We headed downtown and weaved our way through Americana Fest patrons, folks en route to the Ryman for Alt-J and run-of-the-mill tourists. Then there were the nine (by our count) Red Tour trucks adorned with the visage of Taylor Swift. We'd of course already hit our Swift quota for the week, having seen the first of her three nights at Bridgestone, and thus we trucked on down to Walk of Fame Park for the Harvest Night portion of Music City Eats. We spotted all four Followills pretty swiftly and overheard one yuppie conversation in which a dude said, "Nashville's actually developing into a ..." before trailing off, seemingly never to finish his thought. He's right. We're definitely developing into a ... something.
Anyway, we'll leave the food reviews to our colleagues over at Bites and just say that we enjoyed the tiny little portions of gourmet grub we managed to procure. We got "Aw, bless her heart" feelings when we saw that nobody was lined up to sample the cupcakes at Trisha Yearwood's tent. But Trisha would have the last laugh in just a couple of hours.
We walked the few blocks up to War Memorial and ventured inside to find Rolling Stone contributor, Boz Scaggs' son and lefty bassist Austin Scaggs leading his Cabin Down Below Band. There were some other familiar faces in the band's lineup — frequent Music City sideman Reno Bo among them — and Butch Walker was the first guest vocalist of the evening, crooning rather emotively on "Even the Losers." As a colleague pointed out, Petty Fest is sort of like seeing local all-star cover band The Long Players do their thing, only with more big-name cameos. Or maybe it's just like celebrity karaoke with the machine stuck on the "heartland rock" setting.
Anyhow, the ever-captivating Norah Jones stepped up for a pretty great rendition of "You Don't Know How It Feels" with Bucky Baxter on steel, and then Caleb Followill sang "Won't Back Down" with his hands tucked sheepishly in his pockets. Followill encouraged everyone to sing along, noting that it had been "a long day." Cyle Barnes and Sam Williams of The Weeks came out for "Breakdown," and if we'd closed our eyes, we'd have sworn it was still Caleb. With eyes open, however, it was easy to see that Barnes was the most excited-to-be-there frontperson yet. Bucky Baxter returned to support his son Rayland on "Good to Be King," but then we missed The Black Keys' Patrick Carney sitting in on drums for a tune (it sounded like "Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll" from the beer line). Karen Elson took the stage to sing "Into the Great Wide Open," twirling and raising her arms skyward like a kid on the first day of summer vacation.
You see, the thing about a band of non-Heartbreakers playing Heartbreakers songs is that the parts are just going to sound a bit languid — we're not sure there's any way around it, no matter how competent the band is (and the Cabin Down Below boys are plenty competent). Having seen Petty & Co. earlier this year at Bonnaroo, we can tell you that the band just has this inimitable ease — the parts themselves are simple enough, but in anyone else's hands, they just seem to lose their idiosyncrasies and turn into a plain sort of roots-rock wash. The Spin got the impression, though, that few others in the room were scrutinizing and analyzing quite as closely as we were — thanks to the open bar, we're pretty sure about half of the Music City Eaters wouldn't have noticed if Scaggs & Co. had been replaced by an iPod.
Norah returned for "Wildflowers," and Cory Chisel took the lead for the Traveling Wilburys number "Handle With Care." Honestly, we hold that song pretty fucking dear, and with Roy and George both gone, we're not sure any setting is pious enough — even this one — for that tune. KOL's rhythm section (i.e., Nathan and Jared) came out with Roger Moutenot and Jessie Baylin to play "Mary Jane's Last Dance," which seemed an appropriate enough selection for that crew. Trisha Yearwood and Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley (ironically, not the Lady A dude who looks like It's Always Sunny's character Charlie Kelly, but the other one) took center-stage for "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." Now, we can't say whether or not Trisha's muffins were any good, but she was easily, easily the most captivating and commanding vocalist of the night. She's a powerhouse, and our goosebumps got goosebumps when we found ourselves wondering if Garth was in the house.
Our old pal Ruby Amanfu sang "Honey Bee" — which, by our count, was the first non-hit of the evening — before the parade of cameos started to become a blur. Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris definitely did "You Got Lucky," and Jakob Dylan, The Wild Feathers and Houndmouth received polite applause for whatever it was that they played. We remember The Whigs doing "Running Down a Dream," seeing as how they're a really compelling live band that actually kind of made the song their own. Scaggs raised a glass to the sponsors and to Petty himself, "in Malibu or wherever he is." Jessie Baylin and The Civil Wars' Joy Williams split lead vocal duties for "Don't Come Around Here No More." The band played that song's groove — arguably one of the best in rock history — pretty well, and Williams put her own spin on the vocals. We finally got to hear "The Waiting" — which we've been waiting for ever since Petty skipped it during his 'Roo set — before Caleb did "American Girl."
The entire damn cavalcade returned to bob along to a ZZ Ward-led "Free Fallin'," and we honestly thought the stage would collapse. We slipped out as the Followills and their celebrity pals threw arms around one another and took big, sloshing gulps from their various drinks, reminding ourselves that any night wherein you get to hear Bucky Baxter, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Norah Jones perform ain't a bad night at all — even if you do have to weather a bit of schmoozing and sanctimony.