Iowa Arts Festival; June 4, 2011; Downtown Iowa City
I came for Joe Ely the night before, but I stayed for today’s line-up, an impressive one that included some all time favorites and some new ones. Sam Knutson had been introduced to me as Iowa City’s resident singer-songwriter, though at the time he was running sound for Ha Ha Tonka at the Mill. He gave me a copy of his un-mastered CD, a creative collection he intends to put out one of these days. As the first act on the stage today he stuck to some of his more tried and true songs, some of them more than a decade old. He was accompanied by a relaxed rhythm section that had obviously played with him before. There was a short break before David Zollo who started early so that he could head out of town to another gig. I remembered Zollo from his days in High and Lonesome (one of the greatest alt country band names ever), and while his set wasn’t that memorable today, it was certainly pleasant.
That left a big break before Teddy Thompson was scheduled to take the stage, so I took refuge from the heat in a neighborhood bar for a Bloody Mary and nacho time out. It seemed a bit odd that the solo Thompson had been booked for an outdoor festival, but the very civilized crowd was quiet and attentive during his set. Even though Thompson looks angry in most of the pictures I took, he seemed to be really enjoying himself. His dry British humor spiced up the between song banter. “I’m going to play another song,” he stated matter-of-factly, “because that is what I am paid to do. I showed up here thinking I would try out some stand-up comedy, but they told me no, I had a contract to sing.” “I have some really interesting sweat stains going on here,” he bemoaned as the heat grew more oppressive, and someone yelled at him to take off his shirt. “I might,” he grinned, “I’ve been working out you know.”
Thompson’s newest release Bella is another strong collection, though the song titles seem to suggest a cycle of failed relationships. The opening track “Looking for a Girl” details a wish list of qualities for the perfect girl (drinks, smokes, takes a joke, good in bed, you know, the usual requirements), while subsequent titles “Take Me Back Again,” “Take Care of Yourself,” and “Gotta Have Someone” suggest that even when he knows what he’s looking for it doesn’t always work out. He dedicated part of his set to songs from his country covers record Up Front and Down Low where he takes on classic American artists like Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You” and Charlie Louvin’s “You Finally Said Something Good (When You Said Goodbye).” “I’m qualified to do country songs,” he claimed, “I am from the south… of England.” He went on to claim that the British seemed to know more about real country music these days than we did, “What have you done to it?” he asked, concerned. “Well, not you in particular, but as a country.”
He was followed by my long-time favorites the Bottle Rockets. I’d talked to them earlier in the day, and they didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see me so far from home, even when they were scheduled to be in Madison the next weekend. It must have made some impression though because after a conference following the first song of the encore, Brian stepped up to the mike, “She is all the way in Iowa, we might as well play her song.” I was grinning ear to ear from the first note till the last of “When I Was Dumb.” This was definitely an earned encore. Brian had already put away his guitar and pedals when the crowd’s enthusiasm brought them back. “I’ve only gotten my pedals back out once before, you guys are pretty special.” They deserved the crowd’s admiration, they had just played a blistering set that drew from their entire catalog. Classics like the bouncy “Hey Moon” and the tragic “Kerosene” from their self-titled first record paired up with tunes “The Long Way” and my personal favorite “Get on the Bus” from Lean Forward, their most recent release. I found out later that lead singer and songwriter Brian Henneman actually is a bus rider, which didn’t surprise me at all.
The night ended with Alejandro Escovedo. I enjoy Escovedo, but (at the risk of blasphemy) I don’t love him the way most of the alt-country crowd does. That meant rather than stay right up front I could return to the Beverage Area and watch the rest of the show from there. I’m glad I didn’t leave though since Escovedo brought Bottle Rocket guitarist John Horton out to play on a couple covers at the end of the night. This is often my favorite part of one of his shows, as he tends to pick some interesting ones. I’ve seen him do “Beast of Burden” many times, but tonight it was the underrated “Miss You.” Horton was awesome. Yep, very glad I stayed.