I’m calling for the invention of a new English word, because, folks, we’re rapidly using them up and we need more. The word is potenza. It’ll mean a personal quality that mingles potential with charisma. As in: “That young actress really has potenza; watch out for her!” Our new word is inspired of course by Sarah Potenza, powerhouse singer and friend of the show who stepped up as guest host at this week’s Roots and who knocked it out of the park. Great opening song. Great stage banter. And an inspired Tom Petty cover for the Nashville Jam. She helped tie together a night of extravagantly diverse music.
It felt good to start close to the ground, as George D. Hay used to say, with old-time fiddling by Matt Brown and guitar by Greg Reish. Both know the foundational music so deeply, and they play with the spirit of a square dance and the sensitivity of a chamber group. I loved the subtle innovations on my old favorite “Big Scioty” and the shifty, angular forms and driving pulse of “Kansas City Railroad Blues” and closer “Piney Woods Gal.” They choose cool tunes and play them with soul.
We traded two acoustic pickers for eight electrified or brassy musicians as Major and the Monbacks took the stage. And it was more than a superficial contrast, with a set based on straightforward melodic music giving way to an elaborate and ambitious sound that’s pretty commendable and rare for a bunch of young guys. Their music, with its high harmony parts and horn section, evoked the carefully wrought 1970s pop/rock sound of Chicago, ELO or Wings. Neal Friedman took the lead vocals from a front and center keyboard. Two electric guitarists traded Allmanesque ideas on opener “Moonlight Anthem.” There was some fine horn jamming with the drums-plus-percussionist rhythm section. I commend these guys for trying a new kind of tricky throwback.
Then came an interesting structural thing with three strong and savvy male songwriters who performed solo, band and solo respectively. It sort of put an inadvertent spotlight on the man in the middle, but I think the important takeaway was excellent first impressions of Matthew Mayfield, Bart Crow and Noah Guthrie. Mayfield was gravelly and somewhat brooding. “History” was restrained, mingling big picture with close-ups in a relationship. “Nashville, Tennessee” was an acoustic rocker with a personal story. By the end on “Turncoat” a fiery Cobain feeling had entered the picture. We predicted intensity and got it.
Bart Crow brought his road-tested country band and gave us a sampler of what I’m sure is a big, sweeping roadhouse/dancehall experience. He sang of archetypal lonesomeness in “Baby Come Back Home” and of fatherhood in “Life Comes At You Fast,” a co-write with Nashville buddy Trent Summar, who was on hand. “Dear Music” was a great concept song, and by keeping the tunes economical and stage talk to a minimum, they blasted through tight six songs in just about 20 minutes. Bart’s current album is called The Parade, and I’d think most of us were ready to join it by the time he was done.
Noah Guthrie cited Ray LaMontagne as but one influence on his soulful, textured voice. And the cat really can sing. He bounced in and out of falsetto over a steady sway in the passionate “Break The Silence.” His backstory about “Til It Thunders” channeled the Southern wisdom of his grandmother and filled in the artist as a person. Such a low-key dude with such a track record of quietly grabbing people’s attention and admiration. Much to watch for from this artist. That’s when Sarah returned to the stage with everyone else to rock along on “Free Fallin’” which I’m sure had nothing to do with the political events going on outside our hall. We headed home making up new words for how much we love music.