When the stage manager on Jazz Fest's Fais-Do-Do Stage signaled Americana artist Amanda Shires that she had 20 minutes left, her set started to wander. Up to that point, she had been charming, seeming naïve figure whose version of an expletive was "Holy fire!"
Wearing a plunging, sleeveless black gown while drinking Fanta Orange, Shires was a homespun contradiction--natural, but with an MFA in creative writing. At one point between songs, she asked her drummer "Tugboat" off-mic, "Are you having fun?" with genuine interest. Soon after, she asked anyone in the crowd who had Leonard Cohen's contact info to share. She then covered his "I'm Your Man," not with his declaratory articulation but a sense of discovery, as if she was figuring out a basic truth before our eyes.
Until Shires learned she only had 20 minutes, guitarist Brad Rice added rock 'n' roll counterpoint to her folk/country songs, which she played on fiddle and electric ukulele. She seemed surprised when she got the news, and in the next 10 to 15 minutes, her songs committed Americana's most common misstep as she relied on good lyrics, heart, and charisma to put over pedestrian compositions. The energy dropped, so only those close to the stage and involved with her as much as the songs connected.
When she concluded with "Look Like a Bird" from her 2013 album, "Down Fell the Doves," Shires re-found the balance that made much of the set engaging. The tempo didn't pick up, but her own fiddle playing was more aggressive. Paired with Rice's raw guitar and a bowed upright bass part, Shires was again intriguing and musically compelling. In the end, we were left wondering what would happen if she knew she had the time allotted her.