Its slightly unnerving to call Americanafest a “true festival” – as it seems most festivals are signified by how many pill-popping teeny boppers or acid tabbing old-timers – because you’d sure as hell be hard pressed to find anyone imbibing in any sort of psychedelics or reality-enhancing substances (unless of course one finds themself at an Aaron Lee Tasjan set). Instead, its reverential folks (literally) of various ilks clamoring to see John Prine or Aofie O’Donovan at Station Inn in numbers the erstwhile bluegrass bastion will not see at almost any other point in the calendar year (which is a damn travesty).
This year’s Americanafest was “set off” with a divergent bang, as two different “official” kick-off events went head-to-head on the Tuesday night after wristband pickup opened up – one at Ascend Amphitheatre and the other being the official festival itself. Nashville’s newest Amphitheatre saw RayLand and the boys from Practiiice continue to get that slickback set of songs tighter and tighter, opening for a somewhat rehash of Børns’ LOTG set and eventually a headlining set from Lumineers.
The rest of the Tuesday night’s kickoff saw everyone from the main man, Mr. Jonathan Tyler crunching the roof off The Basement and Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle beguiling a more than respectful City Winery crowd. Sam Bush and Town Mountain closed out the inaugural evening at City Winery and The Basement respectively – with both sets far exceeding the wildest of expectation.
Wednesday night was when the true helter-skelter magnificence of Americanafest began – with Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires stealing hearts, the show, and all the awards at the Americana Awards – as Becca Mancari had the honors of kicking off the evening showcases with a more than exuberant set at ACME, opining about what an “incredible time [it is] to be a musician.”
She was right, as the rest of the night saw an at capacity crowd at Station Inn for Aofie O’Donovan (whose record is phenomenal), and then a hell of a lot of people hanging at the Cannery compound to see sets from the likes of Pony Bradshaw, The Infamous Stringdusters, Dwight Yoakam, and BJ Barham. The set from Barham was particularly memorable, as he shared an anecdotal story from his first time playing the Springwater, way back when he was hitting the open mic circuit around town, and his set was followed by a proto-punk band with dildos fastened to football helmets, of which the lead singer affirmed the Springwater crowd that “Americana night is fucking over.”
Obviously, such a scenario was not the case for Americanafest, as every moment of the festival was distinctly “Americana,” – which has a wonderfully (and no doubt purposefully) ambiguous connotation – from Molly Parden enrapturing at City Winery with the help of Americanafest MVP Juan Solorzano (played like a dozen different showcasing sets it seemed), to Parden compatriot Erin Rae spreading the wealth during her showcase with Caitlin Rose and Tristen, to Bonnie Bishop and Reckless Kelly bringing some Texas red dirt vigor to the Cannery compound, or Dan Layus’ spellbinding reintroduction to minimalist Americana , or Luke Bell’s bandstand barn burner of a late night Basement set on Thursday night.
With as much roots revival that was taking place all over town, one would be safe to assume that the average Americanafest-goer would be more than susceptible to Americana overload, but such was not the case.
The Americanafest crowd is a unique breed – the median age certainly skews older than the regular festival attendee, and there’s a noticeable decline in phone usage for self-elevating social media usage (which makes media coverage all the more awkward) – and they’re more than willing to express their distinct and unadulterated adulation by making the trek to Zach Schmidt’s early Friday night set at ACME, or packing out the Cannery compound once more to revel in Aaron Lee Tasjan, Sam Outlaw, and Mandolin Orange’s set, while others camp out at the Anchor to explore the creep-folk side of Americana with Sun Seeker, or experience the crushing weight of reality with Brent Cobb, or trek all the way out (not that far) to bask in the glory of Cordovas’ all out blitz of blistering Americana mountain southern rock amalgamation that made for one of the finest sets at all of Americanafest.
Ultimately, Americanafest makes for a unique festival experience as the conference/festival attendee is more than well of the fact they will miss more than a few of the showcasing artists they might prefer to see (if there was time), but a human being can only take so much before their body enters a state of musical shock, and so with the end of Friday night, one would hope the Americanafest attendee “took it easy” over the final two days of the conference/festival, or if they’ve some masochistic tendencies, head fifteen minutes south to Pilgrimage Festival. At least that way things would remain consistent with the now familiar schedule of multiple shows a day.
There’s something to be said about consistency – tenure, prowess, excellence, and legacy tend to be predicated by equilibrium one way or another – and following up its prophetic debut, Pilgrimage Festival had a lot to lose in its second go as “America’s Finest Boutique Festival.” If you’re pressed for time (yet somehow made it this far), here’s the gist – Pilgrimage more than consisted; so much so that the festival more than surpassed their excellent inaugural year with an even more impressive second year.
Perhaps a byproduct of a not-so-anonymous benefactor (that’s the only JT reference that will be made), or perhaps it’s the fact that Pilgrimage being situated in Franklin manages to hit all the desired festival check points while simultaneously scoffing at any and all festival uniformity – the festival is done by 9pm, after all. Granted, it seemed that Mother Earth desperately wanted to impede Pilgrimage’s exceeding of expectations, as the weather was oppressively hot (a la Bonnaroo or Coachella). But unlike Pilgrimage’s grown up cousins, there was never a request for “sharing a vibe” or Instagram shills (at least not blatant ones) to be found, just unadulterated (in the most familial sense) fun and music galore from Beck (!), Wild Belle, The Struts, Jason Isbell, Cake, Hall & Oates, and plenty of local acts like Angel Snow, Emma Hern, Maybe April, Anthony Adams, Blackfoot Gypsies, Reuben Bidez, and Alyssa Bonagura.
Seriously though, there was a stage specifically oriented toward children; not everyone has been to Coachella, but one may reckon the designer drug festival hasn’t an entire stage dedicated to the little ones, but then again, one may reckon most folks with kids wouldn’t want to risk heading into the molly-laden deserts of Indio, California to begin with. Their loss, because the Lil’ Pilgrims stage saw some wonderful music from Mr. Steve and his many friends, while the Big Pilgrims enjoyed late afternoon sets from Miss Margo Price, Spacey Kacey Musgraves, and City & Colour.
In the end, the week that was comprised of Americanafest and Pilgrimage Festival 2016 was a timely victory for the city of Nashville as a whole, with many an out-of-town attendee expressing their purest admiration for the Greater Nashville Area. While it likely wouldn’t be suggested or requested (hopefully), if the city of Nashville wanted to try and throw in another festival to serve as a proverbial middle finger to any and all doubters of Music city’s true musical infrastructure, there’s little doubt that there’s more than enough talent and enthusiasm to support it – but for now, its time to recuperate for another calendar year until the next ultramarathon of Americanafest and Pilgrimage next year.