There may have been some who would, understandably, think, “The sheer awesomeness of Paul’s communal hippie camping experience can’t possibly top the 2 AM Bluegrass Eruption of Night One.” To those people I offer, “How about waking up to a sweet bro on his blue acoustic guitar, Michael McDonalding the crap out of some covers– almost all employing the patented Jack Johnson Strum, almost none bothering with the original song’s melody?” Widespread Panic. Simon & Garfunkel. Weezer. He could’ve taken a stab at Bach in the Jack Johnson Strum and I wouldn’t have blinked.
In spite of my island wake-up call, I had big plans for the cloudless, bluebird day:
- Try to win the Troubadour contest. (FAIL)
- See Jenny Lewis. (FAIL)
- See Elvis Costello. (WIN. I had to win something. And I won big.)
You can’t walk a step this morning without hearing somebody talk about David Byrne’s set last night. Even the bluegrass die hards - who decry his lack of twang and/or mandojos - have to tip their straw hats to the man. Undeniable.
Walking towards Elks Park, it hits me again and again that everyone here is a better guitarist than me, including Mr. Jack Johnson Strum back there. Right now, on the stage, there’s a 9-year-old kid fronting a bluegrass band. Even years of monk-like tutelage in the school of the masters couldn’t land me in the same zip code as the effortless way this kid is chicken-picking. The line between humbling and discouraging is displaying an increasingly liberal and laissez faire immigration policy. I’ve been coming to the conclusion for awhile now, but it’s never been clearer: I AM NOT A GUITARIST. I AM A SONGWRITER.
Sharper readers will note that I didn’t include an adjective before “songwriter.” Losing a songwriting contest will do that. I suppose that’s my awkward way of breaking the news. I played well, thought I had a shot at the top (plus a mainstage set and a custom Shanti guitar). So did everybody else. And only one- Mitch Barrett of Barea, Kentucky (playing for IAMA on Wednesday)- could win.
Besides getting to hear some fine songs, I was paid the compliment of my career by Jim Lauderdale, who was one of the judges. That alone was worth the trip. Not to mention the experience, David Byrne, new friends, Costello, and more. Plus, at least 5 different people I’d never met went out of their way to tell me I killed it, how they loved my songs, etc. To paraphrase Joe Henry, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t need kind and encouraging words. Incidentally, none of those 5 people bought CDs, which is no indictment, just sort of the state of music today. Their kind words were plenty.
You came here for the “real” music. Moving on.
JENNY LEWIS As alluded to above, I ended up missing Jenny Lewis’ set because the Troubadour Competition took forever, deciding to see if maybe the Cubs could win the World Series before they announced the final results. Still, fittingly just like the Cubs, I lost. In spite of the flickering hopes of friends, family, and fan (singular). Lucky for me, Ms. Lewis is playing the Gallivan Center next month with Bon Iver, whose name it's my American right to mispronounce.
ELVIS COSTELLO & THE SUGARCANES Elvis Costello brought it. And Jim Lauderdale, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, & the rest of his crack band of bluegrass gunslingers knew what to do with it. Snarling and spitting, crooning and swooning through a set of songs from his new, T-Bone Burnett-produced record Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane, Elvis was his own undpredictable, fiery, volatile, sharp self. You could see the band carefully watching Elvis’ mouth and hands in attempts to divine how the phrasing, notes, songs would spill out this time. They managed just fine and it gave the whole set a searing energy and edge.
But it wasn't all about the new record. They gave some all-time classics a new shine, including “Indoor Fireworks,” (oh man, what a great song) “Everyday I Write The Book,” “Brilliant Mistake,” “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” and a crowd-pleasing cover of “Friend of The Devil” by some Bay Area band with still-ubiquitous merch. Emmylou and Jennylew (Jenny Lewis to you) added their distinct harmonies to the fray, both faring more or less as relatively/admirably successful as the Sugarcanes. They closed the show out with “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love & Understanding?” And I added another sentence to this paragraph because it felt odd to end a sentence that wasn’t a question with a question mark.
RAILROAD EARTH Kincade Bauer & The Depot, you can thank me later. In lieu of a review of their set (which I admittedly only half-listened to and, for karmic reasons you may understand better once we free ourselves of these parenthetical constraints, have decided to not type), we’re going to flash forward, Lost-style. Sunday afternoon, a now-burlier-bearded Paul pulls up to a broken down tour bus just 5 miles into Utah on UT-46. The turbo is broken. There’s no cell reception. Burlier Paul drives the bus driver and drummer into Moab (and phone reception) to rent a car and help get their mess sorted out. The serial number of the tourbus? 4 8 15 16 23 42. That is a lie and I am a nerd. Please. Stay tuned for Saturday. Heaven knows this is a thrill of a read.