The Spin didn't have a definition of Americana when we sprinted up the stairs of the Ryman to watch the Americana Music Association's annual Honors and Awards Show, and we came back down the stairs just as confused as we started out. Sure, we love American music — on any given day, we may listen to Eddie Floyd, Gid Tanner and Drive-By Truckers back to back, and we've been known to lend an ear to Texas troubadours, from Guy Clark to Ernest Tubb himself. But Americana is not a style, or a canon of great recordings, or even a repertoire — it's a marketing term that encompasses what used to be called alt. country or roots rock, with singer-songwriters thrown in for good measure. Still, The Spin applauds the marketing savvy and promotional zeal of the Americana folks, who have secured their own Grammy category.
First up was an ensemble starring Booker T. Jones, the great Memphis-born multi-instrumentalist who played on Stax recordings by Floyd and Otis Redding. Joining Jones on a game version of the Stax instrumental "Green Onions" was the amazing English guitarist Richard Thompson, along with super-pickers Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott, Kenny Vaughn and Larry Campbell.
Thompson's admission into the Americana club could give you the idea that the so-called "genre" is a bit slippery — OK, Thompson has spent his career playing both North American-style songs and things that are very, very English. People with long memories may remember that he covered Emitt Rhodes, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan in Fairport Convention, and wrote a 1969 tune titled "Cajun Woman." So maybe an Americana artist is someone who plays songs written by Americans, or in an American style, or maybe an Americana artist is an American who covers songs by an English songwriter who has been influenced by American music. Like we say, it's confusing. Thompson ripped up his own "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" — his furious but perfectly controlled playing proved that a great musician strives to wring every ounce of meaning out of his material. Patterson Hood, who is a rock-influenced singer-songwriter with a feel for grimy Southern-specific narratives, introduced Jones.
Tom T. Hall ambled out onstage to sing "I Love" with singer-songwriter Peter Cooper and country singer Lee Ann Womack — Hall is awesome and everything, but he's one of those commercially minded Nashville country songwriters, and quite frankly, "I Love" is schlock. The Spin would have preferred "Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On." Tom T. was there because Cooper and fellow songwriter Eric Brace made a record of Hall songs that was nominated for an Americana award. Fair enough, but we thought Americana artists did it for artistic satisfaction, not for money.
Guy Clark sang his fine "My Favorite Picture of You," and it was a moving moment, especially in light of the recent loss of his wife, Susanna — later on, a record of Clark tunes, This One's for Him, won the Album of the Year Award. The Punch Brothers did a newgrass-style song titled "Flippen," while neo-soul belters Alabama Shakes performed their tune "Be Mine." Another young group, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, sang convincingly about the joys of country living.
Texas-born post-bluegrass singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz provided one of the evening's best moments — her nervous, twitching rhythms propelled "Come Around" into art-song territory. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens joined R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills to present an award, but The Spin got the idea that no one knew who Stephens was, and that's not Americana. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performed, as did Justin Townes Earle and Bonnie Raitt.
Americana Association head Jed Hilly defined Americana as music made with no eye to the charts, and then everyone in the audience grooved along with Raitt's John Hiatt-penned smash hit, "Thing Called Love." The show ended with 15 or 20 musicians gathering onstage to do The Band's "The Weight," a classic song that The Spin likes to call the "Kum Ba Yah" of Americana gatherings. What else? Oh yeah, Buddy Miller played some boss guitar and didn't win any awards this year. But Gillian Welch won Artist of the Year, The Civil Wars came away with Duo/Group of the Year, and Alabama Shakes were named New Emerging Artist of the Year. The Spin still doesn't know what Americana is, but we sure liked some of it.
Built to kill
For all the things "Americana" can possibly mean, couldn't "smart, expansive, Northwestern indie rock" be one of them? Couldn't Built To Spill — an American rock band, with a true, American songwriter at the helm — be Americana just as much as, say, Big Star or Bonnie Raitt or Alabama Shakes? Maybe that's a stretch. But from where The Spin sits, Built To Spill is an American band to be proud of.
Exit/In was sold out long before show time, and as we awaited admission with our pals, several shit-outta-luck dudes cased the crowd on the sidewalk looking for spare tickets. The sounds of openers Sister Crayon's trip-hoppy warbling fetched knee-jerk comparisons to Björk, Florence + the Machine and Cocteau Twins from The Spin and our companions. Once inside, we caught only a handful of numbers, but they were all dark, synthy, hip and young with throbbing beats and bouncy, Maynard Keenan-esque moves from frontwoman Terra Lopez. They weren't bad, really, but they seemed like a strange choice of opener for Built To Spill. Anyway, Lopez mentioned that she's a huge fan of longtime Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, so she scores points for that.
By the time Seattle's Helvetia began, Exit was as full as we've ever seen it, teeming not only with bald old rock nerds, but also youngsters, hipsters, squares, normies and even a bro or two. Helvetia was certainly more of an aesthetic match for Built To Spill than Sister Crayon. Of course, B2S guitarist Jim Roth is in the band, but on top of that, the songs feature a lot of slide guitar and dreamy, effects-laden indie-rock noodling — midtempo Midwestern/Northwestern driving music for flat terrain. Oh, and random, stray bits of confetti fell from the rafters all throughout their set — leftovers from Paper Route's show two nights before, we were told.
It's been six long years since Doug Martsch & Co. made their last Nashville appearance, and no amount of Americana showcases or Metric-at-the Ryman appearances or pals' album releases (sorry pals) was about to stop The Spin and 400-plus of our fellow Spillites from bobbing our goddamn heads to those sweet strains. After mounting the stage and unceremoniously noodling around for a minute, Built To Spill eased into a classics-riddled set. Seriously, they were a half-dozen songs deep — "In the Morning," "The Plan," "Velvet Waltz" and "Made Up Dreams" among that batch — before they played anything from their latest, 2009's There Is No Enemy.
Now, an excellent Built To Spill set doesn't mean loads of banter (or any whatsoever, really) or crazy stage moves or special effects or dudes wearing shirts that aren't loose-fitting band Ts. But it does mean note-perfect renditions of songs near and dear to a lot of folks. Songs made up of three interlocked guitars that, on Friday night, wound around one another and reached into The Spin's chest, melting away the ice that has encased our heart ever since 1999. Set highlights included "Nowhere Nothin' Fuckup" from Spill's 1993 full-length Ultimate Alternative Wavers as well as a great big sing-along on "Car," the ultimate anthem of angst-riddled adolescent uncertainty. Dudes threw their arms around one another and beamed like beacons of manly camaraderie. Fans lining the stairs up to Exit's balcony grinned and head-bobbed in perfect unison.
The encore began with a rendition of Tommy James and the Shondells' psych-pop classic "Crimson and Clover," complete with tremolo and vocal assists from Helvetia's Jason Albertini and Sister Crayon's Lopez. The night ended with "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain" — technically a song by Martsch's band with Calvin Johnson, Halo Benders — sending The Spin and our compatriots off into the night with a headful of fine American music and enough good vibes to last us another six years. But please, Built To Spill, don't make it another six years.
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