So, what exactly is Americana?

Seriously, Connelly and his Lesser Gods need to start gigging more often. They’re music skews toward Tom Petty-style rock ’n’ roll, crisp originals that blend Byrds charm with bluesy grit courtesy of Connelly’s mesmerizing guitar solos. Connelly and company nailed the Dylan epic better than anyone this side of Hendrix.

Of course, covers always make for an easy sell. But Saturday they constituted a much-appreciated escape from the highly introspective, subtle and often vague alt-country songs offered by the bands that strictly adhere to the Uncle Tupelo template.

Perhaps I’m alone on this one, but although I love alt-country and albums like Anodyne, I would never consider spending a night listening only to the collected works of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt and, say, Whiskeytown. At some point, I would have to throw some Muddy Waters in the stereo or I’d be liable to lose it.

Yeah, I could’ve used some Muddy on Saturday. Wikipedia defines Americana music as, “Ranging in style from roots-based bluegrass to alternative country, gospel, blues, zydeco, and other native forms.” That summary sounds good to me, but apparently not to the organizers of Americana Fest. They mostly limited the lineup to only bands worshiping at the altars of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy.

Next year, I’d like to see the Americana Fest broadened to truly represent the name. Otherwise, the sameness becomes numbing. When I first arrived Saturday, Have Gun Will Travel held my attention for their entire 30-minute set — probably because frontman Matt Burke was the finest lyricist/singer on Saturday’s lineup and he surrounded himself with a boss band (basically his rock trio The Chase Theory augmented by a lap steel guitarist and fiddler).

Their performance was followed by sets from Holidaysburg and Truckstop Coffee, a pair of competent alt-country bands that do little to distinguish themselves from the pack. By the time The Human Condition and then Rebekah Pulley came on, I was alt-countried out — which is a shame because those two acts are quite talented and would have likely fared well if wedged between a gospel and bluegrass act.

Finally, Connelly arrived. I saw him backstage right before his performance and the 54-year-old who has played with Roger McGuinn on The Tonight Show and in front of tens of thousands opening for the Grateful Dead, looked genuinely nervous. Perhaps it’s because he’s comfortable in his role as a sideman, and for this show he was front and center. But you’d have never sensed his apprehension when he took the stage and gave the audience a superior jolt of rock ’n’ roll.

Here's a rough draft of my concert review that will run in the upcoming edition of CL.

Photo of Steve Connelly by Shanna Gillette.


The Urbane Cowboys/The Diviners/Hangtown/Steve Connelly and the Lesser Gods/Rebekah Pulley and the Reluctant Prophets/The Human Condition/Truckstop Coffee/Holidaysburg/Have Gun Will Travel/Experimental Pilot/Jukebox Graduate/Memphis Train Union, Sat., July 7, Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa.

WMNF’s second annual Americana Fest resulted in another success — albeit one that left room for improvement. Skipper’s Smokehouse proved the ideal venue to hold Saturday’s nine-hour concert, and during my stay there from 5 to 10:30 p.m., the area under the sprawling oaks remained relatively full. The attentive, if often sedate, crowd ranged from baby boomers to new parents and students.

Credit WMNF for the strong turnout. It’s nice to see the radio station get behind an event featuring exclusively local acts (12 total) performing mostly original songs. After all, WMNF has drawn criticism in the past for not promoting homegrown talent. It took a while for Bay area bands to get their own stage at Tropical Heatwave, and when ’MNF herds locals to do Dylan, Stones or Zep tunes at one of its tribute shows, it’s great for the fans (and the station’s coffers) but does little to help the bands build a lasting connection with prospective fans.

That said, some of the most memorable moments Saturday were the cover tunes. Have Gun Will Travel, the best new twang band to hit the Bay area scene in years, homered with a fiddle and steel rendition of Loudon Wainwright’s “Kings and Queens.” The Human Condition fared equally well with a spirited reading of the Woody-Guthrie-by-way-of-Wilco rocker “California Stars.” And Steve Connelly crushed ’em with an encore of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which capped what was far and away the most potent set I witnessed Saturday.

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