Americana Beauty – BeachLife Ranch brings it all back home
by Gavin Heaney
Photos by JP Cordero/BeachLife Production & Mike Balzer
I have listened to Johnny Cash nearly my whole life and for some reason, it never occurred to me he was country. His voice was so plainly original that I never thought of it as pertaining to any particular genre, it just sounded great. Yet it has all the trappings of country music style. The Grateful Dead’s album American Beauty is perhaps the single greatest offering of California country music and is a masterpiece of Americana. However, the songs were just so good to me that they eclipsed the country music label. “Friend Of The Devil” and “Truckin’” are as outlaw country as any Johnny Cash prison twanger, yet why don’t they bring to mind cowboys instead of hippies? They roam free like wild horses. You don’t realize it’s country until they’re rounded up and branded, and those who know better wear a cowboy hat with pride, knowing they’re part of one of the richest and most authentic music traditions in the world.
BeachLife Ranch Festival set out to wrangle these free roaming songs, and their outlaw artists and bring them to stable. This was their mission, and they did a mighty fine job of bringing an original country and Americana music festival home to Redondo Beach last weekend.
Friday afternoon, as the cowboy hats and flip flops made way into the festival, The White Buffalo brought his hard luck tunes to bear. Festival organizers had tried to bring in live horses for the event. Instead, they got this sacred beast. Jake Smith’s heavy whiskey barrel baritone vibrato is unmistakable, and he brooded out ballads of murder, heavy drinking, reckoning, and atonement. The darkness is the light of White Buffalo. Life is hard, unfair and cruel. It’s good to hear songs that address this truth. Buffalo does not just coast on his vibe. His words are as worthy as his voice. His deliverance of “Come Join The Murder” was a standout moment of the whole festival.
“Come join the murder
Soar on my wings
You’ll touch the hand of God
And He’ll make you king”
The later afternoon slid into the more polished and preened sound of Jamestown Revival’s sleek harmonies, which ride the same dusty sunbeam trails of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It’s rare that good looks meet talent. But Jamestown delivered the goods with the looks with smart songwriting and band jamming. Their song “Young Man” pulled at the heart and offered a piano climb nod to The Band’s “The Weight.” They closed out with their ripping country rocker “Prospector’s Blues.” After that, Pete Yorn gave his first show in two years. “I’m not rusty!” he claimed as he strummed his faithful twelve-string acoustic, and delighted his fans with early 2000s alt pop. Cool, unfettered and personable, Yorn called out to friends in the crowd and rocked fan favorites “Life On A Chain” and “Strange Condition,” as well as a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers.”
Old Crow Medicine Show came out blazing like white lightning. The intensity and animation of this band is a spectacle that must be witnessed. Band leader Ketch Secor exploded on the stage with a fiddling fury that broke bow strings and shed rosin, dusting his fiddle with snowflakes of fine white powder. He maniacally peered up like Tony Montana in the final scenes of Scarface as he sang out, “Cocaine, you’re gonna kill my honey dead!” “Tell It To Me” is not the only song the band has written about the white powder, and it seems completely in line as they perform frantically at the speed of amphetamine. Old Crow are true entertainers in a traditional, vaudevillian traveling caravan sense. Each of the members effortlessly swap instruments, lead in songs, and are essentially character actors. In pure Ole Opry fashion, their stage banter was hilarious as they poked fun at our Californian lifestyle with their warm Southern sensibility. Secor joked that he would just row home on a paddle board if the crowd didn’t like their new song “Paint This Town.” He wouldn’t have made it out of King Harbor the way the audience roared their approval. Guitarist Mason Via high kicked weightlessly across the stage like a suspended marionette of Woody, from the Toy Story. Jerry Pentecost scratched his washboard, stomping up a storm and the “Reverend” Mike Harris hysterically proselytized from the side, admonishing the crowd for singing along and participating in this “devil music.” Willy and the poor boys came down from the corner and magically to life on the Hither Stage. Their hit song “Wagon Wheel” was the cherry on top. As the sun subsided in an amber grain sunset, everyone swayed and sang along to the greatest modern country song written. It is an instant classic that will stand the test of time like “Brown Eyed Girl.” On a parting note, the band apologetically promised to deliver a traditional agrarian song in repentance for their trespasses, but instead turned, and burned the whole house down with an epic cover of Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.” They hit it with the fat part of the bat as everyone shot devil signs into the air and screamed at the top of their lungs “I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day!” It was a real humdinger.
As the sky finally darkened and the silver moonshine poured out onto the sand of The Yonder Stage, The Lumineers appeared, and with them the new voice of American song. If it’s necessary to make a country comparison, Wesley Shultz, lead singer and songwriter of the band, could be a young Kris Kristofferson with a reddish tint of Willie Nelson, only with a voice that soars beyond both. Something about him is familiar, trustworthy, fatherly and forgiving. His plain straightforward appeal is not showy or overly-evangelistic. He’s like a circuit rider, field and street preaching his campfire-style singalong hymns to the needy. When they performed the anthemic “Gloria,” telling again the tragic tale of hand-me-down addiction in the American family, I thought of all those I’ve known and loved who were destroyed by it. Friends of mine who have overdosed, taken their own lives, and been murdered. Everyone knows someone, a family member, a friend or perhaps has wisely identified it within themselves. I cried convulsively, wondering why there had to be so much pain in the first place, what leads people to find their solace in substances? Beating and bloodying ourselves against the confining walls of our life, it’s a fire we throw ourselves into again and again. I prayed for all my rowdy friends, here and departed, and for their families, and friends caught up in this cycle of suffering. The Lumineers’ music was medicine, and the show a healing rite. The only way to exorcize the demon is to drag it into the light. Thank you Lumineers.
Hall and Oates closed the first night of The BeachLife Ranch Festival like a built-in after-party. Yacht rock found safe harbor in Redondo Beach as they performed hit after classic hit, including “Maneater,” “Out of Touch,” “I Can’t Go For That,” “She’s Gone,” “Rich Girl,” and too many more to name. I subconsciously knew every melody, programmed as a child from 80s FM radio. It may have been the steady flow of nostalgia, or Jack Daniel’s, but for a moment, Daryl Hall, John Oates and saxophonist Charles DeChant looked like the muppet band, the fuzzy and cuddly puppet characters from my childhood. I spied the Jamestown Revival boys taking in the show, along with many of the other performers in the VIP section. They were paying homage and studying the living legends live. Fun ruled at the end of the night and reminded me that there’s a time and place for every kind of music.
Early Saturday was when country music really kicked up some dust. Mike and The Moonpies from Austin cut us off a piece of pure feel good f-off outlaw rock, teasing Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” into their own unapologetic tune “The Hard Way.” They were followed in jumpsuit by Orange County country cover band Redneck Rodeo, who raised the sand crowd’s voices, and spirits with a “holler and a swaller,” and then pleased them with upbeat and unexpected ‘90s cover songs. A few local acts peppered the festival as well. Scott Fleetwood brought the local country feeling accompanied by lead guitarist Uncle Rob Witham’s riffs and tight vocal harmonies. Emily V’s fiddle work and Anjilla Piazza’s cajon shaker backbeat were measured and complimentary to Fleetwood’s deep rich vocals, which imparted his genuine style. On the pop-up stage in Tito’s Barn, Lomita-based band Hard Rooster duo’d like the Tennessee Two, thumping out a downtempo version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Around To Die” amongst their own tunes, congregating a solid crowd of friends and fans. My band Latch Key Kid performed as a duo Sunday to a crowd of line dancers led by Kickstart Country’s Adia Nuno, whose line dancing instruction was a hit at the festival, drawing in folks of all ages to learn the steps while the barn DJ spun country and even club rap music for the synchronized dancers. At sundown, Shooter Jennings brought family and friends together on the sand to celebrate the music of Waylon Jennings. Somewhat impromptu and all heartwarming, the ensemble performed hits like “Luckenbach Texas,” and “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” for which I hoisted my own three year old cowpoke on my shoulders to swing and sing along. It was a very informal, family, variety-style show that made the audience feel right at home.
Cowgirls in the sand
The woman really put the meat on the table at BeachLife Ranch. Waxahatchee had a girl band, indie rock style, laid back in a bed of Dixie Chicks harmonies. Small package firework Tenille Townes kept the ‘90s throwbacks going, belting out “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette, and later on Joan Jett’s “Hate Myself For Loving You,” indulging herself and the crowd. The Canadian singer did not fail to deliver her own songs, including “Somebody’s Daughter,” a catchy yet meaningful piece of pop country. She radiated rock star moves, swinging her Danelecto upon her shoulder, and perching atop a stage monitor in high waisted ripped jeans, white boots and big sunglasses. Ashley McBryde showed she is a down-home tattooed outlaw mama to be reckoned with. It’s good to see the gritty girl side of country kicking ass instead of taking a last name. McBryde took us to hell and back with her purgatorial tales of cheating hearts and betrayals in “Martha Divine” and “Voodoo Doll.” Her deadpan female baritone balloons then suddenly exploded, hitting heavenly high harmonies. Her band was pure country thunder. “I feel like I’m fixin’ to do a TED talk” she joked as she heart-fully asked the crowd to give the band their worries for a while. The Hither stage audience absorbed the brunt of her storm and the evening light revealed one of the bigger crowds of the event.
Brandi Carlile closed out the festival Sunday with more hard country rock, as well as acoustic and piano ballads backed by a stunning string section. Her music is steeped in Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls and Seattle 90s grunge. The consummate performer and songwriter is a Grammy-winning machine. She sang the undeniably poignant “Mother of Evangeline,” backed by bowed cellos that brought a symphonic element to the festival. I was honestly considering if she had tried to style her look after David Bowie when she broke into a cover of “Space Oddity,” and then backed that up with “Creep,” by Radiohead. I wonder, given her inclination to alternative rock, if country music is really her thing, or that’s just where she ended up. Either way, her songs are universal, and have merit beyond any genre. They’re not merely “sad lesbian songs,” as she joked. Her version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” floated through the night sky as I laid on the grass with my family, gazing up at a lit up palm tree rocking in the breeze. Everybody’s trying to get to Heaven.
On Sunday morning, church was in session with The War and Treaty, a husband and wife duo from Michigan. Michael and Tanya Trotter, together with their band brought soul, gospel and rocking blues to BeachLife Ranch, leading the Hither stage to higher ground with their call and response sing alongs, and eighth note-peppered soul claps. Hard driving like Ike and Tina, they did a Motown review with a medley of Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and The Temptations that showed the inseparability of blues and country music. This was testified to later when joined fellow Michiganders Greensky Bluegrass in performing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” The marriage of blues to country music was shown to be unbroken as the crowd at Yonder stage sang along to the old hymn.
Some bands have a magical, ineffable something about them. Wilco is one of them. Jeff Tweedy had the warm friendly air of Jerry Garcia, as he humbly and methodically hand delivered the soundscapes in his mind. The acoustic guitar and mellow Rhodes washed together like liquid sunshine with the pedal steel as Tweedy’s songs floated us over pools of sorrow on sound waves of joy. But the sudden appearance of haunting, discordant drifts in Wilco’s music hints at a vast and deep darkness lurking just below. Like in The Beatles’ animated Yellow Submarine, The Blue Meanies are ever-present, just waiting for us to take a wrong turn off Penny Lane. The band’s trippy feedback explosions appear abruptly, like a trap door. Their schizophrenic breaks summon the pharmaceutical-fueled psychedelic noise rock and heavy, melodic feedback of Sonic Youth and Radiohead. Wilco, like the other great bands at the festival, doesn’t ignore the dark side, but bravely invites its investigation. After an intense instrumental the band was overrun by plumes of stage smoke. Tweedy’s shadow finally emerged and fanning his arms around he hilariously asked, “Hey man, can we cool the smoke machine? It’s like Apocalypse Now up here!”
Tweedy’s lyrics function like the music, effortlessly laced with deeper and darker meaning. They summon Lou Reed, Elliott Smith and Mark Linkous like ghost riders in the sky. The fallen heroes of the life and death rodeo of singer-songwriting. Ever honest, Tweedy sang to the current state of America in “Cruel Country”
“I love my country like a little boy
Red, white, and blue
I love my country, stupid and cruel..
All you have to do is sing in the choir
Kill yourself every once in a while”
Tweedy has managed to outrun his shadow and seems comfortable and somewhat content. Wisdom comes from experience. Wilco has earned their turn as elders. They are not still learning; they are teaching, and have all the craftsmanship that comes from fine aging. They are the perfect blend of alt-country following the legacy of The Byrds, The Stones and The Dead. The band closed the night’s set with a slap-happy cover of the Dead’s “U.S. Blues,” which sent me dancing and singing along ecstatically: “Summertime has come and gone, my oh my!”
As the dust settled, the festival and summer came to a close. I woke up this morning with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt. I haven’t showered in three days and my hair is matted with the sandy magic of The BeachLife Ranch. As I work my way out of the haze, I know something beautiful just happened, something one of a kind. ER