded especially to the rave-ups at the end of the performance, rushing to the open space in front of the stage to jump, stomp and dance to the driving indie rock-like anthems.
Rosanne Cash/August 9, 2014
Rosanne Cash was born in 1955 in Memphis, Tennessee, just as her father, future country music legend Johnny Cash, was recording his first tracks at Sun Records. Rosanne launched a solo career in 1978. After a 13-year marriage with Rodney Crowell in Nashville, Tennessee, she moved to New York in 1991 and married her producer in 1995. The River & The Thread, released on January 14, 2014, is Cash’s first album in more than four years.
At Damrosch Park, Cash opened with the lead track from her current album, “A Feather’s Not A Bird,” a song inspired by a recent drive from Mississippi to Alabama. The road trip continued with another poetic new songs set in an Arkansas locale, “The Sunken Lands.” The first 11 songs of her set comprised the entirety of her new album, all songs in order. The only songs she performed that were not from her current album were the last five of the evening, “Radio Operator” from her 2006 Black Cadillac album, covers of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” and closing with her biggest hit, “Seven Year Ache.” For an encore of Ray Price’s “Heartaches By The Number,” she invited openers Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale and The Lone Bellow to come from backstage and sing verses. Overall the concert was mild at best. The best aspect was that Cash did not package her songs for mass acceptance or radio play, but as extensions of her soul. The least compelling aspect was that most of the set was a wash of the same cloth, featuring rather plain vocals, melodies and musical arrangements. Most of the dynamics came not from Cash, but from her excellent guitarists. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant country evening in the city.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones/August 10, 2014
Paul Janeway, a native of the small town of Chelsea, Alabama, was raised in a non-denominational, Pentecostal-leaning church and wanted to be a preacher until he discovered rhythm & blues. “St. Paul” was a wry allusion to Janeway’s church roots. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, St. Paul & The Broken Bones performed locally until the success of the debut album, Half The City, on February 18, 2014.
At Damrosch Park, St. Paul & The Broken Bones seemed to juxtapose a classic soul music revival with an evangelical revival. Browan Lollar led the band in revue-style instrumental music for several minutes before Janeway came on stage wearing a buttoned two-piece suit, an open-necked white shirt with cufflinks, and black horn-rimmed glasses. He looked like he meant business, but his affairs were not in a briefcase; they were in his gut. The band played well, could probably have stretched out musically a bit more, but the center of attention was always Janeway. He sang passionately like he possessed the spirit of 1960s soul singer Wilson Pickett and moved like James Brown. Tossing the microphone stand and pulling it back by the chord, dropping to his knees, sliding his foot, kicking his legs, Janeway’s extroverted performing style imitated the stars of the Apollo Theater in its heyday. Sometimes it sounded like church. In the end, however, it was probably closer to last call on Saturdays than sunrise services on Sundays.
Charles Bradley & The Extraordinaires/August 10, 2014
Charles Bradley was 14 years old when his sister took him to the Apollo Theater to see James Brown perform. Inspired, Bradley began practicing Brown’s style of singing and showmanship at home. Bradley later worked odd jobs in Maine, New York, California, and Alaska, and sang whenever he could get a gig. He returned to Brooklyn in 1996 and began singing as a James Brown impersonator in local clubs under the name Black Velvet. In 2011, at 62 years old, Bradley finally released his debut album, No Time For Dreaming. Bradley’s second album, Victim Of Love, was released in 2013. Bradley’s life journey is the subject of a documentary, Soul Of America.
Headlining the final night of this year’s Lincoln Center Out Of Doors and also the week of AmericanaFest series, Charles Bradley & The Extraordinaires was nostalgia for the seniors and an education for the juniors in the audience. Do not call Bradley retro soul, because he is not a young artist mining an old sound. On the contrary, he has remained faithful to his style over the course of 50 years. As the band played an overture of funky rhythm and blues instrumentals, “The Screamin’ Eagle Of Soul” was introduced to applause and came on stage wearing a vintage suit that looked like it was purchased at Times Square’s former Superfly Boutique. He bowed from the waist, blew kisses and waved his arms like he was trying to fly, then sang pleadingly and sorrowfully a hypnotic burner. The bulk of the set was comprised of heart-wrenching love songs and funky groove shakers from his two albums, but it never mattered what he sang; it mattered more how he sang. He may have learned much by imitating many soul singers over the years, but tonight his passionate singing originated from his own heart. As the 66-year-old showman sang, shouted and danced, he inspired more and more of the audience to leave their chairs to sing and dance with him at the lip of the stage to his sweet soul music. He expressed gratitude to the audience for giving him in his senior years the career he always wanted, and at the end of his sizzling performance, instead of walking backstage, he walked into the audience to meet and hug his fans.