Colorful booths, versatile music, tantalizing smells, good eats, and a strangely familiar setting brought a strong sensation of deja vu to Nashville. If you have lived in Nashville for more than a few years, you will remember Summer Lights, that weekend in June when Deaderick Street from Legislative Plaza to the Courthouse filled with performers, craftsmen, food, stages and more for some summer fun. Unfortunately, from its noble beginnings of being an enjoyable celebration of the arts the first year or two, Summer Lights devolved with each successive year into more of a glorified keg party, and it fizzled out a few years ago. If you enjoyed the artistic side of Summer Lights, and like me, have missed the versatile entertainment it brought to downtown Nashville, you are in for a welcome treat.
To mark its 20th anniversary season this September, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) launched a month-long celebration of the arts. As a cornerstone of this celebration, TPAC produced a premiere annual arts festival, Fest de Ville Nashville, the weekend of September 22, 23, and 24, celebrating all things artistic.
In a move reminiscent of the finer aspects of Summer Lights, Nashville’s world-class talent base was showcased, bringing together the best of the commercial and non-commercial arts. Fest de Ville Nashville took place inside and out: inside TPAC – on the stages and in the lobbies, inside War Memorial Auditorium, and outside on the streets and plazas surrounding TPAC. Several performance stages were found at Legislative Plaza, up and down Deaderick Street, with diverse programming, talented street performers from around the country entertaining the crowds, a marketplace full of wonderful treasures, talented artists at work throughout the weekend, fun and educational children’s activities, a variety of food and much, much more.
TPAC President/CEO and Fest de Ville Executive Producer Steven Grail said, “Since this is part of our 20th anniversary season, it was important to have our family with us to celebrate. Our resident companies ( Tennessee Repertory Theater, Nashville Opera Association, Nashville, Ballet, Circle Players, and the Nashville Symphony) make up a considerable part of our growth and success, and this festival gives them the opportunity to expose more people to their great work.”
Friday night presented a cornucopia of choices and found me rushing from one event to another in a futile attempt to see a little of everything. Thankfully, I had a secret weapon, Bellevue actress/screenwriter Jennifer Prince, who covered some events I either missed completely or only caught for a few minutes.
A Celtic celebration at the Bank of America Stage helped kick off Friday evening’s events, highlighted by a performance by Ceilli Rain. Other performers included Kathy Mattea, as well as Nashville Pipes and Drums, who recently accompanied Michael W. Smith at the Billy Graham Crusade in Nashville.
Jennifer caught local singer/actor Mike Eldred on stage with BeBe Winans again, as Mike presented “Music Theatre in Music City” with other special guests like Lori White at 7pm at the Dasani Stage down on Deaderick. BeBe performed “River Jordan” from Civil War while Gene Miller and Mike sang back up for BeBe. Gene had the lead role on Broadway that Larry Gatlin played on the tour that came to Nashville this year. “Music Theater in Music City” will continue to be a part of Fest de Ville next year, showcasing recent musicals performed in town.
While Jennifer was enjoying music theater, I was at my post at the America Airlines World Stage over at Legislative Plaza where I enjoyed watching the Nashville Irish Step Dancers kick, skip, jump and strut their stuff. 8pm found me hurrying to catch a little of the Born Again Choir on the Bank of America Stage, a wonderful setting for their praise-filled performance with the State Capitol Building glowing on the hill behind the stage. I did not get to spend enough time there as Jennifer and I had tickets to catch a little bit of the 8:30 pm performance of “Opera Goes Hollywood” at TPAC, where we met to compare notes. The strains of classical music were a nice counterpoint to the livelier strains outside, and conductor Robert Bernhardt regaled us with contemporary anecdotes about some of the numbers. Did you realize “Porgi Amor” from Act II of the Marriage of Figaro is the Mozart equivalent of “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’”? Were you aware the Marriage of Figaro could be compared to a Jerry Springer show? In spite of such tantalizing facts, Jennifer and I had to cut our opera experience short as I was still hoping to catch a little more of the Born Again set and she had to catch the country stage, so we went our separate way after only 1/2 hour of the operatic experience.
I arrived back at the Born Again stage to find the choir and the crowd shouting “We Got Victory!” not too long before they finished their set. Give me an “Amen!”
Next on my itinerary was the “tour de booths.” There were several working artists on site actually sculpting and working in their chosen mediums, shaping, twisting, shaving, painting art right before our eyes. There was jewelry, statues, shawls, metal works, paintings, Fest de Ville paraphernalia and Snowbird. There was Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Polish Sausages and the finest in down-home American cuisine from Morels, not to mention hot dogs, pop corn (called Kettle Corn) and all sorts of food. There were soft drinks, lemonade, and more.
While I was taking stock of all that the food vendors and merchants had to offer, Jennifer was enjoying the second half of the 8:45 Grand Ole Opry Show celebrating the Opry’s 75th birthday: Examing the booths up and down Deaderick, I could hear Porter singing his classic “Green Green Grass of Home.” Also up was Opry legend Little Jimmy Dickens. Jennifer remained for the10 pm performance of The Amazing Rhythm Aces to enjoy the unmistakable voice of Russell Smith while I only caught their first two songs. Lead singer Smith, who was born in Nashville paid tribute to Porter Wagoner and Little Jimmy, the influences of his youth, and he told the crowd, “We are one of those bands that didn’t fit anywhere. We were too country for pop and too pop for country. Now they have finally found a name for us that fits; we are ‘retro,’ and now we don’t have to worry about it anymore.” After a little nostalgia with the Aces, I left for more nostalgia, the Big Band sounds of Hoke and his Orchestra Bop, which concluded my day’s Fest-de-Vities.
Before I left, I found TPAC Director of Marketing, Kathleen O’Brien still working at the media booth. “We are thrilled with the first day’s events,” she told me. “Lunch time was very busy and the crowds have been strong throughout the evening. The best part is seeing people of all ages from all walks of life enjoying the many types of entertainment on our stages and our working artists.”
Saturday was a also good day for Christian music at Fest de Ville as the Fisk Jubilee Singers performed in the morning and Sparrow recording artist Russ Lee performed at 5:45 in the evening on the Dasani Stage, located at the intersection of Deaderick Street and 5th Avenue downtown. (Words In Time, Lee’s solo debut, just premiered in stores on September 26.) Jennifer braved the Saturday night crowds to catch several other secular acts including Bonnie Bramlett and Jimmy Hall.
Obviously the Fest de Ville is not intended to be a “Christian” event, but it provided another venue to get the gospel message out while enjoying other styles of music, and a surprising number of the artists, both Christian and secular, felt right at home singing a gospel tune. Whatever your musical tastes, there was truly something for everyone at Fest de Ville.
For more on Fest de Ville, see the following article by Jennifer Prince.
MOUNTAIN STAGE’S TRIBUTE TO JOHN HARTFORD
It started right on time, even though everything had been moved inside from the Bank of America Stage to the War Memorial Auditorium because of rain. And after two and a half hours of musical tribute to John Hartford, he stepped forward and paid tribute to his own influences, among them Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. In his trademark Derby and surrounded by his string band, John played fiddle and sang/talked through favorites like “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Watching the River Go By.” “I gotta be honest; I know everybody is here cause they think I’m gonna croak,” John said, referring to his health problems. “You’ve done your part. Now if I do my part, I’d leave here and check on out in two or three weeks. But we’ve got the whole month of October booked.”
There was almost as much music going on backstage as out front. Many Nashville musicians who claim John as a friend and musical influence stopped by. It’s not unusual in this type setting to hear the influence of gospel music. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings began the evening with their never before performed “Give That Man a Road.” It’s a beautiful song written in the sensitive style they’re known for. “I love gospel music,” Gillian said after their performance. “It moves both the singer and the audience.”
Well-known mandolin player Tim O’Brien (Real Time CD) said he is trying to “come up with stuff to help people out. I know that’s my job, and old traditional gospel is a good stepping-off point to write songs. Gospel themes are timeless. It’s not so much that you want to write new things, but you want to write about the old things that are still important – things that haven’t changed that much.” Tim and Kathy Mattea sang a duet of the John Hartford hit by Glen Campbell “Gentle On My Mind.” Kathy won the Best Southern Gospel Recording Grammy in 1993 for “Good News.” Backstage she talked about growing up in a “funky little Catholic Church in West Virginia” where she began singing. Kathy usually does gospel in her shows. A favorite of hers is “My God Called Me This Morning” by the Fairfield Four.
The wonderful John Cowan, along with his band and Pat Flynn on guitar, Bela Fleck on banjo, gave the people what they’ve come to expect from him on “Dark as a Dungeon.” He wails. He can’t help it. Like so many other singers and musicians, John grew up singing in church in Illinois, first non-denominational, then Lutheran. He obviously came to appreciate bluegrass. It’s his voice you hear on songs like “Walkin’ in Jerusalem” from On The Boulevard (1988) and New Grass Revival Live (1989) with Bela Fleck, Pat Flynn, and Sam Bush. From 1974-1990 they played all over the world. Garth Brooks used to open their shows and has recorded their songs (“Callin’ Baton Rouge,” written by Dennis Linde, from the Grass’s Friday Night in America CD and now available on The Best of the New Grass Revival). Look for John’s new black gospel flavored CD coming out in the near future on Sugar Hill Records. “I’m a huge fan of black gospel – The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Golden Gate Quartet – I’m a student of that music. I do a gospel song on every record.”
Fiddle great Vassar Clements, who shined on John Hartford’s “Vamp in the Middle,” told me about growing up in Kissimmee, Florida where he would sit on the steps of a black Holiness Church and listen to the music. “It’s [gospel] in most Southern musicians’ backgrounds,” he said. Vassar might show up almost anywhere with his fiddle in hand. But his own band, The Little Big Band, plays jazz and swing using a horn section.
Jamie Hartford (What About Yes CD) brought his band in to pay tribute to his father. “It’s nice to see him appreciated,” he said. The authentic Norman Blake was there with his old Gibson guitar. And, adding color and sparkle, was everyone’s favorite cowboy band Riders in the Sky.
Late into the show everyone joined together for “Turn Your Radio On,” an old Albert Brumley tune that John recorded on Aereo-Plain in 1971.
If you missed the tribute to John Hartford, you can catch it on West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage show at www.wvpubrad.org. Follow the signs to Mountain Stage. Artistic director and Mountain Stage host Larry Groce summed up the evening like this: “It was inspiring and spontaneous, just like the man himself.”