Last Wednesday night, we wrapped up tight against a cold winter wind and made our way to the War Memorial Auditorium for Honoring a Legend: A Tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement, a multi-artist show that promised to connect folk, pop, rock 'n' roll and country. Ducking into the venue, The Spin immediately sensed a rockabilly-tinged atmosphere that was convivial and perhaps a little chaotic.
We found this convivial chaos appropriate for a show honoring one of popular music's most accomplished, idiosyncratic figures. As any adept of Jack Clement's work knows, chaos is best furthered by using the finest musicians, and we sighted such players as keyboardist and singer Donnie Fritts and legendary guitarist Reggie Young in the audience, along with a brace of well-known figures who were scheduled to perform: Kris Kristofferson, T Bone Burnett, John Prine and Charley Pride.
Writer Peter Guralnick, who penned a superb 1979 essay on Clement that all students of Cowboy should read, began the night's festivities with an overview of his accomplishments. Shawn Camp and Billy Burnette tore into a version of Billy Lee Riley's rockabilly classic "Red Hot" — Cowboy Jack recorded Riley at Memphis' Sun Records in the late '50s. Bluegrass master Del McCoury performed "It'll Be Me," recasting Clement's rock 'n' roll tune as a skipping two-step and doing it justice.
Another Cowboy Jack song that sums up rock 'n' roll culture is "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," which Clement's old friend Johnny Cash took to the top of the charts in 1958. Prine performed it solo, and his plain, expressive voice made the tune come alive. Tim O'Brien did a spirited take on "Miller's Cave," another Clement classic that connects the dots between country-music moralism and folk-music narrative.
Throughout the night, mandolinist Sam Bush added embellishments to the performances, and Bush sang Cowboy's "Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog" with perfect good humor. Pride performed Clement's masterful "Just Between You and Me," which was Pride's first hit and wraps its light irony in a dignified melody. In good voice, Pride also performed "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin' " before leaving the stage. But the master class in songwriting continued: Vince Gill did a fine "Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger," and singer-songwriter Amos Lee performed an understated version of "I Know One." The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and songstress Nikki Lane shared a microphone for a stirring rendition of "Just Someone I Used to Know," which George Jones took into the country charts in 1962, and which Porter and Dolly famously dueted on in 1969.
Jakob Dylan tipped his hat to the Memphis-Nashville connection with his hushed take on "Waymore's Blues," Jennings' Waylon-ized version of Furry Lewis' "Casey Jones," while Marshall Chapman — looking as rangy and sassy as ever — put forth a fine "Let's All Help the Cowboy (Sing the Blues)." Dickey Lee, who grew up in the same Whitehaven area that spawned Cowboy Jack, sang "She Thinks I Still Care." And Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris harmonized on "Dreaming My Dreams With You," written by Clement's old friend and collaborator Allen Reynolds.
There were reminiscences by Reynolds and other Clement associates, along with video tributes from Bill Clinton, Taylor Swift, Marty Stuart, Bono, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Dennis Quaid and John C. Reilly. Connie Britton read a letter of appreciation from First Lady Michelle Obama, and T Bone Burnett — after asking the audience, "Jack Clement isn't in the Country Music Hall of Fame? What the fuck?" — sang Clement's "Guess Things Happen That Way" with longtime Johnny Cash drummer W.S. Holland standing up to play rockabilly-style snare drum. Mary Gauthier and Matt Urmy — the latter of whom put this whole shebang together — got the crowd to sing along to "We Must Believe in Magic." Kris Kristofferson said he owed everything good that ever happened to him to Cowboy, and then he played Johnny Cash's "Big River."
Then it was time for Cowboy Jack to come onstage to roars from the packed house. Looking every bit the master psychologist, songwriter and conceptualist, he played sharp rhythm guitar on "Good Hearted Woman" and "Gone Girl." The night ended with Clement swinging on Ary Barroso's "Brazil," a song he's been playing for decades, followed by a version of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' "No Expectations." The Spin went away with even more appreciation for Clement's multifarious accomplishments — Cowboy Jack's art is serious and fun, courtly and racy.
The Spin took special note of the house music as we settled into the Ryman last Thursday night, and the mix of atmospheric club tracks and late-'90s R&B struck us as exactly what we would expect British indie trio The xx to have on their collective playlist. By a quick scan of the sold-out crowd, we guessed that if you were between 21 and 35 and a little on the hip side, this was the place to bring your date. Is it really the right time of year for see-thru cheetah print? Before we could ponder much longer, the fog machines began to pump, and Toronto's Austra took the stage.
Austra leader Katie Stelmanis is a classically trained vocalist who developed a love for acts with a dark edge and a flair for electronic composition, like Iceland's Björk and Sweden's The Knife (in a nod to Stelmanis' Latvian heritage, Austra is named for the Latvian goddess of light). Their debut, Feel It Break, was made with help from Damian Taylor, a mixer and programmer whose credits include Björk and Prodigy; with his experience, the group latched onto and enhanced their unique identity. They could have used Taylor's help again Thursday. Stelmanis' vocal acrobatics are perfectly matched to the band on record, but the two sometimes felt like separate entities here, despite their polished performance (drummer Maya Postepski especially showed off technical skill and taste). It didn't help that the vocals would disappear from time to time, or that Stelmanis delivered her Nordic ice-queen lines while prancing and grinning like a 10-year-old at ballet recital. Such dramatic material calls for an equally theatrical presentation to come off as intended. Finally, all of the elements gelled on the second-to-last song, raising our hackles as the group turned "Beat and the Pulse" into a menacing house assault. Maybe all they need is a dedicated sound guy, or at least one who knows their songs. For all of our gripes, we had a good time, and would give 'em a second look.
When their turn came, The xx had no such troubles. Borrowing some design elements from Pink Floyd's iconic The Wall, they began with frontwoman Romy Madley Croft's "Angels" behind a gauzy curtain, on which were projected iridescent spatters of oil in water. At the climax of the song, the curtain came down to wild cheers, especially for one-man rhythm section Jamie Smith, whose multiple stations took up fully 75 percent of the stage. Like Austra, The xx was clearly excited to be here, stopping several times to offer thanks. Gentle giant Oliver Sim gave a baritone shout-out to Grimey's, which also drew an enthusiastic crowd response. Overall, their careful planning and subtle stagecraft paid off. Having been thrust into the public eye and before festival crowds of 20,000 or more in their late teens, the group is used to jumping in at the deep end, and they quickly overcame the awe they expressed at playing such a storied venue. Most moves were planned out, within reason, and accompanied by a corresponding part of the light show, which was vivid without being overwhelming. All of the beats were either created or manipulated in real-time by Smith, eliminating the stiffness that often comes with playing to a backing track.
The xx's beats, which sound spare and polite over headphones, suddenly come alive and physically move you when pumped through a massive sound system. Fewer elements means that each one gets to be richer, and having many quiet moments makes the loud spots even louder, as displayed in set-closer "Infinity," whose stop-time breaks were the aural equivalent of the floor falling away. They tailored the set to the more upbeat songs from their catalog, and even modified some fan favorites like "Chained" just for the tour.
The xx showed that, with some restraint, a big production can be just as kinetic and immersive as a punk show, if in an entirely different way.
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