Americana: dead or alive?

I’ve been wondering if Sacramento’s acoustic Americana scene has finally wrung itself out. Admittedly, it was good while it lasted, but many of the scene’s movers and shakers have moved and shaken themselves out of town or into semi-retirement, or else they have picked up electric guitars and gone the Dylan-at-Newport route of “plugging in.” The Freight Train Riders of America are long gone, Elena Powell doesn’t come down from the hills too often these days, and Jackie Greene has transcended local open-mics and achieved major-label status.

Of course, there still are—and assumedly always will be—practitioners of the fine art of acoustic Americana on local stages. Sherman Baker is still around, still playing and still making new fans. The various talents of the Alkali Flats and Nevada Backwards are firing things up around town also, so maybe my comments here are misguided. Still, something has changed.

There seems to be an alternate “acoustic scene” brewing in town, much of which circles around Jackpot’s Rusty Miller and James Finch Jr. Miller and Finch represent two of the greatest all-around instrumentalists this town has to offer, and they’ve lent their talents to two of this area’s most interesting new projects: the Sara Nelson-fronted Prairie Dog (featuring both Finch and Miller) and the Caitlin Gutenberger-fronted Two Sheds (featuring Miller). The music is Americana-based, but it is also downbeat, slow and moody. Think of the Cowboy Junkies and Nick Cave’s slower ballads, and you’ll be in the right sonic zip code.

Finch fosters a similar vibe in his rare solo shows. Last weekend, Finch brought that vibe to Luna’s Café. With the ever-present Miller at his side, he performed an effective set of songs from his upcoming CD.

Finch has always been one of the very best of the Americana scene, and his set displayed that talent. His booming, astray baritone belted out each number with a confidence and surety that has always been, and continues to be, remarkable. There is a sense of command and importance in the way Finch communicates his music to the audience. The result is that audiences can’t help but pay attention when he’s onstage.

Miller’s accompaniment, playing kick drum and high-hat with his feet and vintage Silvertone guitar with his hands, was perfect. The spare, effective playing underscored the intensity of Finch’s performance. It was exactly what a hot Sacramento evening called for: a slow cruise into a burnt-yellow landscape of California hills and roadside bars. It was beautiful.

All of this came after terrific sets by Portland’s John Vecchiarelli and Laura Gibson, and San Francisco’s superb Ray’s Vast Basement. Each performer built up the same general vibe that Finch continued. The fact that there were only two or three people in the audience (not counting the bands and Finch’s parents) just shows how disappointing Sacramento’s live-music audiences can be. Reader, you missed a really good show this time.