Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale opened the show Saturday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, backed by an inspired band including a mysterious longhaired guy in dark shades doubling on pedal steel and fiddle along with the rhythm section who played on Robert Plant’s most recent album. This blog recently characterized Miller as an American version of Richard Thompson, although it would make as much sense to call Thompson the British Buddy Miller (in a bit of serendipity, Miller produced Thompson’s latest album). Lauderdale played rhythm guitar and sang in his masterfully modulated baritone while Miller channeled a century’s worth of country and blues guitar. Delivering his signature, virtuosic ferocity and nuance, Miller started in Nashville, then took the band on a few side trips to Memphis, New Orleans and the Florida swamps.
On Looking for a Heartache, he alternated between droll and ominous with spare lines on his Danelectro baritone guitar. He switched to acoustic for a plaintive take of It Hurts Me before a jaunty electric version of South in New Orleans. He got to cut loose with a long, wailing, searing electric solo on the darkly rustic country gospel tune Wide River to Cross; a bit later, Lauderdale brought the lights down with a rapturous solo acoustic performance of a new song: the crowd (among them a who’s who of New York guitar talent) were spellbound. From there the band picked it up, through a Tony Joe White cover, some honkytonk and finally Hole in My Head, a rousing late 80s-style alt-country romp that would have been a standout track on a Del-Lords record.
“George Gershwin played Rhapsody in Blue on this stage,” headliner Rosanne Cash told the crowd. Being a longtime New Yorker, it was only natural that she’d be proud to have also played on it. Considering that Cash wrote her brilliant latest album The River & the Thread while traveling throughout the south, it’s no surprise how bluesy it is. Cash’s husband and lead guitarist John Leventhal gave a clinic in uneasily resonating, lingering noir phrasing, beginning with the sepulchrally whispery intro of A Feather’s Not a Bird, anchored by Glenn Patscha’s ominous organ and drummer Dan Rieser’s anxious pulse. “Everybody around here moves too fast/It feels so good but it’s never gonna last,” Cash intoned with an understated dread.
The Long Way Home put a folk noir spin on a late 60-s style soul-rock tune centered around a riff suspiciously like the Classics IV’s Spooky: “”Dark highways and the country roads don’t scare you like they did,” Cash offered, but that turned out to be a false start in one of the album’s many contemplations of loss and getting lost. Land of Strange Design, true to how she’d explained it beforehand, broodingly contemplated a southern upbringing, harsh reality jarring with superstition, pedal steel player Kevin Berry offering a temporary reprieve with a brief, soaring solo. Night School was even more nocturnally apprehensive than the album version, its ambience punctuated by creepy glockenspiel accents by the percussionist.
50,000 Watts, Cash explained, was dedicated to the Memphis blues and R&B radio station where B.B. King got his start, which proved to be so influential on the Sun Studios artists, Cash’s famous dad among them. They kept a wary stroll going with When the Master Calls the Roll, a vivid Civil War reminiscence nicked from the Rodney Crowell catalog that Cash grabbed when it got dropped from an Emmylou Harris record.
Leventhal evoked his brilliant Mojo Mancini noir soundtrack project with his spare, sinister phrasing on Money Road, an evocation of Mississippi Delta desolation. Then they reinvented Ode to Billy Joe as folk noir – a pity Bobbie Gentry couldn’t find a guy of Leventhal’s caliber for the original.
They brought the energy to redline with a briskly motoring take of Radio Operator, from Cash’s classic 2006 Black Cadillac album, with a long, burning pedal steel solo, following that with a swinging, halfspeed, blues-infused take of Hank Snow’s I’m Moving On. So it was weird after all that gravitas and intensity that she’d close with a nonchalant version of the innocuous new-wave-disguised-as-country hit Seven Year Ache. But she brought back the roots flavor with a rousing version of Ray Price’s Heartaches by the Numbers, joined by Lauderdale and Miller (who got to take one of the night’s best solos on it). It’s hard to think of a better concert to wind up this blog’s coverage of this summer’s typically amazing outdoors festival here.