AmericanaFest 2017 kicked off Tuesday night with a number of quality shows at various sites, none more star-studded than at The People Sing! concert at downtown’s War Memorial Auditorium.
Honoring the late historian Howard Zinn and his work, A People’s History of the United States, about the activist movement through the years, the lineup featured time-honored inspirational and/or protest tunes from sisters Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne, Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, Rhiannon Giddens, Shelby Lynne, Billy Bragg, Joe Henry, Hayes Carll, Elizabeth Cook, Kelsey Waldon, Teddy Thompson, Marcus Hummon, Valerie June, Gretchen Peters and more, with a spoken-word piece from Nashville author Alice Randall (poet Gwendolyn Brooks about singer and activist Paul Robeson).
Wearing matching cream-colored suits and dark sunglasses, the legendary Grammy-winning gospel group, the Blind Boys of Alabama, opened the show in an appropriately soulful manner. The attentive, even reverent crowd was treated to a lively “Amazing Grace,” sung to the melody of the traditional folk song “House of the Rising Son.”
Jimmy Carter, an octogenarian original member of the group, incited applause and cheers from the crowd with a frenetic wave of his arms. The troupe left the stage hands on shoulders, setting a tone of perseverance and defiance for the evening.
Other highlights included:
- Hit songwriter Hummon, who played the grand piano while quoting orator, social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them …”
- Henry’s powerful take on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” the so-called anthem of the Great Depression.
- Giddens, accompanied by Henry, with the 1934 Mexican song “Mal Hombre.” “A song that has been on my mind since last fall,” she quipped, prompting laughter from the partisan crowd in reference to the U.S. presidential election and its aftermath.
- Moorer, who curated the musical lineup for the evening, with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” dedicated to slain Charlottesville, Virginia counter-protester Heather Heyers.
- Lynne’s a cappella rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”
- Hood and Cooley teaming on Neil Young’s “Ohio.”
The briskly moving, 90-minute show ended with all the performers crowding on stage to sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” with Henry, June, Hood, Bragg, Lynne, Moorer and Giddens taking solo turns.
AmericanaFest 2017 continues through Sunday at various Nashville venues. See Americanamusic.org or the AmericanaFest app for a complete and up-to-date schedule of events.