The Americana Folk Festival stayed true to its premise of being an intimate, down-home event where audience and artist are but a handshake away from one another. A halcyon event compared to other festivals of its kind, like the Newport Folk Festival, that alpha of folk concerts, the Americana show still had its moments of trite glitz — listing in Chely Wright’s bio, for instance, that she was “featured in People magazine’s ’50 Most Beautiful People,’” a perplexing tidbit bearing no relevance to her music save for the fact that she looks good playing not so good songs.
Such festivals tend to be like a plate of hors d’oeuvres, just a little taste of each musician. Quick sets, then the artist hightails offstage to make way for the next performer, with two acts playing simultaneously, leaving you just enough time to catch a song or two from either musician. The range of talent varied; a fair share of mediocre, indie-style singer-songwriters lost my attention to the lush woodlands surrounding the festival grounds. But a handful of acts proved worthy of undivided focus.
Without question the stars of the day-into-night event were the Avett Brothers. Their performance was the only time the crowd leapt up from their foldout chairs and blankets, like ghosts suddenly granted hot-blooded bodies, packing close to the stage. Not least because these guys holler their brand of “folk” songs; when they play their guitar, banjo, and upright bass, the front porch shakes. Those boots they wear are not for looks, they’re for stomping.
The songs are sung austerely, no crooning or sleek Nashville sound. When they weren’t screeching their lyrics and busting guitar strings (four, by my count), they pushed the vocals out like children at a spelling bee, carefully delivering each letter of a word. When the crowd refused to budge unless they received an encore, the Avetts disregarded the emcee’s voice barreling through the loudspeakers — “They can’t come back on, we have to move along” — and jumped back onstage.
Sanders Bohlke (from Oxford, Mississippi) and the husband-and-wife duo Blue Mother Tupelo unleashed deep soul upon festivalgoers. A listen to Bohlke’s first self-titled, self-released album leaves you desiring more of the luscious praise songs he performed at the festival. Seated, with just a lap steel as his instrumentation, Bohlke sang his “Bring Your Weary Soul To The Altar” as if he himself were down on his knees beseeching God in some dusty, clapboard church.
Swaying free and easy as a willow tree anchored in sturdy roots, Micol Davis of Blue Mother Tupelo thrust her voice — part Janis Joplin, part Patsy Cline — and threw the spirit into the air throughout their rendition of R.L. Burnside’s “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down”. Sung a cappella but for the beat of tambourines, they turned that dark, mumbling blues number into an exuberant praise song, like angel wings soaring from muddy waters.