As The Spin cruised toward Whites Creek, it occurred to us that we were no longer on home turf. Making the 15-minute drive out to The Woods Amphitheater at Fontanel Friday night put us within spitting distance of actual woods and real working farms, and something in our brain relaxed in a way that it just doesn't when we're inside the concrete jungle gym. Even sitting in a substantial line of traffic, which swallowed our photog and didn't see fit to spit her out for more than an hour, didn't feel as claustrophobic as it usually does. We could definitely use more of this — especially when it comes bundled with a visit from the Red-Headed Stranger and his family and friends.
Around 6:45, we strolled past flocks of well-dressed folk trying to look as dignified as possible while emerging from portable toilets. Soon we were in the amphitheater, a grassy slope that just nicks the edge of the woods on the Fontanel Estate — why the place shares its name with the soft spot on an infant's skull is a question for former owner Barbara Mandrell. We were still looking for a place to drop our blanket when unbilled openers The Devil Makes Three wrapped their set, a suite of propulsive acoustic numbers that leaned a little to the dark side. "Hallelu," a gospel-inspired song with more than a little rockabilly firewater in its veins, was a particular highlight. It's a cut from last year's I'm a Stranger Here, which was produced by Americana stalwart Buddy Miller at Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Sound Studio. Say what you will about the term "Americana" — if you said it's applied too broadly and too often to watered-down records, we wouldn't argue — but stirring around American folk and blues traditions can still produce some damn fine results when the performers approach it with ingenuity and skill.
As the sun dipped behind the stage, Alison Krauss and Union Station emerged to a heroes' welcome; they may not all be Music City natives, but with their presence here and their masterful achievements on behalf of evolving bluegrass in the past 25 years, they've more than earned honorary hometown status. The set put every bit of their range on display, from the adult-contemporary breakthrough "Now That I've Found You" to traditional stompers like "Wild Bill Jones" to "Hey, Brother," guitarist and singer Dan Tyminski's recent collaboration with Swedish dance producer Avicii. Dobro master Jerry Douglas began his solo showpiece slowly, casting out melody lines and reeling them in like shimmering rainbow trout. Gradually, his six strings became an orchestra, their manifold ecstatic dances merging into one polyphonic voice. We could say the same thing about the entire group, loping along with the ease and grace that comes from working together for so long, coalescing around Krauss' pure, warm soprano at the precise right moments. Even "Ghost in This House," a footnote in their catalog, became a highlight, as the harmonies fell away and Krauss split the night with one devastating high note — just the one time, because they knew that more would be gilding the lily.
The late-spring cold snap, which our grandma would call "blackberry winter," brought a damp chill to the woods. That didn't seem to phase octogenarian and fifth-degree black belt Willie Nelson or his band, who shuffle sounds from Memphis, Nashville, Austin and Chicago together like a pack of cards, performing sleight of hand as they turn one into another. The set closely matched what they offered last fall at Zac Brown's Southern Ground Festival, but we'll happily listen to a master storyteller weave together stunners like "Crazy," "Good Hearted Woman" and "Georgia on a Fast Train" more than once. There were plenty of surprises that we didn't hear at the Riverfront, from the much-loved "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" to deep cuts like "Me and Paul" from Yesterday's Wine. Nelson's son Lukas was featured on lead guitar. Perhaps the younger Nelson's tasteful blues licks and Bobby Bland-inspired vocal take on "It's Flooding Down in Texas" sparked the elder's competitive spirit; we've yet to see him shred so hard on his beloved nylon-string guitar Trigger, and now fully understand how he could wear that hole in its top.
Just before the all-hands-on-deck gospel medley of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I Saw the Light" and "Roll Me up and Smoke Me When I Die," Willie & Co. played what he introduced as the title track from their forthcoming release, "We're a Band of Brothers and Sisters and Whatever." Its laid-back all-inclusive message was certainly a good note to end on.
I Got My Mojo Workin'
The Spin has spent a lot of time with PUJOL over the past couple of weeks — both the band and the man. We've been spinning our advance copy of brainy punk outfit PUJOL's brand-new Saddle Creek Records LP KLUDGE relentlessly, and in preparation for the album and its release show, we talked extensively to frontman and central member Daniel Pujol. Discussing and analyzing the themes of the album — themes like identity formation in the social-media age — felt a bit like stepping into Pujol's head. And on Saturday night, stepping into The East Room — which was littered with lizard imagery and a projected image of David Duchovny's disembodied head — felt like actually venturing inside Daniel Pujol's head. Remember Herman's Head? Kind of like that. Did we mention that the show was also titled "Mojo Rising"? Because it was. An homage to Mr. Mojo Risin' himself, lizard king Jim Morrison, perhaps?
Under the watchful eye of Duchovny, Fox Fun kicked things off a little before 10 p.m. The quartet of youngsters — who played as a duo when we first discovered them a couple of years ago — has fleshed out their sound impressively over the past few months, landing on a dreamy, psychedelic sort of power pop that reminds us quite a bit of early-'80s New Zealand bands like The Verlaines and The Clean. There's also more than a little Big Star in the mix, and whether it was frontman Asher Horton's conversational delivery or Fox Fun's tight guitar interplay, something about the band put us in mind of Television.
The East Room — with its unassuming location and house-party vibes — is more of a multi-purpose event space than a run-of-the-mill bar-slash-venue. But the room, packed from front to back by 10:30, took on more of a barroom air once Denney and the Jets started in on their unctuous, Stones-y grooves. Frontman Chris Denney's latest incarnation of the Jets — two-thirds of whom are members of blooze-rockin' local duo The Blackfoot Gypsies — were more animated and decked out in flashier duds than past versions of the Jets we've seen. But the rock 'n' roll sounded just the same, loud as hell and made up largely of numbers from last month's bluesy, boozy, drug-addled Mexican Coke.
A little later, local heroes Natural Child launched into their set with "Guns N' Rosebeds" from 2010's Bodyswitchers. The Spin still thinks co-frontman Wes Traylor, who hammers and bends high notes like a lead guitarist, has just about the best bass tone of anyone in town, and pedal-steel man Luke Schneider shredded it up on tunes like 1971's "White People" and Dancin' With Wolves' quintessential Southern-rock anthem of listless resignation, "Saturday Night Blues." It was all enough to remind us why we appointed Natty C "Best Local Band" in last year's Best of Nashville issue: straight-up, no-frills, sweat-soaked rock 'n' roll barnburners. A real-ass rock 'n' roll band playing real-ass rock 'n' roll songs.
It was half past midnight by the time PUJOL the band was all set up and Pujol the man told the crowd to "feel free to do whatever the fuck you want." A freaky scene did indeed ensue. The projection screen swayed and shook due to intermittent moshing and crowd-surfing, and folks threw a rubber lizard mask around the room. A couple of times, the mask was donned by crowd surfers — one young lady, riding on her friend's shoulders, even wore it as she was carried through the crowd and deposited onstage. At one point, Pujol held the lifeless lizard face aloft and screamed "Mojo Rising!"
Pujol sure has put together a powerhouse band, and from older numbers like "Mayday" and "Too Safe" to KLUDGE cuts like "Circles," "Pitch Black" and "Dark Haired Suitor," the backing trio nailed every weird rhythmic turn with aplomb. There was an even-newer-than-the-brand-new-KLUDGE song by the name of "June Bug." We would have loved to make out the lyrics on that one, but with our dome being fully blasted by the PA — and, truth be told, the vocals were pretty fucking high in the mix to begin with — the main vocal hook sounded like "I'm giving ironing up." That can't be right. PUJOL zoomed through oldie "Point of View" and newbie "No Words" before the obligatory sing-along to crowd-pleaser "Black Rabbit," probably PUJOL's best-known tune thanks to the Jack White-produced 7-inch released by Third Man Records a few years back.
Right around 1:30 a.m., PUJOL closed with KLUDGE's final track "Youniverse," a number that is somehow both fatalistic and hopeful and that when paired with the deep, dark album-opener "Judas Booth," which we were bummed not to hear in the set, sort of bookends the album. So with a copy of KLUDGE tucked under our arm and (what else?) The Doors' "L.A. Woman" playing over the PA, we made our way through the remaining gaggle of young punks ("punkins," as we like to call them) and headed home, our mojo having sufficiently risen.