Originally coined by antique collectors to refer to a wide-range of ephemera related to the country’s cultural history, in the ’90s the term Americana began to be applied to music that similarly was rooted in the nation’s folk traditions. Over the years it has become an ever-expanding big tent genre, embracing previously distinct subsets like country, bluegrass, blues, and jazz.
True to its billing, Tuesday night’s AmericanaramA Festival of Music at AutoZone Park downtown was a showcase for the music, putting a wide range of sounds on display before a generationally diverse crowd of about 8,000.
The bill was headlined by living legend Bob Dylan, who arguably invented Americana back in 1965 when the previously stalwart folkie plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. (Rolling Stone recently reported that the guitar Dylan used in that performance will go up for auction later this year when it is expected to snatch as much as $500,000.)
Still enigmatic and spry at age 72, Dylan has reinvented himself numerous times over his 50-year career. But the mix he has struck over the past 15 years or so — a period observers have called “The Never Ending Tour” as the troubadour has logged more than 2500 shows — has been arguably his best and certainly his most consistent.
Looking like a Mephistophelean riverboat gambler, Dylan led his band through vigorous and, at times, inspired takes of material plucked from throughout his oeuvre. The band included multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron of the Nashville honky tonk band BR549, jazz bassist Tony Garnier, and, replacing Duke Robillard for the first time this night, Texas guitarist Charlie Sexton.
Capping an opening run of more recent songs, the blues song “Early Roman Kings” off last year’s Tempest read like a more sinister take on “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35.” Next Dylan, who eschewed the guitar in favor of harmonica and keyboard, subbed out the jangly rhythm of the original “Tangled Up In Blue” in favor of a mellow blues backbeat, a treatment he reprised later on crowd favorite “Simple Twist of Fate.” Even by-the-numbers interpretations, like the Jimi Hendrix-inspired finale of “All Along the Watchtower,” were full of passion and commitment.
Those traits also seemed to characterize the set from Wilco, the Chicago-based band known for putting an experimental, even avant-garde twist on Americana. That said, the band broke no new ground in their efficient and sharply executed set, which packed an impressive 16 songs into just a little over an hour. Jeff Tweedy and company managed to hit several highlights from their catalog, including “Ashes of American Flags,” “Via Chicago,” and “Heavy Metal Drummer,” while sprinkling in treats like the Uncle Tupelo cover “New Madrid” and “Christ For President” off their posthumous Woody Guthrie collaboration Mermaid Avenue.
It was the two first two acts of the day that provided the biggest surprises. Louisville’s My Morning Jacket did so by interrupting their set of Southern-inspired jams for an appearance by singer-songwriter John Prine, performing his “All the Best,” which the band had previously covered on the Prine tribute record Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows.
Starting off the day with an all-too-brief half-hour set, British folkie Richard Thompson, meanwhile, was a revelation for the many in the crowd who either had never heard of him or mainly knew his solo acoustic work. In an echo of Dylan in ’65, however, Thompson put down the acoustic and picked up the Stratocaster to lead a powerful rhythmn section through a set that added good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll to the Americana definition.