Sweet Lovers Love the (Rites of) Spring

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by Sara Miller

There’s a reason Nashville is nicknamed Music City. On every street, there’s a venue hosting a different type of music or a record store, or both. This weekend, a few of us lucky Paste interns got to experience a little taste of what Nashvegas has to offer, thanks to the magazine’s sponsorship of Vanderbilt’s Rites of Spring festival.

Vanderbilt University has held the annual concert on its campus in the heart of downtown Nashville for over 30 years now and the maturity of the fest shows in the professionalism and incredible friendliness of the students (and they’re almost all students) running the show.

This year’s eclectic line-up offered a Whitman’s sampler for the ears, with local, national, and international acts ranging from Birmingham indie-rockers Wild Sweet Orange to Louisiana rapper Cupid to up-and-coming pop-country act Lady Antebellum to Austin’s stalwart minimalist rock-n-rollers Spoon.

We pulled up to Vandy in the early afternoon on Friday and strolled onto the grassy field just as Spoon started soundchecking. The band’s still cruising on the momentum of last year’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, which debuted at #10 on the Billboard 200 and ended up on zillions of best-of-’07 lists (including Paste‘s), and we were delighted to hear a horn section playing alongside the quartet during Ga^5‘s “The Underdog” and “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb.” It was a portent for the fine times ahead.

We set up our booth as Wild Sweet Orange, led by the ebullient Preston Lovinggood, kickstarted the afternoon with juicy rock ‘n’ roll enriched with reverb and the occasional effects-pedal freakout. “Worth many more listens,” say my notes. They were followed by the AAA-ready Jeremy Lister, a Nashville singer/songwriter with a pleasant, if somewhat generic, sound.

As if to present the antithesis to Lister’s laid-back crooning, N.C.’s Avett Brothers took the stage to a crowd nearly as rabid as Scott and Seth Avett’s forcefully-hollered vocals. While the band’s records are great, the shows are where Avett Brothers fans are converted into full-fledged acolytes. Rites of Spring proved a receptive venue for the Avetts’ unique, traditional-bluegrass-meets-black-metal performance style—the audience was rapt, between mouthing catcalls at Scott and shout-singing along to tunes like “November Blue” and “Die Die Die.”

I was entranced by cellist Joe Kwon, a recent addition to the Avetts’ touring line-up, who has an irreverent approach to his chosen instrument; he plays the cello standing up, bowing wildly during most songs but occasionally picking up the orchestra staple, rotating it into a horizontal position and strumming it like a gigantic guitar. He fits in remarkably well. After the bridge in second-to-last song “Pretty Girl From Chile,” the centerpiece of last year’s vibrant Emotionalism, Scott Avett and bassist Bob Crawford swapped their acoustic instruments for electric ones to shred out the song’s screeching finale—a perfect near-end to a fiery set from a band that’s the most fun study in contrasts to ever emerge from Carolina.

It was going to be tough for anyone to follow the Avetts, and Nashville natives Lady Antebellum didn’t fail for want of trying—in fact, they attempted to lead a crowd sing-along to a cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” just three songs into their set. Oh, how I wished they’d kick into Eddie Rabbitt’s soft-rock classic, “I Love a Rainy Night,” but no dice. Lady Antebellum’s girl/boy-vocals lent a pretty contrast to each other and the band’s stocked with skilled musicians; although the band’s songs won’t be spun on, say, Album 88 any time soon, the major-label signees will likely see success in their chosen pop-country genre. After an announcement that they had played the Ellen DeGeneres Show earlier in the week, one of my fellow Pasties finished the lead singer’s sentence aptly: “...and now we’re in Wal-Marts everywhere.”

The Eddie Rabbitt reference stems from the rain that began to fall during Lady Antebellum’s set, a chilly, steady drizzle that continued through the band’s entire set and into the first few songs by Cupid, a rapper from Louisiana. After roughly ten minutes of nondescript tunes, we left as Cupid was instructing the ladies in the crowd to “do a sexy dance” and decided to dry out a bit over at the Cannery Ballroom. Luckily, two of the best bands in North America—Austin’s Okkervil River and Vancouver’s The New Pornographers—happened to be playing there!

Although we missed the first half of Okkervil River’s set, we walked in (right behind Spoon drummer Jim Eno and the New Pornos’ Kathryn Calder) as they were finishing up “John Allyn Smith Sails,” the album-closing barnburner from last year’s The Stage Names. Much like the Avett Brothers, Okkervil River’s sound defies easy description—it’s not quite folk, not quite punk, and not quite rock ‘n’ roll. The band has been edging in a more straightforwardly rockish direction, especially with the recent tour-only (for now?) addition of Wrens frontman Charles Bissell, who is remolding the large and multitalented shoes of former Okkervil guitarist Brian Cassidy into his own squalor-filled shitkickers.

In the last few years, lead singer Will Sheff has tamed his voice—once so untrained and key-slippery that it bordered on unlistenable—into a roaring beast on a leash that he slackens only when it’s most effective. For example, in “For Real” (one of the best songs ever written, for real!), Sheff muses on a souring relationship, fusing sex and violence into an alluring come-on-no-wait-back-off-just-kidding-come-ON that demonstrates the power of dynamics as the song slowly escalates from nearly silent to full-throttle screaming, adding charging drums and some feedback for good measure. I could go on (and on and on) but suffice it to say that catching Okkervil at all was an unexpected bonus after an already great day at Rites of Spring. But we weren’t done yet!

After watching a chunk of the, sadly, Neko Case-less New Pornographers set, which was heavy on material from the group’s last two albums, Twin Cinema and last year’s Challengers, we emerged into the night to get back to Vandy in time for Spoon.

The rain had stopped while we were in the Cannery and Spoon hit the stage right on time, reminding us that “when you believe, they call it rock and roll,” as lead singer Britt Daniel howled in set opener “The Beast and Dragon, Adored.” Fellow intern Nikki mentioned that Daniel had the quote of the night with his offhand “glad to know that spring still has rights"—like the right to boogie down, which she and I promptly utilized to start a mini-dance party in our section of the field.

Spoon, always tight as a rope, mostly stuck to cuts from 2005’s Gimme Fiction and Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, although Kill the Moonlight stunners “Back to the Life” and “Stay Don’t Go” made appearances, too. Continuing the apparent Rites of Spring tradition of peppering your set with at least one cover, Spoon killed the final minutes of the midnight hour with The Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off,” sending us to bed with a reminder that even though Music City holds wonderful aural pleasures in many tucked-away nooks and crannies, sometimes dreamland is the only place where one can be truly content.

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