After a year hiatus, the Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival returns this weekend with one of its strongest lineups ever, topped by three headline-worthy acts, all doing new things within old traditions.
Given her acclaim as a songwriter, both on her own nuanced albums and for others such as the Dixie Chicks and Reba McEntire, Patty Griffin doesn't seem a likely candidate to do an album of classic gospel songs. But Downtown Church is just that.
Griffin drafted the great Buddy Miller to helm the project, and Miller, who will join Griffin on Saturday at Appel Farm, brought his deep knowledge of the Staple Singers, the Swan Silvertones, and other classic black gospel groups.
Downtown Church includes songs from hymnbooks of a variety of traditions and denominations: white Southern harmony singing, a Catholic hymn/prayer, a Hank Williams tune, and a Hispanic gospel song, plus a pair of Griffin originals. Throughout, Griffin proves equally adept at the reverent ("All Creatures of Our God and King") and the revved-up ("Move Up"). Griffin was a visitor to the Nashville Presbyterian church where she recorded her album.
Also on the bill is Sharon Jones, who, like many R&B singers before her, started singing in church - in her case, in Augusta, Ga., the hometown she shared with James Brown. Now, Jones is arguably the most legitimate contemporary inheritor to the musical tradition of Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. The new I Learned the Hard Way emphasizes Jones' soulful side, although it's still plenty funky. Fronting the Dap-Kings - the band Amy Winehouse appropriated for Back to Black - Jones is a dynamo, especially on stage.
The stage is where the Avett Brothers shine, too. The North Carolina band has taken its bluegrass and hillbilly roots in a decidedly rock direction but has managed to do so without losing the rambunctious fervor of revivalists. Although last year's Rick Rubin-produced major-label debut, I and Love and You, toned down the foot-stomping rowdiness of the band's prior albums, don't expect any diminished vigor in the show on Saturday.