Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Chicago Country Music Festival: Highlights

Posted By on 10.01.09 at 06:36 PM

Miranda Lambert
  • Miranda Lambert
This weekend’s Chicago Country Music Festival has moved for the second time in as many years. Last year it vacated its slot in the middle of Taste of Chicago in favor of an October weekend on the Soldier Field parkland. Now it’s back in Grant Park, but that’s not the real news—though the fest’s biggest names are, as usual, country-radio staples, its 2009 lineup is the best in years, with two scrappy headliners as good as anything Nashville has to offer these days.

The biggest draw is Miranda Lambert, who plays the Petrillo Music Shell at 7:30 on Saturday night. She’s just released her superb third album, Revolution (Columbia Nashville), a high-gloss helping of rock-flavored twang that’s distinguished by its edgy lyrics—Lambert has a refreshing sassiness, and her narratives don’t shy away from misery and fury. On older songs she’s used fists and buckshot to register her displeasure—her previous album was called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—but on the new disc, though she does cover Fred Eaglesmith’s “Time to Get a Gun” and fire a bullet into her radio on “Maintain the Pain,” her responses are generally more considered and mature. Well, sort of.

On “White Liar” she excoriates her lover for his cheating ways and then reveals her own: “Now I’m the white liar / The truth comes out a little at time / And it spreads just like fire / Slips off my tongue like turpentine.” The dead flowers in the song of the same name double as a metaphor for a lover who’s gone cold, and in “Me and Your Cigarettes” she makes herself out to be as addictive as nicotine, at the same time realizing that she’s almost as interchangeable and disposable as a smoke: “Light us up and then throw us down / Walk away when we hit the ground.”

More interesting are the flashes of existentialism: the way she contemplates her own restlessness in “Airstream Song,” for instance, or her choice of John Prine’s “That’s the Way the World Goes ’Round,” which snickers at the world’s cosmic complexity with silly observations like “And she beats her old man with her pantyhose / And takes him out and buys him new clothes.” Even on the ballad “Love Song” she short-circuits obvious sentimentality: “Everybody always sings about it / How they’re never gonna live without it / We don’t even have to talk about it.” Lambert doesn’t rock the boat musically, but her strong voice jostles appealingly against the shiny, hard-rocking production of Frank Liddell and Mike Wrucke—she works the formula like a master, and she keeps getting better.

Jamey Johnson
  • Jamey Johnson
Jamey Johnson, who warms up the Petrillo stage for Lambert at 6 PM on Saturday, first found Nashville success as a songwriter for the likes of George Strait and Trace Adkins—for whom he wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” But though his writing for others was solidly conventional, his own recordings buck that tendency. He recently told Jon Caramanica of the New York Times, “My real fans know I don’t even make music for them. I make music for me. If you don’t like it don’t listen to it.” He scored a gold record with 2008’s terrific That Lonesome Song (Mercury), an album whose crankiness was perfectly in tune with America’s hard times. It gives me some hope that songs so bleak can hit the charts these days. “High Cost of Living” peaked at number 34 on Billboard’s country singles chart, which is pretty amazing for a song that unsentimentally describes a quick descent into alcohol and drugs and doesn't tack on a happy ending: “I had a job and a piece of land and my sweet wife was my best friend / But I traded that for cocaine and a whore.”

Johnson sings in a steely baritone that only rarely betrays the slightest sign of vulnerability, coming off as a cross between Texas outlaws Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver, though there’s also a touch of southern-fried rock in his music. The woozy pedal steel and subtle flange effects on the electric guitars situate this stuff firmly in the 70s, but there’s an almost a droning quality to the tunes, which plod more than they shuffle or stomp—and I mean that as a compliment.

The narrator of “Mowin’ Down the Roses” decides to do something liberating with his heartbreak, destroying every trace of his ex from his home (and his yard) with an almost sadistic glee, and the title track makes a metaphor of the trials faced by a hungry young country singer: “That’s the story of my life, like trying to remember words to a song nobody wrote / And it’s sad and it’s long and can’t nobody sing along.” The album’s closing track, “Between Jennings and Jones,” nicely sums up Johnson’s aesthetic—he uses the title first to describe his sound back when he was a Music City greenhorn, then to explain where you can find his albums shelved in a record store. Johnson will certainly also play some tunes from the untitled album he’s got due next month, including its lead single, “My Way to You.”

Flatlanders
  • Flatlanders
I’m pleasantly surprised to see the Flatlanders—the Texas trio of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore—booked at the Petrillo Music Shell, where they play Sunday at 6 PM. They’ve never been part of the Nashville firmament, so I would’ve expected them to end up on the smaller Americana Stage (they would’ve had fine company, including Special Consensus and the great Alejandro Escovedo). I suppose sticking to your guns for almost four decades counts for something.

The trio has been relatively busy since re-forming in the late 90s—especially considering that in their first incarnation they cut one album in 1972, famously released only on eight-track tape, and disbanded the following year. This spring they released their third postreunion album, Hills and Valleys (New West), produced by Lloyd Maines. Its sound will be familiar if you’ve heard any of the others: a rustic mix of folk rock, honky-tonk, Tex-Mex, and dusky waltzes, sung round robin by all three idiosyncratic voices and kissed by the musical saw of Steve Wesson.

As usual the songs deliver heady meditations on nature, love, and freedom, but a couple are more topical, written with a stinging eloquence that should keep them from feeling dated years down the road. “Homeland Refugee” describes a kind of reverse migration, where illegals aren’t the only ones desperately searching for subsistence: “Now I’m leaving California for the dust bowl,” Ely sings. “After the Storm,” sung by Gilmore, is about a man flushed out of Louisiana by a hurricane returning to a home he doesn’t quite recognize: “You’re in Baton Rouge, I bet, or maybe Lafayette / Houston, San Antone, it’s all the same / Some things I just don’t get, I’m not hearing from you yet / Still waiting for the help that never came.”

Miranda Lambert photo: Randee St. Nicholas
Flatlanders photo: Steve Gullick

Today’s playlist:

Håkon Kornstad, Dwell Time (Jazzland)
Tim Sparks, Little Princess: Tim Sparks Plays Naftule Brandwein (Tzadik)
The Mars Volta, Octahedron (Warner Brothers)
João Bosco, Não Vou Pro Céu (MP,B/Universal)
Daniel Meyer Grønvold & Håvard Volden, Daniel Meyer Grønvold & Håvard Volden (Creative Sources)

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