Rose Cousins at the Rutledge – Rose Cousins most recent album ‘We Have Made a Spark’ was one of Folk Alley’s favorite folk albums last year, and it won a Juno Award, to boot. Nonetheless, Cousins is still growing her audience in the lower 48, so it was nice to see a good crowd show up for this set. Mostly drawing from ‘Spark,’ she welcomed the beautifully voiced Julie Lee and Robby Hecht onstage to help her out on backing vocals, with the Stray Birds sitting in on dueling fiddles for a couple of songs. Much like ‘Spark,’ it was a display of the great music that gets made through collaboration. Though, as usual, she was just as good at delivering beautifully without all the extra layers. A new song from the point of view of a farmer’s wife – performed on piano, with electric guitar and bass so scant, you hardly knew they were there – was one of the loveliest, most heartbreaking songs I saw performed all night.
Brandy Clark in the round at the Bluebird Cafe – Not technically a part of the Americana conference and festival, Brandy Clark’s appearance at the Bluebird Cafe – in the round with fellow songwriters Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Trevor Rosen – was one easy highlight of the weekend. Her new album ’12 Stories’ leans decidedly more toward the country realm than anything else. But, stripped down, in the round at the Bluebird, it was easy to see the folky roots of Clark’s creative, substantive songwriting. Pluck tunes like “Get High” and “Pray to Jesus and Play the Lotto” free from their country production and you’ve got working class songs about day-to-day struggles and the hope of transcendence. It was a decidedly refreshing highlight, from some of Music Row’s strongest writers.
Amanda Shires at the Basement – Amanda Shires has been an exciting talent to watch ever since she landed on the circuit. But, her latest album ‘Down Fell the Doves’ shows her having hit a certain stride. Her songs are dark and twisted at the same time as heartfelt and poetic. There’s humor in there, too, right next to the fear and longing. Watching her deliver the arresting new material in the cramped, dark, dirty Basement was one of the great moments afforded us by the Americana festival. Though Rod Picott joined her toward the end of the set, it was mostly just Shires with an upright bassist and a very restrained drummer. There was no effort to rock-the-heck-out through the songs; just to present them in their full, unfettered nature.