The night’s first good omen was arriving at The Factory and hearing a saxophone blowing outside. Leaning against the brick was a guy with a hat on his head, tattoos on his arms and an instrument, warming up and running arpeggios. Then I enter the backstage and I’m face to face with a burnished, well-used Sousaphone on a stand, with a trombone next to it. I took a picture. These – the dude outside and the instruments inside – belonged to the Dirty Bourbon River Show, the act from New Orleans that was waiting to close out our Wednesday night at Roots with their hurricane of wild spirit. It’s great to have things to look forward to.
It was a great show run-up all around. Time moved slowly. Kristi Rose and Fats Kaplin were on hand, waiting to go on with the opening band Aqua Velvet. I had a great dinner talking about life and politics with Vance Gilbert. (He wasn’t as zany then as he would be later.) On nights with smaller crowds (unlike last week, sheez!) visiting is easier. And that’s a big part of Roots y’all. It was an easy approach to a dynamic and surprising show that flowed like a river.
Aqua Velvet brought nine musicians to the stage, all of them seasoned Nashville top-of-the-liners. Leader Jim Hoke switched between keys and wind instruments. Co-founder Randy Leago played saxes of all sizes. Fats Kaplin manned the pedal steel. And there was a string section with violinist Kristin Weber and Jim’s son Austin on cello. All this added up to something one might call sumptuousity. Thick harmonies and stacked timbres. Flowing old-school rhythms and jazz chords, topped off with the dramatic, magnetic vocals of Kristi Rose. She sang “Back In Baby’s Arms” to a Mambo beat and “Folsom Prison Blues” over a smoldering ambience that conjured Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billy Joe.” Oh, and that one featured the famous guitar solo played in one case on clarinet and a second time on dobro, which encapsulates the neo-classicism of the whole thing perfectly. The band’s take on “Jolene” was wild and packed with unexpected dissonance, lending the song even more than its usual despair. Closer “Hey Little One” featured a very cool kind of countrypolitan en Espanol vibe. Sing it with me: There’s something about an Aqua Velvet band.
The Nick Moss Band approached the stage like blues is serious business. Firm expressions. Big Chicago shoulders. Dudes ready to go to work. And that they did, though it wasn’t the 12-bar south side shuffles I half expected. Tunes like “Grateful” and “Shade Tree” borrowed from R&B, soul and southern rock. Moss himself is a burly bearded man with hands like bear paws, but he threw some really delicate country bends into his resolute solos. The big revelation for me came from the two songs where his sidekick Michael Ledbetter took lead vocals. It was tone and finesse and power that I’ve heard before from Amos Lee and Mike Farris. And when Michael and Nick stretched out and traded guitar ideas, especially the Allmanesque bits of the set closer, we all felt good.
I doubt if even 10% of our audience had any idea how surreal and funny and deep things were about to get when they saw Vance Gilbert on stage with his Albert Einstein hair and heavy glasses. But when the rambling monologue began, the essence of Vance quickly shone, and that’s humanity, humor and a sense of the absurd. His faux-NPR host narration of his own “new age” noodling with whale sounds was probably the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on our stage. He sang that “You can live on Pie & Whiskey, but you surely won’t live too long” and that if “you get too close to a bird, she’ll be gone.” He’s done “My Bad” before, but this time he sang it right at a 12-year-old kid in the audience who probably is still wondering what happened. And he cooed quietly in a slow and sensuous take on country classic “For The Good Times.” There were some grown up words that might have made the radio programmers wince at Hippie, but the whole thing overall was “warm and tender” indeed.
The heightened sense of theatrics and drama only grew as Dirty Bourbon River Show took the stage. Leader Noah Adams comes on in a cape and all the guys in the band were wearing coordinated vest and tie outfits of red, black and gold. Singer Sandra Love matched the red with her dress and looked altogether awesome in dreadlocks and heavy black boots. On opener “Mad,” she provided the stomps and vocal wails, while Adams sang in a raspy Waits-meets-Dr. John voice. The set had an edge of menace and madness matched with gospel fervor and circus frenzy. My favorite was the most second-line sounding tune “Go Ha Get It,” where the four horns (Sousaphone, sax, trombone and tiny cornet) wove together and the vocals were a four-person chant about being hard up for money but rich in rhythm and soul. We heard dat y’all.
That hard but easy New Orleans groove continued through the Nashville Jam, which was no Guy Clark finely wrought composition (the title phrase “It Ain’t My Fault” is repeated over and over). But it was a great vehicle for hot rhythm and instrumental solos, mostly horns. Anyway, the musicians had nothing to duck responsibility for anyway.