More than any musical genre aside from possibly heavy metal, Americana lives and dies by the live performance. While great stock is put in the crafting of great songs and evocative lyrics, an Americana artists who can't deliver those songs convincingly on stage is doomed to quickly fade into obscurity. Fortunately, there is no shortage of great Americana acts who bring the goods live. These ten acts took their shows to the next level in 2016.
When founding member Jeff Austin left Yonder Mountain String Band in 2014, there was concern that they might not be the same. They aren't, but the addition of Allie Kral and Jake Joliff, formers members of Cornmeal and Joy Kills Sorrow respectively, have brought another level of musical depth to Yonder's sound. Like many acts that fall into the loose “jam band” category, Yonder Mountain String Band's live show is typically long, features jaw dropping solos, and covers ranging from Black Sabbath to David Bowie.
When you have a horn section to work with, it's not hard to deliver a great live show. But the thing that puts St. Paul & the Broken Bones ahead of other Americana acts with brass is the pure stage charisma of frontman Paul Janeway. While he is probably the most unlikely looking Alabama soul singer in the world, bespectacled and looking more like the guy who installs your wi-fi network than Otis Redding, Janeway is a ball of fire on stage. His unbelievable voice alone would make him a compelling listen, but Janeway is one of the hardest working frontmen going today, with his shows featuring non-stop dancing and crowd interaction. There's a reason why St. Paul & the Broken Bones are climbing festival lineups and selling out theaters, and it's the word of mouth reputation of their live shows.
The former boxer turned singer hasn't done anything specific in 2016 to warrant his inclusion on this list. But then he doesn't need to. Thorn's live show doesn't need changing. For twenty years he has been entertaining his dedicated fanbase with his mix of blues-rooted Mississippi rock, his insightful and often hilarious lyrics, and his talent as a storyteller. Thorn has cited Dean Martin as a major influence and his ability to mix song with stage banter shows he has learned well from that master of the craft.
If you're an Americana fan, chances are very good you have The McCrary Sisters on your playlist. You may not know it, as often the Sisters are singing behind the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Thorn, and Mike Farris, but they have become Americana's go-to group when you need a gospel chorus. When they do perform shows on their own, they prove that they are plenty capable of being front and center. With booming voices and the kind of tight harmonies that can only come from a lifetime of singing together, The McCrary Sisters are the most entertaining, dance worthy trip to church you'll ever take.
No one would blame Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst if they chose to employ two or three backing musicians to tour with them. Their recorded material is so lush that playing it faithfully with just two members is impossible. But rather than choose to bring in hired hands to recreate their studio sound, Shovels & Rope instead choose to strip down their songs to fit their two-man band. The result is taking their already punk-infused Americana and making sound even more punk. Shovels & Rope blitzed the festival scene in 2016 to great acclaim and, with the recent release of their new album Little Seeds, they don't look to let up in 2017.
When a band celebrating its 50th year can rank ahead of artists who aren't even half that age on a list of dynamic live shows, you know they're something special. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band might be getting a little long in the tooth, but you wouldn't know it to see them on stage. Live, they play up the rock side of the country-rock genre they helped to pioneer, with wailing guitars and strong vocals that have lost nothing in five decades of use. They are so impressive, in fact, that they ranked #1 among stiff competition in the best bands AXS saw at the 2016 Americana Music Festival.
It's been a great past few years for Alabama, with several of this year's top ten live acts hailing from there. Of all those acts, none has broken out like Alabama Shakes. Still touring behind their 2015 album Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes have found themselves enough of a draw to headline mid-sized festivals in America and command Top 10 billing on the biggest lineups. Backed by a band that took a major step forward over the last year, vocalist Brittany Howard oozes charisma and has an innate ability to work large crowds that helps her in a festival environment. But it's that voice that is the true draw. Howard is a wailing, screaming, soul singing force of nature who almost doesn't need amplification for her massive voice to be heard.
Sturgill Simpson has been in the news a lot lately, with an unlikely Album of the Year Grammy nod putting him in strange company with the likes of Beyonce and Adele. But this unlikely country success story has been years in the making. While soft-spoken and thoughtful in interviews, Sturgill Simpson is anything but live. Backed by a superb band, Simpson works a crowd with up tempo songs like “Turtles All the Way Down” and makes them sound even edgier than they do on the albums. He's been called the heir to the legacy of outlaws like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and, with his live shows, he is keeping those legends alive while forging his own path.
Sure, John Prine's voice isn't what it used to be. Sure, he's not really a dynamic presence like a Paul Janeway or a Brittany Howard. But there's a reason why artists like Kacey Musgraves and Jason Isbell, both of whom are arguably bigger draws in a 2016 concert market, choose to continue to take slots opening for Prine. Simply, John Prine is the ultimate storyteller, still able to command a room like nobody else in Americana to this day. He can hold an audience with serious songs like “Sam Stone” or “Hello in There”, then immediately defuse the tension with a zinger or a story. There may come a time when age and health take away some of John Prine's live vigor. That year isn't 2016.
If there's a better tale of redemption in Americana music, it's hard to think of one. After nearly becoming another artists taken too soon by addictions, Jason Isbell kicked his habits and put America on notice with 2013's Southeastern and 2015's Something More Than Free. But it is as a live act that Isbell is truly making his name. A talented guitarist himself, Isbell is helped by his backing band The 400 Unit, a tight knit group that sometimes includes wife and fellow Americana artist Amanda Shires. With The 400 Unit, Isbell's live shows take on a more electric rock feel than the albums, and an energy that could never translate to tape. Whether playing to a sold out theater or in a giant field at Bonnaroo, Jason Isbell takes command of the stage and doesn't let up for 90 minutes. In 2016, he is the bar by which all other Americana acts must be measured.
Want to keep looking back at the best of 2016? AXS has you covered right here.