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Sacred Steel And A 30th Anniversary On Day One Of The Day Stage

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Dylan Estes
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Raul Malo (L) leads The Mavericks at War Memorial Auditorium while Jerry Dale McFadden plays keys.

Bright red sneakers, electric steel guitar and musical salvation just go together, apparently. That’s one of the things we learned on Thursday afternoon when Robert Randolph and The Family Band opened the WMOT/AMA/NPR Day Stage in the elegant and spacious War Memorial Auditorium. As AmericanFest’s biggest best daytime lineup inside a pristine historic venue, a large crowd surged in at noon to enjoy a full afternoon featuring The Mavericks, Tami Neilson, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Shawn Colvin and The Record Company. 

Randolph can make the steel guitar roll like a banjo, cry like a dobro, flow like a saxophone and emote like the human voice. Most of the tunes he and his five piece band offered up were from his extremely new album Brighter Days, which was produced by the ubiquitous and in-demand Dave Cobb. Randolph told WMOT’s Ana Lee that like himself, Cobb had grown up in the pentascostal church. “So he knew how blues and gospel and rock affect each other. We bonded right away,” he said. Most of the set rocked hard and quick with a funky backstep, but a highlight was the mournful slow jam of “Cry Over Me,” with a lead vocal by sister Lenesha Randolph. The band leader signed off his set with a benediction to the crowd: “Love, Peace, Happiness.” Felt that. 

The Mavericks have been widely called the best live act in Americana music, and they did their best to prove it over 40 minutes. Lead singer and chief songwriter Raul Malo began the set at the keyboard and set up the easy tempo of “Swingin’,” the Jon Anderson country hit that the band recently covered and released as the lead single off a new album coming this Fall. A three-man horn section (part of a mighty nine-piece band) gave the mellow number a Mariachi in Muscle Shoals kind of feel. Up next, another cover from the early 80s, this time “Hungry Heart” from Bruce Springsteen. 

“As part of our 30th anniversary we’ve gone back and found some songs that have moved us and inspired us” Malo said over a slow groove that bloomed into Freddy Fender’s “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” sung in both English and Spanish, with deft accordion sparkles throughout. It was intensely moving, a heartfelt tribute to the first Latin voice Malo ever heard on the radio singing country hits. 

The Mavericks are masters at pacing a set, and about the halfway point, the tempos and energy began to surge, with the old hit “Back In Your Arms Again” then “Come unto Me” with its deep twang. To close out, the group delivered “As Long As There’s Lovin’ Tonight” with its rockabilly boogie. 

The music continues for the next two days, with major artists including Della Mae, Molly Tuttle, The Wood Brothers, Tanya Tucker and more. For the full schedule and artist bios, click here.

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Credit Dylan Estes
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Robert Randolph and The Family Band on the stage of the historic War Memorial Auditorium.
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Credit Dylan Estes
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Tami Neilson brought torch country to the Day Stage on Thursday.

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