The third day of the Americana Music Festival's 2017 edition is over and it was a full one for us here at AXS. Our day's travels took us from a Canadian takeover of an American Legion to an old school tent revival held within the brick and mortar confines of Nashville's 12th and Porter.
An American Legion building might not be the first place you think of when seeking out great Americana shows. But this is Music City, and this American Legion Hall, Post 82, contains a full size stage with professional sound equipment and is becoming a buzz-producing place to see Americana and traditional country year-round due to its weekly concert series. We were here for Six Shooter Records and Starfish Entertainment's annual Outlaws and Gunslingers Luncheon. This year's luncheon was a near total Canadian invasion with three of the day's four acts hailing from North of the border.
Kicking things off was the sole American on the bill, Sam Outlaw. The 2017 Emerging Artist of the Year nominee brought a short set full of his Bakersfield meets Laurel Canyon style of California Americana. Next up was Harrow Fair. This Canadian duo weaves dark country noir with layered harmonies. Third on the lineup was Whitney Rose. While Canadian-born, the young singer-songwriter currently lives in Austin and wowed with a short set made up exclusively of songs from her forthcoming new album. Rounding out the bill was Canadian act Deep Dark Woods. Their broody and atmospheric take on folk and country has made them a band to watch.
For the evening portion of our Americanafest Thursday, it was off to 12th and Porter, where a full-scale religious revival was in progress due to Paul Thorn bringing his traveling gospel caravan to town, complete with tourmates The McCrary Sisters, Bonnie Bishop, and Blind Boys of Alabama.
The night kicked off with an energetic set from The McCrary Sisters. The group is gospel-soul royalty, being the daughters of Fairfield Four founder Reverend Sam McCrary. But the Sisters have become Americana superstars by backing up practically every major artist in the genre, from Buddy Miller to Mike Farris. Their dynamic stage presence and soaring vocals evoked memories of the best spirituals from the Civil Rights movement. That was only further cemented by the band's closer, a cover of Mavis Staples' “I'll Take You There” that pulls off the near impossible task of nearly equaling the vocal perfection of Staples' original.
Following The McCrary Sisters was Bonnie Bishop. While not as overtly gospel as the other three acts on the evening's bill, Bishop has been known to belt a gospel number on stage and even her secular hits, which comprised most of her 45 minute set, have a bluesy soul that is pulled directly from the black gospel tradition. Bishop was joined onstage not only by her regular guitarist, but also by members of Paul Thorn's touring band as well. Alternating between keyboards and guitar, Bishop's voice followed it all, reverberating off the walls of 12th and Porter.
In the third position were Blind Boys of Alabama. One of the oldest black gospel groups still touring, Blind Boys of Alabama have been doing their thing since 1939 and, amazingly for such longevity, still retains one original member from that 1939 incarnation, Jimmy Carter. The band's uplifting message is injected with heavy doses of humor, with Carter pulling from almost eight decades of crowd banter to whip the crowd into a frenzy with callouts, dance moves, and jokes. The band pulled from across their huge catalog, including their newly released album, which Carter used as a running joke to get a mention of having some for sale at the merch booth into every musical break.
Finally, it was time for the man who tied the whole show together. Paul Thorn didn't make his success as a gospel singer, but with bluesy Americana hits like “Burn Down the Trailer Park” and humorous ditties like “Joanie the Jehovah Witness Stripper.” But this son of a Pentecostal minister who used to bring his son to the black churches in his hometown of Tupelo on Sundays to get a different perspective on religion has always had a gospel-soul base to even his most secular songs. He is also preparing to release an album filled with gospel traditionals so, with one exceptions, his entire set was gospel music.
Thorn kept the night lively not only through his funny stage banter but by welcoming an endless parade of guests. Session legend and Nashville musical consultant Colin Linden sat in for the entire show. Thorn's three opening acts also rotated in and out to help him sing, culminating in a very crowded stage as all of the night's entertainers took the stage together to sing The O'Jays' hit “Love Train”, followed by an encore of Thorn's own quirky ode to old time religion, “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand.”
Whether they were believers in a higher power, or just believers in the power of great music, the fans left the show happy. Throughout the night, people could be seen dancing and gyrating to the soulful beats and Thorn even hopped into the crowd at the end of “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand” to dance and shake hands like a charismatic evangelist.