The Spin sauntered toward The Lawn at Riverfront Park on Saturday, nerves steeled for long lines and short tempers. We shouldn't have worried. In sharp contrast to hitches at the recent AmericanaramA, the organizational side of things at Zac Brown's second annual Southern Ground Music and Food Festival was on par with last year's, if not even better. Even the sun got with the program, settling right on the opposite side of Pinnacle Tower for the duration of Willie Nelson's suppertime set.
Speaking of which, Willie and Family put all notions of SGMFF as a pop country showcase on notice, jumping right into a wide-ranging set flavored with Memphis soul and Chicago blues. Standards like "Crazy" and "Good Hearted Woman" appeared, but swinging a little more than usual, sandwiched into medleys with an Al Green-style "Funny How Time Slips Away" and backed up by Carl Perkins' hard-boogeying "Matchbox." The Redheaded Stranger was in fine voice and didn't seem much troubled by the shoulder injury that sidelined him until shortly before the show, trading furious licks with harmonica man Mickey Raphael and special guest Warren Haynes. The Gov't Mule frontman took his turn in the spotlight as well, burning slowly through an R&B-inflected version of "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," an early Garth Brooks hit he co-wrote. After two subtle tributes to Zac Brown's roots — namely "Georgia on My Mind" and "Georgia on a Fast Train" — the set closed out on a rousing gospel medley, with "Roll Me up and Smoke Me" snuck in for good measure.
One odd footnote to Willie's set — the fact that he couldn't get much crowd participation — turned into a minor catastrophe for anthemic mega-pop ensemble Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Late in the set, frontman Alex Ebert pleaded for a sing-along with a bro who'd camped out by the stage. Preparing for the chorus of "All Wash Out," Ebert wheedled, begged and dissolved into a full-tilt angry toddler rant: "You don't have to know what the fuck it means! Hasn't it ever rained in your life?" No dice. We have to agree with the sentiments we heard repeatedly throughout the night, namely that the crowd was a little too serious. C'mon guys, it's like the state fair — there's even a Ferris wheel. But all the same, you catch more flies with honey. We'll hope that Ebert has a good nap and gets back on his game soon.
A heaping paper cone of chef Rusty Hamblin's jambalaya later (a genius idea for street food, by the way), it was time for the main event. Massive clouds of fog billowed around a sheer curtain in front of the stage as a sound collage took us on a "Speak to Me"-style trip through Zac Brown's catalog. The curtain dropped, and the beanie-adorned founder of the feast fest and his Zac Brown Band rocketed out of the gate into three solid hours of fan favorites and crowd-pleasing covers. As broadly based as they are, Brown's originals still aren't our bag, though we did take a shine to "Day for the Dead," a funky, up-tempo number slated for the group's upcoming full-length.
We're bummed that we missed The Gambler himself, Kenny Rogers, sitting in on Friday night, but we got more than enough in the guest department to make up for it on Saturday. First up was Clare Bowen, appearing in character as Scarlett O'Connor, the doe-eyed waif of ABC's Nashville. Her duet with Brown — a medley of an original and Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" — was taped for possible inclusion in an upcoming episode. Multi-CMA nominee Kacey Musgraves, who killed during her earlier set on the small stage, played "Follow Your Arrow" for the second time that evening. It strikes us as pretty badass for someone with Brown's status to make sure the song, with its LGBT-friendly message — which actually promotes tolerance in all kinds of areas — got played for his entire audience of 30,000. Next came Sarah Dugas with a stunning and appropriately timed (see p. 49) tribute to Etta James. She set the bar high, but we had to go searching for pieces of our brain after the guitar jam with A.J. Ghent, a sacred steel artist from Atlanta.
Later, John Fogerty dropped in for "Bad Moon Rising," "Lookin' out My Back Door" and "Centerfield," giving Brown an opportunity to unintentionally show him up in the vocal department, as well as giving us a beer break. By the time the band reappeared for their encore dressed in glow-in-the-dark skeleton suits, we'd had our fill and headed for the gate. So this is going to be a regular thing? Go ahead and sign us up.
Something weird happened Monday night at the Ryman, where Blondie and X were mounting a pan-American summit meeting of first-generation punk and New Wave. We swear, just a minute ago, it was 1983 and The Spin was standing outside the Exit/In, waiting for the Emergency Broadcast System alarm to stop ringing in our throbbing ears. Inside, this X group from Los Angeles was still hammering away at jet-engine decibels, bashing the hell out of The Doors' "Soul Kitchen" and professing their love for honky-tonk music in between fits of the rawest, fastest, most deafening music we'd ever heard. We were young and we had cassette players and we had 120 Minutes to watch and we didn't have jobs and we had just enough money for Mack's Country Kitchen and rotgut coffee and import records at the West End Cat's and life was sweet.
So we heard the salvo of high-speed riffage that opens "Your Phone Is off the Hook, but You're Not" and settled in. Only wait. The music was loud and raw and familiar, but the people playing it looked ... different. Older. And the audience! Who were all these Cryptkeepers in their 50s? We even saw some of the same people — only they'd somehow turned into their parents!
One thing hadn't changed in the intervening 30 years: the setlist, drawn entirely from the four albums the original lineup recorded with producer Ray Manzarek, ending with 1983's More Fun in the New World. And the original lineup was not only present but pretty much how we remembered it. Back in 1983, guitarist Billy Zoom still played dizzying licks with that disconcerting Chance-the-gardener calm and beatific grin, only his looks (and attire) finally caught up with his suburban-dad demeanor. Drummer D.J. Bonebrake still popped up like a woodchuck from behind his kit, as if startled by the fury of his own tempos. As for Exene Cervenka and John Doe, the punk rock George and Tammy owned the Ryman stage from the moment they crossed it. "We've waited a long time to play here," Exene told the crowd, and it wasn't just obligatory Mother Church genuflection. Along with Elvis Costello and The Clash, X was one of the punk-era standard-bearers whose championing of country music made 1980s Nashville teens reconsider their relationship to their roots.
"If you think this is loud, just wait," said a grinning Doe, who vowed that "if Ernest Tubb isn't spinning in his grave already," ol' E.T. would soon be in orbit after torrid numbers like "The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss" off their 1980 debut Los Angeles. Doe and the band careened through classics such as Under the Big Black Sun's "Motel Room in My Bed" and More Fun's "The New World," a strikingly apt anthem for the government shutdown looming outside. It was Exene's presence at stage center, however, that banished any thought of this being a punk oldies act. She didn't pretend she was the same person who snarled and stalked the Exit/In stage 30 years ago; but when she lashed her highlights and gyrated like a surfer girl to rave-ups like the group's hell-for-leather cover of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless" — a song that evidently hasn't turned up on many of the recent set lists — she showed that the group's music had maintained its capacity to produce passion, to raise pulses, to transport. If anything, it means more now that the band and its longtime fans so clearly see themselves reflected in the other.
Before their set started, headliner Blondie was frankly more of a wild card. Blondie was the greatest singles act of the bands to emerge from punk and New Wave, but even in its MTV heyday, its air of jaded cool could look a lot like bored disinterest. In the lobby, The Spin overheard fans worrying that the group would coast on nostalgia and a reserve of hits nearing the Hippie Radio retirement home. But that would be drastically underestimating Deborah Harry, one of rock's most gifted ironists, who always regarded her glamourpuss image with ambivalence (if not contempt). That much was clear when she took the Ryman stage garbed in a bulky wizard's robe and conical hat — a get-up that made her look less like a style icon than a caterer sidetracked en route to ComicCon. As the band delivered its opening "Oh shit, I'm seeing Blondie!" hay-maker with the intro to "One Way or Another," Harry undercut her cool with amusingly dithery robe-fluttering stage moves, the sort a crazy cat lady might make while traffic slowed to watch.
It was a clever feint. Harry, undimmed at 68, remains a master of arched-eyebrow pastiche who can be a tropical coquette, a hip-swinging femme fatale, a seen-it-all chanteuse, or a rapper who does double duty as her own hype man as the occasion demands. And Blondie the band showed an admirable determination to prove it's an ongoing creative concern while satisfying those who came for audio souvenirs. They did so with a one-for-them-one-for-us strategy that alternated greatest hits — "Hanging on the Telephone," "The Tide Is High," an epic set-closing "Heart of Glass" — with an ambitious amount of recent material, all strong enough to keep the crowd on its feet between signature songs. Flanked by longtime foil Chris Stein on guitar (looking scowly and withdrawn for much of the concert, alas), drummer Clem Burke and a triptych of large video screens, Harry managed to sound fresh and engaged on songs the band has performed thousands of times. If her voice has lost some of its range and its chilly remoteness, the tradeoff is that she seems fully present and invested in the material — even in the goofy "Rapture," which she redeemed through sheer force of personality. (A fist-pumping snippet of the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" helped.)
Apart from an odd little cameo during Blondie's set by an apron-clad Exene (who charmingly spent much of the night in the wings dancing and watching the headliner), the night was short on surprises, with one huge exception: Harry's intro of "an old friend from the CBGB's days," former Dead Boy and Nashville resident Cheetah Chrome, who suited up for a terrific encore of The Misfits' "Hollywood Babylon."
Throughout the night, The Spin was struck by how many patrons were women who had brought their daughters, no doubt to witness two galvanizing yet utterly distinct bandleaders who greatly expanded the possibilities for women who rock. Personally, The Spin had never thought we'd be here after three decades, still listening to these artists — and yet here we were, all victims of the same time warpage. We have kids and we have mortgages and we have vans and we have cardiologists. But we have Deborah Harry and Exene Cervenka to extend us hope. Life is sweet.
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