Ambling toward the Ryman on Saturday evening, The Spin looked up at the image of Ernest Tubb that advertises the Texas singer's longtime Lower Broadway record shop. In a simpler era, Tubb made music about the joys and sorrows of honky-tonk life. Dwight Yoakam, on the other hand, is a honky-tonker who is the product of a wildly eclectic era — he's an Ernest Tubb for a glamour-obsessed, media-saturated age, and his synthesis of Bakersfield country and British Invasion rock has often been brilliant.
Settling into our pew, we checked out the rock-inflected Americana of Yoakam's opening act, The Lone Bellow — that's a fairly lousy name for a pretty good band. Their brand of Americana amounts to a distillation of why people like the genre, or whatever you call it, in the first place. For example, they add soul-music flavors to their folk-rock — one tune had lead singer Zach Williams stomping his foot to a funky 6/8 rhythm. The Lone Bellow will probably make it big — Williams is an intense frontman, and such skillful country-folk-rock songs as "You Don't Love Me Like You Used To" seem tailor-made for Americana devotees. Still, The Spin found some of their music a bit mannered. It didn't have much to do with Ernest Tubb, but that's Americana for you.
Yoakam strolled onstage and launched into the lead track from last year's 3 Pears, "Take Hold of My Hand." With its soul-music bass part, the tune got a rocking, streamlined treatment from Yoakam and his crack band. The second of two sold-out shows at the Mother Church, Yoakam's set careened from hit to hit, with little breathing room between songs. We got off on Eugene Edwards' slangy, tense guitar licks, while guitarist and keyboardist Brian Whelan played accordion on "Streets of Bakersfield" and added many interesting touches throughout. Drummer Mitch Marine effortlessly switched from country shuffle to rock 'n' roll, with Jonathan Clark's bass keeping impeccable time. Yoakam played acoustic rhythm guitar, his jangling, metallic sound adding an insistent overtone.
Yoakam is a craftsman — almost every one of his songs contains a riff, chord or vocal inflection that reveals his formalist savvy. He delivered the utopian message of "Waterfall" with a face that was almost straight. Enigmatic behind his hat, Yoakam slyly incorporates Lou Reed-style guitar riffs and Beatles chords into his music, but he's far more than a technician or a specialist in pastiche. He did his hit version of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman's "Little Sister," originally a smash for Elvis in 1961, along with Joe and Rose Lee Maphis' "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke." His version of Merle Kilgore and June Carter's "Ring of Fire" featured a Rolling Stones guitar lick and piano in the style of Johnnie Johnson, who once tickled the ivories for Chuck Berry. Yoakam & Co. rocked Merle and June's tune — as Yoakam said, "This is a kind of hopped-up version of what they wrote." "I Sang Dixie," "Blame the Vain" and "Little Ways" sounded like the classics they are, and Yoakam sang them with perfect control.
The packed house hung on Yoakam's every word and cowboy-booted shuffle, and we marveled at his vocal chops. Yoakam's music can be taken in any number of ways, and he may come across as sincere to some listeners while seeming opaque to others. Of course, we like it both ways, and believe there is an authentic angst in Yoakam's music that ties him to the punk and New Wave artists who came into prominence at the same time he did. If many modern country musicians fetishize the music of the past, Yoakam seems to think the old ways are resilient enough to be poked at.
Appropriately enough, Yoakam encored with "A Heart Like Mine," a great slice of reconstituted '60s rock that Beck produced for 3 Pears, and closed out the night with Dave Alvin's "Long White Cadillac." Maybe Ernest Tubb would not have totally understood the context, but he would have almost certainly loved the sentiment.
After last month's installment of the Road to Bonnaroo band battle at Mercy Lounge turned into a jam-packed hotbox, we were prepared for another night of standing uncomfortably close to bros using the word "vibing" too much. Shockingly, what we pegged early on as the best Road to Bonnaroo lineup of 2013 was woefully underpopulated — at least as far as Roads to Bonnaroo are concerned.
The Wans, a power trio from Germantown by way of Northern Ireland, drew unlucky and kicked off the night with a shitload of power chords. Singer Simon Kerr professed being already drunk before launching into a set of post-grunge-y rock 'n' roll that we found reminiscent of a better Stone Temple Pilots — others compared it to "Queens of the Stone Age, but in a good way." You could tell they liked to party, because they wrote a song called "I Like to Party." That song about partying ev-er-y day rounded out the band's no-frills set.
Bowling Green's Billy Swayze took a more polished approach to highly marketable pop rock, playing a style of music that occupies a space in between Huey Lewis songs about Marty McFly and bluesy dad rock. There was a man in a fedora playing the harmonica, if that tells you anything. But if nothing else, a huge caravan of Kentuckians who traveled down for this show ate up Swazye's hunched-over radio rock — a big enough crowd to net him nearly a quarter of the audience vote once the dust settled. Things took a weird turn when Swayze flopped to the ground, playing sick as one of his band members called for a doctor — a leggy brunette in a miniskirt straddled Swayze and fed him what looked like a shot from a pill bottle. We get that it was supposed to be a big rock star moment, but it just came off as gross and exploitative to us.
All that cock-rockery was finally disrupted when Ponychase, the first seed and arguable favorite of the night, ushered in a long line of familiar faces with their more nuanced, reverb-heavy style of synth-pop. If this night were to be decided on raw emotion alone, they would've blown the rest of the competition out of the water. They stood out from the crowd, not just stylistically (literally nothing else on the bill sounded anything like them) but technically. Though Ponychase fell short of taking the ring, we wouldn't be surprised to see them at The Big Show somewhere down the line.
Bonnaroo veteran Richie Kirkpatrick, who played a tent stage in 2011 as Jessica Lea Mayfield's sideman, called in ringers like fellow 'Roo vet Tristen for some anthemic songs about carnival rides. You know how The Wans sang about partying all the time? Well, Richie (and his band Ri¢hie) makes you believe it. The double-drummer setup gives crazy weight to these songs, letting Kirkpatrick and the rest cut loose and get weird. The songs may be goofy, but his full-force rock tornado's party-hardy spirit is infectious. And it paid off: Kirkpatrick & Co. took home the night's trophy.
If there was a wild card of the night, it was going to be Meth Dad. Tyler Walker, a MTSU grad who founded the 'Boro-based Tour de Fun bicycle fest, is a crowd-participation madman. Channeling the power of positive partying, Meth Dad's laptop jams are gimmicky but fun, edging toward the simple style that Andrew W.K. pioneered — except with dance music. There were inflatable hands, a snake of people wearing Christmas lights and "the biggest game of Red Rover Mercy Lounge has ever seen." If you were in the thick of it, it was hard not to get caught up in the fun of the moment.
Tipper Whore found a balance between Ri¢hie and Meth Dad, playing on ultra-catchy songs about doing cocaine with Ke$ha ("Cocaine With Ke$ha") and getting day drunk ("Day Drunk") while dressed as nurses. For what they may lack in the emotional honesty of Ponychase, they make up for in sexual euphemisms and condoms thrown haphazardly into the crowd.
By the time Cy Barkley and the Way Outsiders went on, the crowd had thinned significantly. But if Cy cared, he sure as hell didn't show it. His set was a tad less "Oi! Oi! Oi!" than we've seen recently, but it was righteous, loud and over in minutes. You've got to respect Barkley & Co.'s uncompromising punk spirit.
And then there was Jacob Jones, ringleader of The 5 Spot's Keep on Movin' dance party and the unfortunate closer of the night. Jones deftly channels that Motown soul style into his own more Americana-leaning sensibility, backed up by an awesome horn section, but it was clearly not to be. A bummer, to be sure, but Jones seemed to take bad luck placement in stride.