A Square Deal

Submitted by Craig Havighurst on June 6, 2013 – 13:06

“You can change the name of an old song

Rearrange it and make it swing.”

That lyric, long a favorite of mine, comes from “Time Changes Everything” by Tommy Duncan of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. And since I first heard it in my twenties, I’ve thought it made a great little haiku-ish description of traditional music. Or a good metaphor for living well. Wednesday night at Roots, the line was sung by John England, leader of the Western Swingers, our show-opening band at the Loveless Barn and Dance Hall. It couldn’t have been a more magnificent ignition for our second annual Dance Night. The floor was full all night with one form of motion or another. Buck dancers mingled with two-steppers, and the Loveless Jam led to a brief but harmless outbreak of line dancing. Most of the audience got involved in the square dance portion. We did what our artists do – took something proven and jangled it up a little; everybody conspired to make it swing.

The Bob Wills cover was actually the last song of the first set and perhaps the only song in the wisely chosen slate of songs that could be called famous or ultra-familiar. John England and his six-piece Western Swingers opened with a swift and pulsing “Open That Gate,” which I’m pretty sure is an original and it certainly is the title track to the band’s 2008 album. The instrumental “Big Beaver” (another Bob Wills tune) opened with a jungle drum tom-tom attack and cruised on a dialogue between the pedal steel of master Tommy Hannum and the twin fiddles (yes!) of “Pappy” Merritts and Tim Lorsch. The articulate jazz soloing of all these guys – John too – was just exquisite, and the dancers responded, arriving in the first bars of the first song and two-stepping throughout.

Black Jake & The Carnies are indeed a little circus — with an accordion, a banjo lit with carnival ride lights, fiddle, mandolin and a bass drum with a throbbing chicken head. Add some P.T. Barnum attitude and some uproarious songs and you’ve got a powerful three-song set. That led from Jake to Jacob as Jacob Jones took the stage with his large and loud ensemble. The three-man Nashville Horns returned to spike up Jones’s twisty vintage rock and roll with color and fire. His opener “Nothing Is Gonna Break Me Down” spoke to the defiantly happy tone of the evening. “Now That I’ve Found You” was a sweet 6/8 shuffling R&B tune. His local radio hit “Play It Loud Ray” is unmitigated motivator of dance. And closer “Good TImin’ In Waynetown” was hot, with solos by all the skilled instrumentalists.

And then things got exponentially better because it was time for the square dance. (Get it!? Square? Exponent? Never mind.) Seriously, this is the heart and soul of the MCR Barn Dance. Seeing a small army of happy people circling, sashaying, promenading and laughing their faces off is just about as affirming a thing as you can see not involving the live birth of something cute. The band was The Whiskey Bent Valley Boys, who seem to be legit Kentucky family band-reared good old boys who aren’t very old yet and who totally inhabit their fiddle/banjo old-time music. Dance caller T-Claw, in overalls and an impressive neck beard, organized the army of dancers and got them schooled on live radio in a ridiculously short amount of time. And besides the movement and fire of the music, the fiddler known only as JR offered up some fantastic vocals on “Let Me Fall.”

Vocals are the killer app of Spirit Family Reunion too. As a band they’re delightfully shaggy and raggy, but their singing, with as many as three voices at a time (when they’re not bidding everyone to sing along) is interlocked and uplifting. Great songwriting too. “Climb Up The Corn” was fascinating and Dylanesque. “How Long To Take That Ride” was slow and gorgeous, showing a growing musical ambition. The dancing became more free form here, with some buck dancers doing their thing, some couples gliding to their own rhythm and a bunch of little kids heading into their third hour of almost uninterrupted boogieing, little Energizer bunnies that they are.

Closers was “Born On The Bayou,” a Loveless Jam tune suggested by the Spirit Family. Twenty or more musicians slammed away on the chords while Jim Lauderdale, Stephen Weinheimer (SFR), Jacob Jones and John England offered ripping odes to Fogerty on their vocal turns. One expects a shoulder hoist now from Spirit Family and I’m a little fuzzy on who was on who’s back, but there was a double decker guitar/harmonica thing going for a bit with Weinheimer and Nick Panken. There was a big finish. But the glow lingers on.

Craig H.

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