Over the course of six days at the 2017 Americana Music Festival, we saw dozens of performances, from short 2-3 song samplers to full 45 minute Americana Showcase performances. While nothing was bad, a few sets did rise above the pack as the best. They range from long-time Americana veteran acts to young newcomers from abroad. In the interest of fairness, we're limiting our 10 best to sets of at least 30 minutes, disqualifying some great performances like Whitney Rose debuting new material at American Legion Post 82 or Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires stopping time with an intimate performance of “If We Were Vampires” at the Americana Awards show.
England's winners of the UK Americana Music Association's Emerging Artist of the Year Award proved they deserved the honor with a half hour set at the British Underground's Bootleg BBQ. The trio's percussion-heavy early afternoon performance turned more than a few heads.
If you have been given the nickname “Mr. Americana”, you probably know a thing or two about how to please an Americanafest audience. Jim Lauderdale certainly does. His Friday performance at 3rd and Lindsley showed that Lauderdale is the master of the breadth of Americana, bouncing from bluegrass to country to swamp rock in one set, and even bringing on young star Lillie Mae to duet on a new track.
While Angaleena Presley may not have had her own Americana Showcase, she was practically everywhere over the weekend, performing at numerous parties, including the British Underground's Bootleg BBQ, where we saw her. With just the right mix of forthright honesty and sarcastic humor, her set closed out the BBQ and proved that she is an Americana treasure.
If this list seems heavy on Bootleg BBQ performances, that should tell you why it is one of the most anticipated parties of Americanafest each year. Hundreds braved the scorching heat to check out the acts performing at The Groove and the artist drawing the biggest crowd was Yola Carter. Carter's big voice and even bigger personality are impossible not to love and the audience hung on her every word.
There aren't many festivals where a one-hit artist could not only not perform her hit but could do a full set of Bob Dylan covers from her most recent album and be embraced for it. But that's the beauty of Americanafest. Joan Osborne set the tone for Americanafest's opening night with her retooling of Dylan classics, including a smoky lounge rendition of “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35” and a snarling, take no prisoners burn on “Masters of War.” Not one person in the crowd yelled for “One of Us.” What they were getting was too good to interrupt.
Even the most secularly minded person can't help but love the music of The McCrary Sisters. There's a joy in their shows that transcends belief systems. Long the go-to backing chorus for half of the Americana community, The McCrary Sisters proved they're just as at home out front, ending their set with a cover of “I'll Take You There” that would do Mavis Staples proud.
Having already released one of the best Americana albums of 2017, Turn Your Face to the Sun, brother and sister Dave and Louise Holden and their band took to The Station Inn stage on Saturday night to show that they can reproduce the harmonies from that album live. And produce they did. Their Celtic-tinged take on Americana is one of the most refreshingly unique things in the genre today and their live show is even better.
Paul Thorn is a longtime Americanafest favorite and the capacity crowd at 12th and Porter on Thursday night showed that his reputation preceded him. But this was no normal Paul Thorn show. This was an old-fashioned tent revival Paul Thorn-style, with rocking blues guitar and guest performances from all of the night's other performers. The night's closer, an out in the audience sing-along of his hit “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand” was a highlight of the festival.
Every Americanafest, at least one band comes out of nowhere to deliver a star-making set. In 2017, that band was Australia's All Our Exes Live in Texas. The quartet used traditional folk instruments to weave an ethereal dream-pop that is impossible not to stop and listen to. The youthful group also has a humor and stage presence beyond their years, taking some minor issues with their monitors in stride by making jokes about their “diva” demands and the sound man's increasing desire to get them off the stage.
The difference between 2 and 1 is minor, but in the end, Colin Hay's experience won out. The former Men at Work frontman's festival-opening set at City Winery was equal parts concert and stand-up comedy routine, with Hay's dry wit keeping the audience in stitches throughout. But it was his insightful, often wistful, lyrics that made him the star of Americanafest.