Soundland featuring Foster the People, M. Ward, Justin Townes Earle, the Cadillac Black Nashville, TN September 21-24

Soundland featuring Foster the People, M. Ward, Justin Townes Earle, the Cadillac Black Nashville, TN September 21-24
Soundland is the new name for what was Next Big Nashville, an annual festival held in Music City. Modelled as something of a regional equivalent to SXSW, it has boosted the careers of the likes of Kings of Leon, among many others. This year, around 200 local, regional and national acts in a wide range of genres performed at different venues, including Jack White's Third Man Records.

Kicking things off was acclaimed songsmith M. Ward (Monsters of Folk, She & Him). An attentive crowd enjoyed songs from throughout his career, but his nondescript vocal style had a way of coming off as underwhelming. Ward played mostly solo, but things picked up when he was joined by two members of local legends Lambchop, as well as by opening band the Dawes.

Arguably the hottest band at the fest were Foster the People. They headlined the 12th and Porter outdoor stage on Thursday, and delivered an entertaining and energetic set. Some of the extended percussion breaks were tiresome, but they mixed melody and rhythm well. Massive hit "Pumped Up Kicks" was saved for the inevitable encore, and it drew a massed sing-along.

Friday's best bet was a New West/Bloodshot bill at large club the Cannery. Young Texan singer/songwriter Robert Ellis is causing a stir, and his set showed why. He has a convincingly resonant country voice, with songs leaning to Townes-style melancholy, making him one to watch. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit then delivered our Southland highlight set. The former Drive By Trucker continues to improve vocally (his guitar-playing and writing skills have long been there), and he mixed in Southern rock, Americana and soul elements with passion and power. A riveting take on Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" was a perfect closer.

One-time local Justin Townes Earle impressed with a set close to his recent Toronto show. He looked increasingly professorial, but showed flashes of his fierier self in responding to a heckler. "If you want 'Copperhead Road,' fuck off," the muscian said, following it up with, "I remember my first beer too." Funnily enough, dad Steve has been heard using the same line.

Knoxville trio Royal Bangs drew a sparse Saturday afternoon crowd. Their sound veered from electro dance to prog rock in rather confusing fashion. Far better was an evening set by heavily touted locals the Cadillac Black. Featuring members of American Bang, the trio served up hard-hitting hard rock with reference points as varied as Soundgarden and ZZ Top. It was all very convincing, and their searing "Tennessee Mojo" was a fitting high point on which to leave Soundland.