The lights were low as the Mavericks hit the stage inside the Basement East in Nashville on Tuesday night, headlining the Sin City and Guitartown Presents Better Together concert, an unofficial kickoff to AmericanaFest week. As Raul Malo and the eclectic core band of guitarist Eddie Perez, keys man Jerry Dale McFadden and drummer Paul Deakin got into place and started playing, they did so almost entirely in the dark, as if they had something to hide. Laying down a slow, jazzy groove, the song eventually became more familiar, culminating with a blast of sax that announced a cover of Pink Floyd's "Us and Them."
The group slayed it, too. Malo, with his cowboy hat, rhinestone guitar strap and sunglasses in the dark, went from hushed to howling on the big build-up of the choruses, then went right into the next song without saying a word. And it was another cover: David Bowie's "Heroes."
"Am I wrong, or is this not the greatest rock & roll band in the world?" guest guitarist Warner E. Hodges boasted at one point during the night, as Malo, seemingly having the time of his life, beamed. Hodge's exclamation could have been interpreted as a statement of intent for the Mavericks, who, on the opening night of AmericanaFest, set about being the best little cover band in the land, a collective that could do anything – everything, really – better than the rest.
The variety of music the band cycled through in their nearly two-hour set was breathtaking: reggae, calypso, country, garage rock and swing. Nothing was off limits, and the transition from one genre or style to the next was seamless, sometimes even within one song. Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" was a wiry boogie, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born on the Bayou" was swampy and dense, and "Tonight You Belong to Me" was a sweet, shuffling lullaby that still managed to rock.
"This is a great way to start the week, don't you think?" Malo asked a little later in the set. "Americana is the greatest collection of singers and songwriters and musicians." Seeing how so many of them are in town this week for the festival and the Americana Honors & Awards, the Mavericks invited many of them onstage for cameos that were as diverse as the group's set list.
Hodges ripped through a cover of "Brown Sugar," leaning in to share the mic with Malo à la Mick and Keith; Dean Owens paid tribute to his grandfather Buck Owens; and Elizabeth Cook joined with Malo for a moving duet of "Love Hurts." Revival rocker J.D. McPherson also guested, singing a mash-up of the Paragons' "The Tide Is High" (which Blondie covered) and Bob Marley's "Stir It Up."
Still, it was hard to top the Mavericks when they were left to their own devices. "She's About a Mover" had all the scuzziness that Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quartet's original demands, with some fierce organ and accordion work that made it a conjunto-garage rock hybrid. And the Mavs' own "As Long as There's Loving Tonight" emphasized the more rock & roll side of Tex-Mex.
Earlier this year, the Mavericks decamped to Cuba to film an upcoming PBS documentary, hosted by Malo. They returned with trumpet player Lorenzo Molina, who will partner up with the Mavericks' trumpet player Julio Diaz – also a native of Cuba – for a few dates following AmericanaFest. Both got in their share of solos, too, first with "Ride With Me" and later when the show wrapped up with some of the Mavericks' most beloved tunes, including "Come Unto Me" and "All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down."
With so many showcases taking place this week in Music City, the Mavericks' come-one, come-all jam was a proper way to get things rolling, with even the supporting acts bringing out special guests. Brian Wright showcased artists on his and his wife Sally Jaye's label Cafe Rooster Records, including Lilly Hiatt, Darrin Bradbury, Jon Latham, and Aaron Lee Tasjan, who helped tear through a hellacious version of "Glory Hallelujah" that closed out their set.