Jackson Browne and Lucinda Williams headline the Way Over Yonder festival on Santa Monica Pier
By Bliss Bowen
Last year, the folks behind Rhode Island’s venerable Newport Folk Festival helped launch Way Over Yonder, a two-day event on the Santa Monica Pier intended to be a West Coast counterpart, right down to the watery surroundings. (The main stage at the Newport fest overlooks the harbor.) This Friday and Saturday, Way Over Yonder returns with headliners Jackson Browne and Lucinda Williams.
Newport, of course, is one of the most historic festivals in the country. It’s where Dylan went electric, and early and midcentury bluesmen like Son House and Howlin’ Wolf renewed their careers in the 1960s. After a decade and a half of inactivity, the Newport Folk Festival revved up again in 1985, and since then has established itself as one of the most prestigious gigs for Americana, folk and indie-rock artists. If you haven’t actually arrived when you play Newport, the door has at least been opened to check you out.
Who knows whether Way Over Yonder will achieve similar longevity, but considering the number of acclaimed up-and-comers in its tastefully curated lineup, the festival seems similarly geared toward open-minded audiences predisposed to listen to new music. Its emphasis on singer-songwriters respects Newport tradition as well as LA’s own storied music history, particularly its 1970s Laurel Canyon and 1980s roots-revival chapters, in which Browne and Williams each played key roles.
Grammy winner Williams was famously named “America’s best songwriter” by Time magazine, and Browne was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007; he’s also a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and last week he was honored with the Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music award by the Americana Music Association.
That sets the bar of expectations high for other artists performing this weekend, for whom the festival presents opportunity as well as professional validation.
“I feel really lucky that I get to play a show like this,” says Leslie Stevens, who’ll be playing songs from her forthcoming Jonathan Wilson-produced album on the Carousel Stage. “There’s a heartfelt thread running through that lineup — a lot of sincerity happening.”
And generally independent; some artists have higher profiles and better distribution deals, but they’re all pretty much hoeing their own rows in the indie music field. That includes Browne and Williams, who are promoting new albums on their own labels: Browne’s “Standing in the Breach,” due Oct. 7, and Williams’ double-disc “Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone,” slated to be released Sept. 30.
Country-blues troubadour Joe Fletcher will likely be touting his “You’ve Got the Wrong Man,” a bare, gritty set that manages to evoke Johnny Cash and Lightnin’ Hopkins; he’s an old soul with an acoustic guitar and unhinged imagination, recalling a bar-hopping adventure with Hank Williams’ ghost (“Hank”) and speculating why a neighbor’s house exploded (“The Wilsons”).
Joe Pug is another unvarnished gem; with stunners like “Not So Sure” and “I Do My Father’s Drugs” in his tune bag, he’s in the vanguard of songwriters poised to inherit the mantle of elders like John Prine and Steve Forbert.
Jamestown Revival’s songcraft relies more on their signature harmonies and rustic instrumentation, but their set should also be a highlight this weekend. As should Moses Sumney’s — expect the KCRW darling to bring smooth-toned, stripped-down soul and a lot of buzz with songs from his “Mid-City Island” EP.
“It’s definitely American music, through and through,” says Stevens in her sugar-and-smoke soprano.
Once a regular presence on LA club stages, for the past couple of years the young mother has focused on making music for TV and singing harmony with artists like Father John Misty; this summer she started performing her own tunes live more often. Like others on the bill, her music is melodic and relatable, and not always simple to categorize.
“Americana or folk. To me, that’s where my heaven is — to try to convey a story or some sort of emotional happening through a song,” she says.
Way Over Yonder takes place on two stages at the Santa Monica Pier. On Friday (4:30 to 10 p.m.; $40.50): Lucinda Williams, Local Natives, Little Hurricane, Joe Fletcher, Moses Sumney, the Wild Reeds, Houndmouth, the Far West, Bootstraps. On Saturday (2 to 10 p.m.; $50.50): Jackson Browne, Heartless Bastards, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Nathaniel Rateliff, Linda Perhacs, Joe Pug, Jamestown Revival, the Lone Bellow, Leslie Stevens, the Barr Brothers, Lenny Goldsmith’s New Old. Two-day pass $86. wayoveryonder.net