Court Yard Hounds @ Roanoke, VA

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Concert review: Court Yard Hounds strong and sweet

The Down by the River Festival makes crowd forget the damp weather.

That's the sort of combination that will keep out revelers without a cause. But at least 1,000 Americana, rock and bluegrass fans made it out to the River's Edge fields on Reserve Avenue. An estimated 1,400 had come out on Friday.

Although spitting rain had kept the crowd light through most of the daylight hours, it was long over by the time Saturday's headliner, Court Yard Hounds, took the stage.

The Hounds, led by once-and-future Dixie Chicks Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, brought less twang but just as much musical skill as the Chicks. They opened with "Delight (Something New Under the Sun)," a pop-Americana number that characterizes much of the band's self-titled debut CD.

Robison's lyrics focus on her recent divorce, yet neither the record nor Saturday's performance felt like bummers.

In "It Didn't Make A Sound," she sang of her heart quietly breaking, but the music was bouncy, with rolling piano pushing it along.

As a lead singer, Robison's voice wasn't as dramatically powerful as that of Dixie Chicks' lead singer Natalie Maines, but it was strong and sweet. She and Maguire combined for seamless harmonies.

A new and unrecorded song was a great example of their harmonic and instrumental power, as well as their instrumental skill. Maguire's banjo and Robison's fiddle drove their new band, already sounding tight though it was only the second show with this new lineup.

The sisters would switch instruments multiple times, but an early Saturday deadline precluded further description of the show.

Neko Case preceded the Hounds, telling the crowd that it was her first time in Roanoke, "home town of Mary Huff of Southern Culture on the Skids." She would name-check Huff a second time toward set's end.

Case's compositions are short, unorthodox and full of intriguing and mysterious lyrics. "I'm a dying breed who still believes/Haunted by American dreams," she sang in the set-opening "Things That Scare Me."

Her four-piece band and harmony singer Kelly Hogan matched her musical intensity with reverb-soaked chord colors, grooves that ranged from subtle to pounding, and astounding harmony work.

Case's voice, a resonant alto, is the perfect vehicle to deliver her unique ideas.

While most of the crowd had come to hear the main stage acts -- including The Mosier Brothers and The Black Lillies -- many walked away impressed by the action at the nearby Music Lab at Jefferson Center stage.

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