New York, NY- Americana is an ever-evolving genre, a shapeshifting shorthand reference that encompasses the deep roots and sprawling branches of American music, from country to folk to blues to rock and beyond. It includes the likes of Alabama Shakes, Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, Sturgill Simpson, and Valerie June. It’s altogether fitting, then, that this weekend’s AmericanaFest NYC – an offshoot of the beloved Nashville event – showcased both the standard-bearers and young upstarts using these building blocks as their sonic playground.
Amanda Shires kicked off the weekend at Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza with a set that placed her superb fiddling and songwriting front and center. Ms. Shires was accompanied by Zach Setchfield (guitar), David Guy (bass), and Jerry Pentecost (drums), who added propulsive, electric textures to the vivid narratives that hint at vulnerability. It’s a combination that she works in a compelling way. Take “Harmless,” for instance, from My Piece of Land (2016). There’s a searching, yearning quality in the vocals as Ms. Shires explores, in grainy detail, the ambiguous line-walking of infidelity.
The weighty ruminations of the songs aside, the set had plenty of moments of levity, such as when Ms. Shires joked about her journey, moving “from Texas to Nashville to fulfill my dream of becoming a waitress,” saving restaurant tips so she could make some records, and now waitressing only in her own house (hey, we sure hope Jason Isbell does his part in unloading the dishwasher and folding the laundry). And in introducing “Bulletproof” (off 2013 album Down Fell the Doves), she had the audience laughing over the image of an unkempt fan handing over a brown paper bag of Siberian tiger teeth and viscera. It’s a melding of devil-may-care banter and from-the-heart songwriting that had us captivated.
After Ms. Shires’s set, the venerated accordionist Flaco Jimenez took the stage. For the uninitiated, Mr. Jimenez’s list of collaborations includes Rolling Stones (Voodoo Lounge), Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens (“Streets of Bakersfield”), and film soundtracks (Y Tu Mama Tambien), among others. And that’s not even mentioning the varied incarnations of his own work, including the Tejano fusion group Texas Tornados. He’s too sweet and humble to mention it himself, but the San Antonio-based artist has racked up more than a handful of Grammys along the way.
Backed by a full band – Max Baca (bajo sexto), Noel Hernandez (bass — and, along with Mr. Baca, part of Los Texmaniacs), and David Jimenez (drums) – Mr. Jimenez brought the staid Upper West Side crowd to its feet, with audience members young and old clapping and shimmying to the Texas Tornados song, “(Hey Baby) Que Paso.”
The dance party had its more evocative moments as well, including a lovely rendition of “Across the Borderline.” The reference to the broken promised land, conveyed through music born of cultural cross-pollination, felt particularly poignant in these troubled times when xenophobic nationalism manifests in dark dreams of an America walled off from its own better nature.
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If it seems unfair that this trio of talented young musicians is also so damn witty, both in lyrics and in conversation — well, chalk it up to their hard work and chemistry. Traveller treats the subject matters of their songs with supreme irreverence — “Hummingbird” is supposedly inspired by a Tinder double date, and there’s another song about overconfident men with ill-advised goatees (I tried to find this track but was waylaid/traumatized by a video featuring a Trump chia pet). But there’s no denying the virtuosity of the guitar playing and the appeal of the harmonies.
This music is simultaneously highbrow, lowbrow, and performed with a quirk of the eyebrow. The next time your friend asks what records you’d choose if you were stranded on a desert island, I suggest that you request these three gents along with their guitars and that salt-shaker-and-steak suit (where was Kishi Bashi’s Mr. Steak when we needed him/her/it?). ‘Til that felicitous stranding, we’ll be waiting impatiently for the release of Traveller’s EP.
In short, day one of AmericanaFest NYC demonstrated that from varied roots and routes, the musical conversations carry on strong.
Connect with these artists — it’s good for your soul.
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