South Florida seems to have become quite the magnet for music festivals lately. There's the burgeoning worldwide popularity of the Winter Music Conference and Ultra Music Festival, not to mention this year's debut of Tortuga and the annual gains being made by the Virginia Key Grassroots Festival. Add to that list Lauderdale Live, which made its bow this past weekend with a lineup so impressive, it's already worthy of being a major contender.
As far as festivals go, Lauderdale Live also scores points in terms of convenience and all-round ease and accessibility. Despite the fact that the weekend shows were staged in the heart of Fort Lauderdale's sprawling downtown environs, it was as intimate as any festival could be. Traffic hassles were nonexistent, and parking was readily available. And with one main stage and a schedule that ran flawlessly from start to finish, there were none of the usual worries about trying to decide which act to see next and how to find time the jog from one show to another. The proximity of audience to performer was ideal, and while the number of bars clearly outnumbered the food concessions, the opportunity for alcoholic consumption made an elated crowd even more festive as the day wore on.
Still, the somewhat sparse attendance was no doubt a disappointment to the promoters, who, by all counts, did everything right in terms of arranging a professional, first-class event. The choice of artists alone -- Lyle Lovett, the Indigo Girls, Jason Isbell, et al. -- ought to have been enough to lure the masses, so why folks opted to stay away poses a question best left for others to ponder. Perhaps it was the myriad choices brought to town just south of here by Art Basel in Miami. It's best to focus on the outstanding array of acts in terms of both headliners and up-and-comers.
Not that there wasn't some disparity. The crowd that came to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit was definitely distinct from the audience that was there for the Indigo Girls. Likewise, those who shared their enthusiasm for Lyle Lovett were altogether different from those that came to hear most of the others. The one thing all the artists had in common was their mutual appreciation for South Florida's mild weather, a point echoed unanimously and repeatedly through the festival's final day. As more than one musician remarked, balmy Fort Lauderdale was a far cry from the chilly environs that they had just left behind.
The Sunday set began with Holly Williams, whose pedigree as country music's once and forever heir apparent was all but assured by her granddad, the legendary Hank Williams. Yet despite her prominent lineage, she showed she doesn't need to ride on the coattails of her famous forebears. While a good portion of her sweetly sublime set was drawn from her critically acclaimed album, The Highway, it was hardly surprising -- and no doubt, hugely tempting -- that she gave a nod to Hank Sr. in the final song of her set. Indeed, her cover of his sturdy semi-gospel standard "I Saw the Light" likely had the old man beaming with pride from the light above.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day came from the band that was the least known, that being Nashville newcomers Wild Feathers. A feisty bunch, the five-piece started its set with a rollicking display that tilted its country-rock leanings more toward the former rather than the latter. Still, with three lead singers in the band and an impressive stock of material that comes courtesy of a self-titled debut album, it's also clear the band possesses enough subtlety and nuance to win acceptance with today's Americana fans.
But the real revelation of the afternoon came in the form of the duo that calls itself Shovels & Rope. A minimalist outfit that won top newcomer honors at this year's Americana Music Fest, the pair manage to play all the instrumentation between them, including guitar, drums, percussion, harmonica, and occasional keyboards. As a result, the live renditions of songs from their stunning debut, O' Be Joyful, effectively replicated the recorded versions and had the crowd in their grasp practically from the first note. It's little wonder they've become the buzz band, despite their seemingly unorthodox presentation. As a lyric from their song "Birmingham" states, "We made something from nothing"; they do in fact make a lot of noise and keep a steady rhythm with minimum accoutrements. The fact that they do it so effectively becomes an integral part of their charm.
Jason Isbell clearly attracted a faithful following of his own, and given his solid repertoire, culled from his four superb studio albums, it's little doubt why. Isbell's songs are thoughtful, reflective and yet exuberant in a singular sort of way, and with an adept five piece backing band in the form of the 400 Unit -- including wife and fiddler Amanda Shires, an accomplished artist in her own right -- he had the kind of support that Tom Petty sees from the Heartbreakers and the Boss finds in his E Street ensemble. The array of material -- a sturdy, sobering "Alabama Pines," the plaintive "Decoration Day" and "Travelling Alone," the nostalgic "Different Days" -- distinguish him as a songwriter to be reckoned with, one who commands both authority and supreme sensitivity. Happily, he's also an artist with a sense of humor. Speaking of his guitarist, Isbell remarked, "He comes from a long line of miniature golfers. They play regular golf, but they're tiny people."
OK, maybe you had to be there.
The Indigo Girls have their own rabid devotees, of course, and given their affinity and fondness for their fans, their enthusiasm is hardly surprising. "My, this is intimate," Indigo Girl Amy Ray remarked, checking out the up-close confines. It made the interaction between band and audience all the more assured, with the rapturous reaction prompting a "Thanks, y'all," after every number. A folk duo at heart, they turn songs such as "Closer to Free" and "Galileo" into veritable anthems, given the ringing refrains and sing-along soundbites. Notably, they were the first act of the day allowed back for an encore, and their rousing rendition of "Devil Went Down to Georgia," featuring a frenzied workout from violinist Lyris Hung and an obviously enthusiastic roadie, ended the set on an exhilaratingly upbeat note (or plethora of notes, as that particular song allows).
By the time Lyle Lovett and His Acoustic Band took the stage, many of the Indigo fans had departed, only to be replaced by a loyal contingent of Lovett lovers. Fronting an all-star outfit -- fiddler Luke Bulla, bassist Viktor Krauss, cellist John Hagen, guitarist/mandolin player Keith Sewell and legendary drummer Russ Kunkel (a man whose credits encompass everyone from the Beach Boys to James Taylor and Carole King) -- Lovett showed a humility and respect for his players that was truly impressive.
Being the humble Texan that he is, he offered ample spotlight time to the other musicians, and yet when he sang in his lonesome, plaintive and slightly frayed vocal, he rightfully turned the attention on himself. His better known ballads, "If I Had a Boat" and a cover of the old chestnut "Please Release Me," segued nicely into the rousing road song "White Freightliner Blues" and the decidedly tongue-in-cheek repast of "White Boy Lost in the Blues" and "She's No Lady, She's My Wife," not to mention the stirring gospel revelry of "I Will Rise Up," Bulla's yet-to-be recorded co-write with Guy Clark, "The Temperance Reel," and Sewell's moving "Let Me Fall," which also happens to be the title track of his latest solo album.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, but it's even sadder when that end is unexpectedly abrupt. Forcing a mandate that the music had to be silenced by 9 p.m., the Fort Lauderdale city minions opted to suddenly and unexpectedly cut the power, leaving Lovett and his band to finish their final selection sans amplitude.
Too bad. The first Lauderdale Live showed incredible promise, and one can only hope that the organizers opt to continue to build on it next year in hopes of a better turnout. And that the city managers will show a little more respect and latitude in allowing the festival to come to a fitting end by leaving the electricity on long enough for the headliners to bid a graceful goodbye.
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