Sound of the city
Just one night into SoundLand, and our elbows were already sore from all the rubbing. By the time we showed up at TPAC's Jackson Hall for the SoundLand kickoff party, all the best free grub had already been picked over, so we wandered the short distance over to War Memorial to catch another familiar face — that of Jonny Corndawg — kicking the whole thing off.
With the constant murmur of schmoozers still present in the wings of War Memorial, the place wasn't quite full, but there was definitely a comfortable showing for opening night. Lovable trad country joker Corndawg was utilizing Dawes (plus fiddler Joshua Hedley) as his backing band, and their pristine playing made Corndawg's tunes sound like real-deal, serious Nashville outlaw country — which made the absurdist, irreverent lyrics of tunes like "Trash Day" all the more uproarious. Deer Tick's John McCauley even came out to sing "Middle Brother" by Middle Brother — that's the band featuring McCauley, Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit's Matt Vasquez (and occasionally featuring Jonny Corndawg). Anyhow, Corndawg and Dawes — or "Corndawes," as Jonny called it, hinting that they might do a record together — had some fantastic flourishes going on.
Dawes proper was certainly softer, more traditional fare. They filled their set with sentimental and melancholy ballads — bighearted, earnest stuff that doesn't frequently land in The Spin's typical taste zone. (We tend toward more cynical stuff.) Nevertheless, they were good players with good voices and a knack for a strong melody. And — surprise! — McCauley and Corndawg came out for some harmonizing and guesting. These guys all love each other. Aw.
Throughout the front half of his set, M. Ward milled about the stage being a great guitarist, charismatic performer and passable harmonica player. He played his whispery, acoustic blues-folk ballads well, for sure. Kurt Wagner and Tony Crow of Lambchop joined in for "Oh Lonesome Me," and Crow's piano playing was definitely our favorite thing about it. Then it was a ragtimey piano ballad, and some other piano ballads, and some more gentle blues-folk. Dawes finally returned to the stage (Surprise! Again!) for some full and luxurious folk-rockin'. But it was just that: gentle folk-rockin'. So we enjoyed a couple numbers and headed out, content to leave a little something in our tank for the remainder of the Weekend of Rock.
The Spin started off Thursday night with another one of those swanky VIP parties — this time at Virago, a club (with a thumbprint scanner) that we'll likely never see the inside of again. Suitably sauced from the fancy-pants VIP festivities, we strolled down 12th Ave., destined for Hypesylvania (aka the 12th Avenue Block Party Stage), where Reptar was already midway into their Vampire Weekend-wannabe dance-pop set. Their brand of inoffensive songs in the key of Graceland on uppers didn't do much for us, so we moved on, catching a bit of Fine Peduncle looping beats and dry humping a card table in clear defiance of the posted sign behind him, reading "if you are dancing in a way that could create a baby/fetus/alien — stop." Nice.
Cults won us over immediately by coming onstage to the theme to Twin Peaks. By far the most impressive non-local of the night, Cults kept up a fun summer-pop vibe, fraught with xylophones, reverb and bummer lyrics (but only if you listened hard enough). Foster the People, meanwhile, entered and exited our ears at an alarming rate. Foster is about as milquetoast as milquetoast can get, offering us a show worthy of filler on 107.5 The River. But, the kids seemed to love 'em. Bless their hearts.
A couple of colleagues at the 12th stage allegedly saw an arrest or two amid the crowd, complete with hollering and at least one guy hitting the pavement. (Hey, debacles of near-SXSW proportions are bound to go down at an outdoor stage.) But meanwhile, over at the much calmer and more sparsely attended Basement, The Spin peeped Jasmin Kaset and her band. One of the great things about Kaset is that she makes songs that are beautiful and filled with interesting arrangements without being too precious about it. Even while playing an Omnichord on a handmade platform attached by a rope strung over her shoulders — complete with plastic lion standing guard at its edge — and a cellist/bandurria player strumming away beside her, Kaset always appears more smart than quirky. Sleepy Sun followed with a the sort of psych rock we characterized — at least according to our notes — as "Black Angels Jr." It alternated between heavy/droney and wispy/breezy, and the frontman had a bit of an Eddie Vedder thing going on. Not vocally. Just his stage presence. And his hair.
As the evening wound down, we took in some old favorites back on 12th Ave., watching How I Became the Bomb intrude on the impromptu dance party that sprouted at Mai as they waited to play. Mixing new tunes riddled with fat bass lines and standbys like "Killing Machine" and "Fat Girls Talkin' 'Bout Cardio," they won the hearts of the crowd. Meanwhile, across the street, Uncle Skeleton — using every inch of 12th & Porter's stage — absolutely killed it, just as they did at Bonnaroo, Road to Bonnaroo and Next Big Nashville last year.
Crowds were slow to arrive at The Station Inn for the Thirty Tigers showcase, but by 10 p.m. — roughly the time The Black Crowes co-founder Rich Robinson was taking the stage with percussionist Joe Magistro for a brief set of bluesy raga-drones from an upcoming solo album — the seats were mostly full. Too bad for latecomers that they missed the first act of the night, Charlie Mars, whose hilarious Mitch Hedberg-style intros provided strong wind-ups for his delicate but forcefully delivered acoustic ballads. Anais Mitchell followed him with snaky, unsettling songs from her "folk opera" Hadestown: She made a compelling presence with her streaks of frosted hair, a blouse slipped off one tattooed shoulder and a habit of punctuating her lyrics with an emphatic swat of her guitar neck.
Meanwhile — because The Spin arrived at a relatively decent hour to the Cherub/Ghostland show at Cannery Ballroom — it was difficult to tell what was going on with the people still in the parking lot. While lasers and dancing were going on inside, there was a crowd of people clamoring outside — they were denied entry for a while, because it seemed the venue was at capacity. Especially irked were the wristband holders, stuck outside with the single-ticket plebes. From the Mercy Lounge smoking deck, there appeared to be about 75-100 people milling about, throwing glow sticks, licking powder from baggies, and trying to get half-hearted chants started about refunds. The folks inside were basically none the wiser — there was police presence in the lot for a minute, but as far as we could see, there were no serious altercations other than half-hearted protesting. (The lasers looked great, by the way.)
But anyway, back at The Station Inn, My Morning Jacket multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel confined himself to pedal steel and electric guitar, but he coaxed a veritable Gus Van Sant film soundtrack out of his effects pedals and on-the-spot loops. But the biggest response of the night was for Kentucky chamber-pop phenom Ben Sollee, whose daredevil playing, taut intensity and insuppressible enthusiasm made for a dazzling performance. In Sollee's hands, the cello is a remarkably flexible instrument. And then it was off to try and find our car in The Gulch.
We were pretty bummed when we noticed that The Alabama Shakes had been pulled from their initial spot in the SoundLand lineup. We'd been checking 'em out online, and they'd quickly become one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend. But Third Man Records came to the rescue, adding the Athens, Ala., soul group to the front end of its Friday lineup. The Shakes threw down what was without a doubt one of the best performances of the festival. The Spin takes no official stance on reincarnation, but watching frontwoman Brittany Howard work her mojo, we had the eerie sensation that the spirit of Otis Redding had been reborn in this young Alabama soul singer: Her spine-tingling voice, tent-revival enthusiasm and most of all, mastery of phrasing and dynamics had us thinking of Redding's electric take on "Try a Little Tenderness" during the 1967 Stax Europe tour. One thing's for certain: With their vintage Stax-inspired sound, the Shakes are about as ripe for the TMR vinyl treatment as a band can be. We know TMR planned to record the headliners — here's hoping they caught the evening's openers.
Up next was the frenzied, spasmodic attack of power trio Hans Condor. We were immediately taken with their raw, unbridled energy, which brought to mind that awesome vintage video of The MC5 doing "Ramblin' Rose." Tasmanian Devilish frontman Charles Condor jumped down into the writhing pit of humanity near the front of the stage and shredded for a bit, even allowing a few audience members to grab the guitar neck and get in on the auditory action.
Following the flight of the Condor was PUJOL. The band's catchy melodies recalled (in a good way) the infectious punk hooks of The Replacements, and there's something undeniably likable about frontman Daniel Pujol — it's hard to put our finger on it, but rarely do people dishing out snotty punk ditties come across as quite so affable. It's proof that you don't have feign a Joey Ramone sneer to bash out high-quality garage rock.
Human Eye was the top-billed musical act of the evening, though after enduring the roughly hourlong set, we're hard-pressed to understand why. They dished out a bizarre, meandering amalgam of punk, prog and psych rock that failed to capture the high points of any of those genres. Maybe there's some level of irony to their awfulness — but we just don't get it.
That's not to say we don't appreciate irony. After all, the only reason we were in it this long was to hear an absolute master of the phenomenon: Neil Hamburger, the world's best worst comedian. His routine is like an irony hall of mirrors. The man with the world's most ostentatious comb-over didn't disappoint. Hamburger was in fine form, from a barrage of Britney Spears jokes to jabs at Smash Mouth and Nickelback. His relentless assault on the recording engineer — TMR documented the show for an upcoming vinyl release — was pretty hysterical. But the unequivocal highlight of the evening: a one-liner about gay guys that morphed into a surreal five-minute meltdown of hilarity that no explanation would do justice.
A couple blocks over, the majority of the roots-rock-ready peeps who filled the Cannery were almost unquestionably there to see still-on-the-rise-with-a-vengeance, now two-time Scene cover boy Justin Townes Earle. Dressed up like a bespectacled, Eisenhower-era family physician on a house call, Earle — with accompanying double bassist and fiddle player — might as well have been a firefighter running out of a burning building in slow motion, baby in hand, judging by the ear-splitting applause that greeted him. We caught three or four trad-folk gems from Americana's favorite local son — the highlight of which was the gorgeous, strings-finger-picked-like-raindrops, Grapes of Wrath-worthy working man's requiem "They Killed John Henry." Good shit.
Apart from the brimming size of the crowd, the scene inside Cannery couldn't have contrasted more with the roof-raisin'-sans-roof smorgasbord of beats and rhymes at work less than 10 blocks away over at the 12th Avenue Block Party Stage. When we arrived, Chancellor Warhol was on the outdoor stage sounding like a boss, while Call it Dope! got things poppin' in Mai.
We were more than a little proud to watch the outside crowd chanting along with Sam & Tre's "We Do" while DJ Kidsmeal bounced in front of the huge LCD screen looking like an overexcited 8-bit video game character. Big K.R.I.T. dropped that "Country Shit" just the way we like, while Dee Goodz got the respectably filled-out Mai to go "Bananas." Openmic pulled a huge, super-hyped crowd back into Mai, where Stix Izza went the full-band route and basically left our brain as a smoldering crater.
The highlight, of course, was onetime-Antioch-by-way-of-Alabama-bred, rightfully hyped emcee Yelawolf's rightfully anticipated set. Less than a year ago, this heavily tatted skater boi was playing Phat Kaps, and now he's got a full posse and stage-spanning LED screen behind him and thousands of kids passin' joints, raising hands, rapping along to rhymes like "Pop the Trunk" and his collaboration with Big Boi, "You Ain't No DJ." Two words: Star power. Yelawolf's got it. His onstage charisma was captivating as he dove into a crowd that ripped his shirt to pieces. His cocksure, Southern-fried cadence flows of out the mic like butter. So confident was Yela in his approach that he went as far as to warm our hearts by bringing his parents — who looked like your garden-variety 'Bama, middle-class squares — to the stage. Well done.
Down the road at The Basement, we entered not long after Action! started. And whoo boy, Tiger High! The Spin heard that folks from the band's native Memphis drove up to watch them play, and did they ever make the right decision. Playing with (distracting) projections on an adjacent wall, their straight rock 'n' roll set was over all too soon. New favorite band material, right here.
Ri¢hie performed double duty, not only as show referee (complete with the striped shirt and whistle that have become part of his awesome new daily wardrobe), but his own hype man as well, announcing each song title before getting into it. The best moment was "Animal Print" when a dude, serendipitously dressed in all animal-print, started to dance up front. Later he was tonguing Richie's guitar. I know that's right!
"Tennessee is ... throbbing," said frontwoman Coco Hames during The Ettes' set, hesitant to use the word "throbbing" but well aware — between Gonerfest and SoundLand — that The Volunteer State is poppin' off right now. The Ettes were playing their — to borrow an adjective — throbbing garage-pop numbers to a room now filled like a sardine tin, closing out one of the most traditionally "rock" nights of the fest and leaving us with the melody of Wicked Will's "Excuse" bouncing around in our booze-addled mind like a BB in a tin can.
We wrapped things up with a late-night set from local faves The Non-Commissioned Officers at 12th & Porter. While the 12th area was thinning by this point, it was a pleasure to see loads of familiar faces winding down their evening with an energetic set of well-written and sharply performed New Wave-inspired rock tunes.
Of all of SoundLand's various attractions, the fest's amusement park theme was represented nowhere better than at Saturday's Neuhoff Factory Party. There was a giant inflatable dragon out of which we saw several grown-ass men and colleagues plummet and tumble to the ground. Screen prints were on display from some of the city's finest artists — from Boss Construction to Monkey Ink Design, Sam's Myth, Grand Palace and plenty more. Wristband holders popping in and out throughout the day kept the place bustling with at least several hundred attendees at any given point. As cool as Neuhoff is as a venue, it would've been great to see the thing go full blo-out style. But all in all, it was a success.
Apache Relay's set featured a lot of sincerity, a lot of quarter-note buildups and a lot of Americana-rock singing to the skies. There was some fiddle here and some tambo there, and mostly, it felt like Americana Coldplay — poppy and accessible, but rooted in, you know, roots music. The rain mostly held off all afternoon, but the raindrops that did eventually show up felt all the more ominous as they fell during Tristen's brand-new tune "Catalyst." We love the new synth-pop direction Tristen and her Ringers are taking, and the arrangements and vocal harmonies were transfixing as always. Oh, and nice haircut, Tristen! Sure, the tunes are a savvy, contemporary blend of folk, pop and rock 'n' roll, but the new 'do is straight-up Boardwalk Empire. Classy.
Now, here's the thing about The Black Belles: They probably wouldn't be subject to as much scorn or praise — any type of criticism, really — were it not for their status as Jack White proteges and the fact that they wear that goth garb. Truthfully, it's decent, surfy garage rock with some pretty cool moments along the way. A companion noted that most of the Belles' songs sound a bit like the Munsters theme. If you crossed that with the best thumping, garage-y stuff in The Ettes' catalog, we'd say that's a pretty accurate description. This being one of the fledgling Belles' first shows, it looks like they're still getting comfortable onstage, which is to be expected.
Those Darlins were an energetic pickup, though it's quite a difference watching them on an outdoor stage as opposed to in the clubs where we're accustomed to seeing them — sound from where we stood was just a bit muddled. Still, it was great seeing Jessi Darlin — adorned in that now-familiar flashy golden romper of hers — so comfy as a performer, and "Screws Get Loose" is an undeniable gem.
Headliners JEFF the Brotherhood opened with just guitarist Jake Orrall doing a mellow rendition of "The Tropics." That morphed into a brief instrumental number, followed by a particularly heavy performance of "U Got the Look." Every Bogus Bros show is a different experience, and we love seeing how each performance will translate in the given environment. This one — with JEFF's raucous psych-punk riffs filling the night sky, familiar faces crowd surfing and stage diving and Jake jumping offstage to wail amid audience — felt like the most cathartic in recent memory. We later heard that JEFF, troupers that they are, ended up playing a late-night party at vintage motorbike co-op The Zombie Shop. You know, for the kiddies. Bummed we missed that one, but we had more SoundLanding on our plates.
Time to move on to The Basement, where now increasingly well-seasoned festival vet Caitlin Rose was set to headline. As expected — given Rose's popularity and abounding profile and the club's cramped confines — this show was already packed to the gills when we made our way inside to the Carter-riffic sounds of The Watson Twins' harmonious sister act. Of course Rose killed it for the wall-to-wall mass of humanity inside. The banter-riffic, natural stage persona and heart-swelling repertoire, honed over the past five years on that very stage, now make for a confident, road-worn show worthy of the fans singing along front and center and the backing band pouring themselves into Rose's tunes.
We caught a sober ride over to Mercy Lounge in the nick of time for the re-revamped Pink Spiders. Now sporting an unnamed hired gun on rhythm guitar and vocals in addition to newish bassist Brandon Jazz, this quartet doesn't quite swagger about the stage like drug-addled road dawgs, but then again, they don't take spontaneous vomit breaks anymore either. Where the Spiders get points for improvement is in their new jams. The band broke out a handful of freshly penned tunes that were as good or better than anything we've heard from them since day one.
The award for attendance goes to Paper Route, who clearly brought out the bulk of the crowd. Which stands to reason, given that they also get the awards for both mass appeal and commercial viability. What makes Paper Route's melodic, emotional, synth-laden indie rock stand apart from other melodic, emotional, synth-laden indie rockers is too close a call for us to make. We'll let the masses speak for themselves on that one.
Headlining the evening, Nashville's premier '90s tribute act, My So-Called Band, surprisingly but appropriately stripped away their usual cavalcade of local guest ringers to cover Nirvana's seminal Nevermind, released 20 years prior to the day. Granted, MSCB still has two more members than the band they were homaging. From the anthemic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to the mournfully gloomy "Something in the Way," the band's four singers traded off tunes almost out of necessity alone — poor Dave Paulson's vocal chords were nearly shredded by the end of "In Bloom." Regardless, each track was faithfully recreated with enough vim and vigor to keep this crowd's fists pumping from start to finish — it was, however, a pretty real moment seeing one of the crowd's many olds crowd surfing to the sounds of a 20-year-old record.
But wait, there's more! See The Spin's unabridged coverage of SoundLand, plus our two cents on Elvis Costello and the Imposters' Sunday night performance at The Ryman, at Nashville Cream (nashvillecream.com). Did we miss anything? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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