AmericanaFest at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Damrosch Park Bandshell / New York, NY

Watkins Family Hour by Roman Cho
Watkins Family Hour by Roman Cho

Once I cleared the considerable hurdle of pushing through the narrow entrance gates and staking a claim to a couple of plastic folding chairs (amidst considerable throwing of elbows and jabbing of canes– don’t even get me started on the death stares I fielded for trying to save two seats), I was finally able to sit back, soak in the final rays of the setting sun and prepare myself for not just one, but two glorious evenings of AmericanaFest, the closing ceremonies, if you will, of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors summer concert series.

And besides, the mad, frantic dash for (free) seats, stemming from a line that snaked for blocks and began hours in advance belies the true spirit of the weekend, which was one of collaboration and camaraderie—an undying principle of Americana – powerful enough to bridge the gap between city slickers and country folks, even if only for a few hours.

On Saturday night, Jed Hilly introduced the weekend and talked about the Americana music association fest, which partnered with Lincoln Center to curate a fantastic line-up of stars. To kick off the evening, Justin Townes Earl played a solid but hiccup filled set, from starting out by playing the wrong song to singing a song called “Brooklyn” about, he announced to boos, not liking the borough. But the son of legendary singer Steve Earle– with whom he has a contentious relationship– backtracked quickly, “I planned to live and die on the isle of Manhattan,” and made up for hurt feelings with beautiful lyrics that showcased his wanderlust, with songs about more states than I can recount, including a highlight about Chicago’s “Rogers Park.” He ended his set with the a capella harmony of the titular track from his 2010 album, Harlem River Blues and a cover of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac.

Watkins Family Hour began simply with just brother and sister Sara and Sean Watkins, adding members and building into a glorious union of friends– Family, in fact. Eventually, Fiona Apple joined the family on several tracks, providing a beautiful, dynamic range of harmonies. The band played a good deal of songs collectively, but were generous in sharing the spotlight amongst individual members, knowing when to step aside and when to chime in. Sara Watkins’ track “You & Me” was a highlight as backed by the whole band. I was won over by the Family, each one of them an energetic and talented performer, and they played a strong, cohesive set. At times, however, the nuances of the artistry was lost in the cavernous open space, and I could see them being all the more stunning in an intimate venue.

As a sweet dose of childhood nostalgia, Sean Watkins performed a song Roger Miller penned for the soundtrack to Disney’s 1973 cartoon of Robin Hood, “Not In Nottingham.” As Fiona Apple cued up to sing her early hit, “A Mistake” from her 1999 album, When The Pawn… someone from the audience shouted “Play Dylan!” The musicians got the last laugh though, performing a lovely cover of the Greatful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,” which the Watkins Family originally released as a single and then brought along to be the closing track of their recent, self titled album.

For the main attraction, Sara and Sean wasted no time in bringing out Al Kooper to roaring applause, who mumbled stories about recording the album when prompted. The star-studded tribute began with the evening’s hosts singing “Tombstone Blues,” after which Shawn Colvin came onstage and sang “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” Ted Leo and Aimee Mann performed “Queen Jane Approximately” as their duo The Both, Ted Leo adding an interesting punk edge to the ballad. Pokey LaFarge, looking like a dandy in a blue blazer and slicked back hair, emerged as one of the stars of the evening. His strong, nasal voice rang easily through the crowd on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” putting a unique spin on the song rather than simply trying to copy Dylan’s inimitable cadences.

As the evening wound up, the guest stars came back out and took turns singing verses of “Desolation Row.” When it came time for the big finale, excitement was so high no one could stay in their seats, and jovial chaos ensued as people sitting in the back half of the audience, (myself included) got up and swarmed the stage, filling in the aisles and turning the final two songs, “Like a Rolling Stone” and, cheekily in conclusion, “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35,” into a massive dance party and singalong. “Everybody Must Get Stoned,” indeed… and I suspect more than one person in the audience did.

Lyle Lovett, Beacon Theatre
Lyle Lovett by Derek Meade

To finish up AmericanaFest and the 2015 season of Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Sunday night skipped the opening act and cut straight to the chase with an entire evening of Lyle Lovett. Just Lyle, who along with his indeed large band, proved to be everything the audience could have hoped for and more.

The show got off to an exciting start as Francine Reed made her way through the audience and up to the stage, singing all the while. Lovett introduced the band including names and hometowns, and then, by way of a personal intro, said, “I’m the guy who sits next to you and reads the newspaper over your shoulder… Wait, don’t turn the page yet. I’m not finished.” A spot on joke for New Yorkers, Lovett managed at once to rile everyone up and set us completely at easy, like a terrific party host. Sexy and suited up, Lovett led the charge as the evening’s fearless leader, displaying his unique, effortless brand of showmanship.

Mickey Rafael dropped in to play harmonica on “All Downhill From Here,” but eventually Lovett cleared the stage and slowed things down with romantic tunes “Nobody Knows Me” and “Who Loves You Better” In the spirit of sharing and showcasing the talent in his large band, he took a seat while while fiddle player Luke Bulla tore up “Temperance Reel,” a song off his upcoming album. Afterwards, guitar player Keith Sewell soothed the crowd with “I’ll Find My Way Here.”

Lovett’s songs rarely came without some personal anecdote or introduction, and his masterful storytelling and undeniable charm were as much a part of the show as the music. At one point in the evening, he framed “If I Had a Boat,” a song I’ve always loved but never thought much of beyond its goofiness, saying, “This is the song I wrote when I gave up on the whole notion of figuring out what I was gonna be when I grew up,” and dedicating it to a seven year old “friend” of his in the audience.

Lovett built things back up for the finale, bringing on the full band, brass included, for “She’s No Lady” and “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).” From crowding the stage with his large band to wowing the crowd all by his lonesome, Lovett got a stubborn crowd up on their feet even in the summer heat, and finished off AmericanaFest and Lincoln Center Out Of Doors on an undeniable high note.

– Emily Gawlak

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