Give Summer Lights a little credit this year. There were many years when the music at the city’s largest annual festival seemed of tertiary importance to lemonade booths and funnel-cake stands. In recent years, however, it has steadily gotten better. Even if Summer Lights appears destined never to have the big-name rock ’n’ roll, funk, or blues acts that similar festivals in Memphis and Birmingham attract, festival programmer Kari Estrin has nonetheless assembled a remarkable cross-sampling of local, regional, and international talent. Besides, we’d rather see the Hackberry Ramblers, Othar Turner, or Joy Lynn White than some lame major-label headliner going through the motions.
Below, we’ve tried to cull the best from the festival’s daunting lineup, space permitting. Consult a schedule on the festival grounds for other worthwhile performancesor better still, just show up at one of the event’s many outdoor stages and be surprised.
We’re just imagining the looks on the faces of unwary listeners as they settle in front of the Budweiser Stage Thursday night at 7 p.m.and they suddenly get a force-nine blast of Rebecca Stout’s new material. Best known as the former vocalist for the Shakers, whose rootsy mysticism arrived just a few years too early for fans of Enya and Sarah MacLachlan, Stout has kept a low profile for the past few years, emerging every so often at local benefits or club shows for an a cappella number or two. Ain’t nothing a cappella about Stout’s new recordings, which sound like Rickie Lee Jones undergoing an exorcism at the hands of Mitchell Froom. Over hip-hop beats, woozy keyboards and horns, and grinding acoustic riffage, Stout moans, murmurs, and shrieks some of the rawest, most aggressively erotic lyrics this side of Liz Phair.
Her opening act, Lambchop (6 p.m.), would be better heard anywhere other than at an outdoor festival, but their musica sort of chamber-country spiced with newfound R&B pepshould be a cool drizzle in the midst of Summer Lights. Stick around after Lambchop and Stout for Murfreesboro’s swell Fluid Ounces (8 p.m.) and the cathartic noise of Jay Joyce’s iodine (10 p.m.).
Fresh from releasing Keepers, a splendid live LP on Sugar Hill, Guy Clark assembles a group of friends and fellow musicians for his 6 p.m. gig on the Marlboro Stage. As intimate venues go, the Marlboro Stage is somewhere between Municipal Auditorium and Dudley Field, but Clark’s magnificent “Dublin Blues” is epic enough to fill a stadium.
Elsewhere along the country/folk continuum, cock an ear for the Children’s/Family Stage, which throughout the weekend sponsors some of the festival’s best music. The towering hillbilly singer Hayseed, whose “God-Shaped Hole” is among the highlights of Bloodshot Records’ Other Side of the Alley compilation, performs Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m., followed by Greg Trooper, Barry & Holly Tashian, Kate Campbell, and bluegrass star Tim O’Brien.
Traditional country is represented on the Cabaret Stage by an afternoon with numerous Opry stars. All you need to know is that Connie Smith (4 p.m.) is still one of the hottest women on the planet, and that Stonewall Jackson (1 p.m.) sang “Waterloo.”
The Swing Tent features some of Music City’s finest non-country bands, including jazz vocalist April Barrows (11 a.m.), fiddle master Buddy Spicher & the Nashville Swing Band (4:30 p.m.), and our own local klezmer band, the Klezmaniacs (6 p.m.). And for the first of the weekend’s fine zydeco offerings, let the bon temps rouler when Li’l Brian & the Zydeco Travelers take the Alligator Alley stage from 4-7:30 p.m.
To paraphrase Steve Earle’s famous quote about Townes Van Zandt, Joy Lynn White (6 p.m.) is the most grossly underrated vocalist in country music, and we’ll say that standing on Faith Hill’s coffee table in a feather boa. Of all the people playing at Summer Lights this year, she most deserves the exposure to thousands of people, and she’s the one most likely to make herself noticed and remembered long after the last three-ticket beer has been downed. She joins the hillbilly hellcats of Hank Flamingo (7 p.m.) on Capt. Morgan’s Parrot Bay Stagewhich, incidentally, features Steve Earle himself at 10 p.m.
Alt-country in all its guises is well represented on the Children’s/Family Stage. By now we hope you’re familiar with Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub (5 p.m.), whose Pan-American Flash LP is the best country album we’ve heard so far this year. Fans of Wayne Hancock and BR5-49 are henceforth hipped to Gary Wayne Claxton (7 p.m.), who slaps out that trad-country thunka-thunka with an edge of rockabilly energy. R.B. Morris previews his upcoming Oh Boy CD of boisterous, defiantly literary busking with a show at 8 p.m., and the delightful Northeastern band 5 Chinese Brothers kick up a cheerful roots-rock squall at 9 p.m. Compass Records artists Farmer Not So John close the bill at 10 p.m.
The 21-year-old rap/R&B visionary Iayaalis, one of the brightest talents in a promising local African-American artists’ collective, is among the featured performers at Friday’s “Urban Hip/Hop Showcase” on the Budweiser Stage from 7-10 p.m. The Christian rap group Grits, former Perfect Combination lead singer Keith Floyd, and bNARD with producer Chris Cuben-Tatum will also appear. In the afternoon, from 11 a.m. on, the Budweiser Stage is entirely given to Women Who Rock, with Etta Britt, Nanette & the Fabrays, Kelli Owens, Kelly Zulo, Liz Hodder, Linda Nunez, and others.
Oh yeah, we forgot the headliner: honky-tonker Mark Chesnutt (10 p.m.) on the Marlboro Stage, preceded by the acclaimed young singer Lee Ann Womack and rugged new hit-maker Gary Allan at 8 p.m. And if that doesn’t cool your jones for major-label country, there’s Roger Brown & Swing City, who punch up their Western swing with a full horn section in the Swing Tent at 1 p.m.
If you don’t remember anything else we tell you, tattoo these words on your forehead: The Hackberry Ramblers (1 p.m.). These Laweeziana scalawags have been playing foot-stomping zydeco music for something like 70 years, and their washboard player alone kicks more ass than any five heavy-metal bands you can name. Their records are some of the liveliest house parties ever captured on disc, so just imagine what they sound like in front of a thousand beer-drinkin’, roasted-corn-suckin’, gyro-eatin’ revelers. Eddy Raven & Jo-El Sonnier and Waylon Thibodeaux follow them on the Alligator Alley stage.
Later in the evening, another don’t-miss act, Earl Gaines, takes the Cabaret Stage at 7 p.m. One of the great unsung Nashville R&B vocalists of the 1950s and ’60s, Gaines still has his chops as a singer and showman, as he proved at a memorable gig during the NEA Extravaganza earlier this year. Better still, he’s teamed for this gig with legendary Nashville blues guitarist Johnny Jones, who backed Gaines on some of his ’60s sides for the Deluxe, Hollywood, and HBR labels. Be sure to holler out for “Best of Luck to You” and “It’s Love Baby.” Gaines, Jones, and company will be followed by the Hi Records Show at 8 p.m.see the lead music story for more info.
On the Children’s/Family Stage, The Cantrells (5 p.m.) celebrate the release of their debut CD with a set of tie-dyed roll-yer-own string music that Jerry Garcia himself would appreciate. They’re joined by Stacey Earle (6 p.m.), whose tough but unexpectedly vulnerable country songs more than held their own alongside songwriters Amy Rigby and Duane Jarvis at a recent Tin Pan South song pull. Arrive early in the afternoon, and you can see stories and drum performances from African culture along with a presentation of playwright Cherie Bennett’s play Cyra and Rocky.
They don’t call it the Swing Tent for nothing when Raul Malo joins The Dennis Burnside Orchestra for an evening of superbly crooned standards. If you’ve forgotten what lounge-pop classics sound like without grotesque overemoting, egomaniacal preening, or sock-in-your-pants grandstanding, get mellow with Malo at 8 p.m. But if it’s shagadelic power-pop you want, baby, power trio The Shazam bashes out the kind of drop-dead hooks you used to get from Cheap Trick records. They perform on the Budweiser Stage at 2 p.m.
On the same stage, The Evinrudes have scored one of the festival’s most coveted slots, the 8 p.m. Saturday gig, which only reinforces the big buzz that husband-and-wife bandleaders Brian Reed and Sherry Cothran have been generating in recent months. We’ve heard Stone Deep went through some personnel changes and internal problems, but if they’re back up to full throttle, expect a punk-funk roar that rivals the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They’re at 9 p.m.
Arrive early at the Marlboro Stage for Jack Ingram, who released a fine album of honky-tonk on the E-Squared label this spring. (Speaking of E-Squared, Ingram’s labelmate Ross Rice, formerly of Human Radio, takes Capt. Morgan’s Parrot Bay Stage at 5 p.m.) Also check out Rodney Crowell’s well-received new rock ’n’ roll band The Cicadas, which sounds like the Wonders in That Thing You Do!only 10 years after they broke up and lost their deal.
In Memphis music circles and among connoisseurs of exotic Southern music, Othar Turner has developed a cult following for his recordings of fife and drum, a pretty, hypnotic, and surprisingly funky traditional music that consists of loping snare-drum rhythms overlaid with fife trills. Along with the Hackberry Ramblers, he’s the coolest act on the Summer Lights lineup. Stick around afterward for the Black Country Music Showcase, hosted by Cleve Francis, and for an eclectic bill that includes Hispanic dance, honky-tonker Woody Lee, a Bill Monroe tribute, and Lorrie Morgan.
In its new home on Power Country 103, Billy Block’s Western Beat Roots Revival (2-5 p.m.) fills five solid hours of programming on Sunday nightsa real alt-country jamboree. This special edition on Capt. Morgan’s Parrot Bay Stage lasts only three hours, but what a crew: Mandy Barnett, Hank Flamingo, the Bum Steers, Bill Lloyd, and rising star Robbie Fulks, whose excellent 1996 album Country Love Songs is starting to sound like a landmark in the nationwide No Depression movement. They’re followed at 5:20 p.m. by Bonepony, Nashville’s answer to Stomp!, and at 9:20 p.m. by Nigerian bandleader O.J. Ekemode.
Sunday features one of the strongest lineups of rock music in the festival on the Budweiser Stage. Sparta’s The Features (6 p.m.) are about to release a six-song EP on Spongebath Records that will delight fans of the Cars with its hooky New Wave pop and Moog synthesizer flourishes. They’re followed by two of Nashville’s hottest acts, Joe, Marc’s Brother (7 p.m.) and Stella (8 p.m.). For an apocalyptic finish, Atlanta’s superior Five-Eight (9 p.m.) dishes out confrontational rock ’n’ roll, all psychic threat and muscular guitars.
An all-star roster of Nashville talent fills out “Caffé Milano Jazz” (1-6 p.m.) in the Swing Tent Sunday afternoon: Louie Shelton, saxman Jeff Coffin, renowned session drummer Chester Thompson, trumpeter Rod McGaha, and smooth saxophonist Kirk Whalum. And keep an eye peeled for Chicago bluesman Eddy Clearwater, now in his fifth decade of music-making. Known for performing in Native American headdress, Clearwater has drawn comparisons throughout his career to Chuck Berry, and Mike Henderson covered his statement-of-purpose “I Wouldn’t Lay My Guitar Down.” He performs at 7 p.m. on the Cabaret Stage.
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