Day One: Waco Brothers, Andrew Bird, Tift Merritt, Gary Clark Jr. Fort York, Toronto ON, July 4

Day One: Waco Brothers, Andrew Bird, Tift Merritt, Gary Clark Jr. Fort York, Toronto ON, July 4
Photo: Shane Parent
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I brought my young family to a rock festival. Or, more specifically, I brought my young family to a roots festival. I am not entirely certain what constitutes the difference, except for the guaranteed fact that I will be familiar with more bands at one billed as the latter than the former.

The thing about going to a rock fest with kids is that they don't give a damn about most of the stuff you think is cool. And, as a general rule, you almost certainly don't care about the stuff they focus on. For instance: I really like the music. My five-year old was pretty exclusively focused on the bean bag toss in the chill-out area. (My three-year-old was basically defined by ice cream and an upright bass he saw onstage. "Dass a manornus guitar, Dada.")

Despite the frequent disruptions and hilarious distractions, the kids did wind up being dynamite wingmen for the sunny afternoon. They adored Tift Merritt (as did I), even if sound issues plagued her short set. Playing as a duo with guitarist Eric Haywood, Merritt's exquisite voice floated over the messy buzz from her guitar, simultaneously wowing and frustrating the audience. Things were more or less sorted out by the time she sang a cover of Tom Waits' timeless "Train Song," an early festival highlight.

We ran over to catch the last half of a set by the Weeks, a Nashville-based Southern rock outfit. A ton of energy drove the tunes we heard, and the stage show was full of classic rock flourishes, guitar wails and heavy boogie grooves. Two records into their career, they've got the live act figured out. They need to focus now on honing their songcraft.

Back to the intimate South Stage for the London Souls, a NYC mainstay for seven or eight years now, and a genuinely exhilarating live act in a club setting. Here, mid-afternoon, in front of a scattered crowd of snoozy spectators, their show fell a bit flat. Not their fault, really. They were up there smashing around and belting out their blues-rock anthems (think Cream or Band of Gypsies), but the crowd seemed most excited when they slipped into a mid-tempo slow jam. It was that kind of afternoon.

We caught about half of the Born Ruffians set. This was not a hit with the kids. Go figure. Headed over to the bean bags for awhile. The three-year-old kept stealing the bean bags and running away with them, to the great dismay of the give-year-old. (This is not exactly a description of the Born Ruffians' music.)

The highlight of the day was multi-instrumentalist polymath Andrew Bird. He played solo at first, mesmerizing the crowd with his looped sonic constructions, but before long he brought up his new band, the Hands of Glory. Featuring Tift Merritt and Eric Haywood, along with Alan Hampton (bass) and Kevin O'Donnell (drums), the killer ensemble tackled everything from string band folk to traditional country to bluegrass to some highly idiosyncratic Andrew-Bird-ish country music that knocked me out. What a beautiful buzz.

Gary Clark Jr. and his minimalist trio came up next and, staring into a blazing late afternoon sun, delivered a killer set of crunchy, heavy blues. A real story on the Americana scene, Clark has managed to shoot from obscurity to juggernaut in only a few years; see him live and you understand why. Boasting a deep, earthy voice that belies his age, and slinging a guitar totally fluent in the languages of Chicago, Texas and Delta blues, Clark is quite a phenom. Though I'd love to see him craft his solos (which stretched on for several minutes at a time) so as to feature more rise and fall, more melodic turns and fewer standard blues quotes, there's no denying that the man can play. Too bad his backing band, tight as they are, stay at home so completely. It's his show, but he'd be lifted ever higher if the band were allowed to stretch out too.

We wound out the day with the Waco Brothers, among the most entertaining barroom alt-country acts you're likely to see. A banging, raucous party band, the Waco Brothers kicked their legs in unison, hammered their way through a cover of the Clash's cover of "I Fought The Law (And The Law Won)" and generally ripped a hole in the gathering twilight. Pretty fun stuff. Hell of a day in the sun. Everyone was half-asleep by the time we got to the car.

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