“The thing that impresses me about Lead Belly’s songs is that. . .you can interpret them in different ways,” Lucinda Williams said on Saturday night, speaking from the stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and Buddy Miller were among the dozen artists who did just that, as some of the biggest names in roots music teamed up to perform songs made famous by a musician whose folk standards have influenced everyone from the Beatles to Johnny Cash to Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Most of the near-capacity crowd attending the “Lead Belly at 125: A Tribute to an American Songster” program appeared more chronologically aligned with 67-year-old Plant than 32-year-old former Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons, who served as the evening’s host. Still, that didn’t stop the audience from swapping the formal wear usually worn by Kennedy Center guests for jeans, t-shirts and even sneakers, or shouting out their approval when Plant and Krauss — accompanied by Miller and Viktor Krauss — performed some of the evening’s final numbers, including a spine-tingling rendition “Out on the Western Plains.”
Plant and Krauss may have been the show’s de facto headliners, but their duets weren’t the only highlight of the night. Valerie June, who cut her teeth as a member of Luther Dickinson’s quintet the Wandering, performed a spellbinding, a cappella version of “Ain’t Goin’ Down to the Well No More,” then returned to the stage later that night to join Shannon McNally, her former bandmate from the Wandering, for a spirited version of “How Long, How Long.” Meanwhile, Alvin Youngblood Hart, who called himself a member of “The Cult of Lead Belly,” electrified the crowd with passionate sonic tributes of “Silver City Bound” and “Alberta.”
Perhaps the most thoughtful performances of the evening came from Josh White Jr. and Dan Zanes, the latter accompanied by musical partner Ashley Phillips. White, whose father performed with Lead Belly, brought the crowd to its feet for its first and heartiest standing ovation with “House of the Rising Sun.” “Don’t get me crying up here,” he said, rubbing his eyes. Taking the stage minutes before White, Zanes and Phillips delivered charming interpretations of family-friendly songs such as “Boll Weevil.”
Yet it was Williams whose set felt like a true mini-musical biography of Lead Belly’s music and life. Her performances of “Into the Pines,” “Rock Island Lines,” “Jim Crow’s Blues” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” — which was famously covered by Nirvana — touched on the racism and poverty faced by Lead Belly, an outspoken critic of discrimination whose death on December 6, 1949, arrived less than a year before his songs gained commercial success.
All performers returned to the stage to end the evening with spirited sing-alongs of “Goodnight, Irene” and “Midnight Special.” As the final notes rang, Lead Belly’s black and white portrait stared out at the crowd from the Jumbotron resting above the stage, a reminder that even in roots music, it helps to remember your roots.