A Showman’s Life

A running theme of this chronicle is my everlasting amazement that even after hearing so much great music over several decades, new artists and bands can still flip me over as if I was a teenager discovering this whole big bag of cats for the first time. It’s one of life’s miracles that no matter how many sound waves have been instigated by however many groups in however many moods, there remain infinite possibilities for making unique statements.

I certainly got that buzz last year when New Country Rehab visited us for the first time. It was a “where has this band been all my life” moment, for a bunch of reasons. Four simple puzzle pieces – acoustic bass, drums, guitar and fiddle – fit together with economy and tension. The songs had space and surprising colors, as in “Home To You” where Anthony daCosta’s clean guitar blossoms into broad suspended chords against a restrained pulse from the bass. It’s in Roman Tomé’s carefully wrought background vocals from the drums. All this is capped by the calm but assertive voice of John Showman, the guy who put this Toronto-based band together in late 2008.

Showman’s fiddle is an important part of New Country Rehab, especially his rare ability to play harmony lines while singing. While it’s usually played in out-of-the-box style, there are overtones of his parallel life as one of Canada’s best old-time and bluegrass fiddle players. If NCR is a re-imagining of country, rock and pop, John’s longer running band the Foggy Hogtown Boys is a truly fine and inspiring traditional bluegrass band. Showman plays solo fiddle too, and his deft touch and ear for the ancient signifiers earned him a prestigious championship at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, WV a few years ago. This is all the more impressive given that he had no concept of this school of music before adulthood.

“I started playing classical music as a kid,” Showman told me in our chat room interview at Roots in 2013. “The first time I heard fiddle music I was 21. I thought it was the silliest thing I’d ever heard in my life. Then I actually started listening to it and appreciating what it’s about. It’s been 21 years since then and I haven’t looked back. I’ve been making a living at it about 18 years.” By and large, the bluegrass band remains at home anchoring High Lonesome Wednesdays at Toronto’s Silver Dollar Room, whileNew Country Rehab seems perpetually on the go, rehabilitating country music all over the US, Canada and Europe. It will be a treat welcoming them back to the Loveless.

David Wilcox is an experience showman as well. When you’re a lone singer with but two hands and a guitar you have to be. An evening with this North Carolina veteran songwriter is unfailingly intimate and connecting. He commands intense affection and loyalty because he’s loyal to his fans and his art. He looks for ways to transcend mere performance and cultivate an atmosphere of actual healing. In February he releasedBlaze, which is something like the 18th album of his career. And it’s surprisingly driving and full, setting aside his close-miked fingerstyle acoustic guitar for some tasty chiming electric guitars and a comfortable pop soundscape. Whether Wilcox returns to Roots as a solo troubadour or fronting a band, it’ll be sincere and excellent.

This week will also feature a visit from Roots staples Russell Moore &IIIrdTyme Out, and I say that trying to fully take in how much that means to us. These guys have received more awards as a group and individual pickers as nearly anyone in bluegrass, and they play bluegrass that dials in on all the features of the music that make it important. They can mash and drive with fervor. They can slay you with a gospel classic. They can swing like Bob Wills, as they do on my beloved “Window Faces The South.” And as their recent disc of classic covers shows, they can re-invent and re-mix. You may have been with us to hear these guys do their a cappella take on “Only You” for example. It always brings down the house. It’s just a day at work for one of the most reliable and impressive bands out there.

Newcomers to Roots this week include a slide guitar master from Britain and an energetic band leader and scene-maker from Providence. The latter is Joe Fletcher, who seems to be part of the scene that produced Deer Tick. He’s an Americana songwriter who performs solo and with the band signed up for Wednesday night, The Wrong Reasons. I last saw Fletcher’s name listed as the curator and mastermind of last year’s Nashville To Newport stage at the famed folk festival. He has strong ties to a bunch of East Nashville bands and recently he’s been touring with The Devil Makes Three and Band of Heathens. Finally, we’ll be eagerly anticipating a set from Martin Harley, who gets rave write-ups from the British press for his acoustic folk blues. Maverick magazine for example called his current Mojo Fix album “a mature and intelligent masterpiece of Americana roots music.” That album’s cover, featuring Harley in a slick suit and tie standing between two Mardis Gras Indian chiefs, is all I need to pique my curiosity.

After a female-heavy week, that’s a whole bunch of men. But men who know how to put on a show.

Craig H.

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