For the second year in a row, Rhett Miller succeeded in turning downtown’s Main Street Garden Park into the site of a well-curated, daylong music festival for adults and kids. Though the leader of local favorite Old 97’s is no longer a full-time Dallas resident, he clearly still understands the city.
A single stage towered over one end of the park, while a 40-foot Ferris wheel anchored the opposite end. In between, patrons could sample corn dogs and cotton candy, try their luck at a variety of carnival games, or stake out a lawn spot to view the day’s nine musical acts.
Nine acts on one stage might seem a little cramped, but the set-up proved to be just right. The bands were never outside earshot, no matter where you were in the park, and a single stage meant there was no agonizing over which acts to see and which to skip. The more youthful acts played in the early afternoon before conceding the stage to bigger names later in the day.
Some grumbled that Lydia Loveless’ 12:45 p.m. set time was too early. “I’m not sure why she was scheduled at this time,” Miller said while introducing Loveless and her four-piece backing band. “But you all showed up, thank you!” Loveless seemed unfazed by the daytime gig. She bantered with the crowd, ribbed her band members, and cranked out an hour-long set of twangy lovelorn anthems anchored by a good portion of her latest album, Real.
A trio of local acts followed Loveless. The Vandoliers, Jonathan Tyler and the Texas Gentlemen peppered their sets with shoutouts to other emerging North Texas artists. They then did what they do best, which is play blisteringly honest takes on the blue-eyed country soul of artists such as Laurel Canyon, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell.
There were also a few cameos during these sets, which saw the crowd continue to grow. Paul Cauthen joined Texas Gentlemen for a pair of songs, and Tyler invited a local guitarist who’d rescued one of his stolen guitars onstage for a spirited romp through “Johnny B. Goode."
As the afternoon sun slowly began its descent, longtime alt-country stalwarts the Jayhawks took the stage to rapturous applause. Although they’ve never achieved the level of fame of some of their genre peers, the Minnesotans have retained a loyal following who – like lead singer and guitarist Gary Louris – have stuck around through multiple lineup and label changes, and on Saturday could be heard enthusiastically singing along to “Waiting for the Sun” and “Blue.”
Up next came soul legend Mavis Staples, taking the stage after her backing band had already launched into a warm-up tune. Staples moved across the stage with the energy and passion of a woman half her age. “I’ve been around for a long time. I’m tired,” she shouted to the crowd. “But I’ll keep fighting!”
Staples’ performance was so powerful, in fact, that the stage’s sound system sputtered out, forcing a couple of brief, unplanned breaks in her set. Fortunately, the outages didn’t prevent her from belting out her signature 1972 hit, “I’ll Take You There.”
Lucinda Williams and her airtight, three-piece backing band took the stage next with the tough assignment of following Staples’ high-energy act. Williams wasted no time, opening with a lively take on “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” Her closer choice, Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World,” was equally inspired and political.
In between, Williams covered many highlights of her vast catalog, ripping through tracks including “Drunken Angel,” “Changed the Locks” and “Foolishness.” She even added some new lyrics to the latter: “I don’t need any fearmongering in my life. I don’t have time for racism or sexism in my life.” She sang them as if they were a mantra.
At long last, the headliners took the stage. Though it was only a little past 9 p.m., most of the vendors had cleared out their wares, and the carnival games had slowed to a halt. The energy was all turned toward the stage, which made the park feel more like a sweaty, packed rock club – the kind of venue Old 97’s prefer to play.
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The band, comprising Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, bassist Murray Hammond and drummer Philip Peeples, deftly tackled tracks from their newest album, Graveyard Whistling, while also dipping back in the well for old favorites including “Four Leaf Clover,” “St. Ignatius” and “Timebomb.”
Miller seemed to bask with pride as he looked out on thousands of patrons gleefully singing and dancing along, Music was roaring across downtown Dallas, and for another Saturday, he and the 97’s were its kings.