Roots music has deep virtues, but surprise is probably not the first one that comes to mind. When I crave musical double takes and jaw-drops I head for jazz, modern classical and avant-garde rock, where the fun comes from not knowing where the ground is or which way is up. But roots music starts on the rock of tradition, so exceeding expectations is perhaps more challenging. Well friends, at this week’s MCR, all four artists went above and beyond in his and her own way. A cellist/bandleader brought a troupe of amazing dancers. A Northeastern folk singer picked Piedmont style guitar. A banjo rock band blew us away. And a veteran country star played hits for the sixty-hundredth time like he was a new artist. We regularly see passion, but passion plus self-invention is what we live for and this week’s artists brought it.
Dave Eggar is one of the most fascinating and relentlessly curious musicians we know, having embraced traditions and legacies from Carnegie Hall to Galax, VA to Philippine rain forests. This edition of his collective DEORO began with the tall redhead/redbeard Dave standing at his cello (he has an extra long cello spikey thing) playing an invocation while James Luk executed martial arts moves on the floor in front of the stage. Then it was on to “Hillbillies & Bach” which matched wits and speeds with Eggar’s longtime percussionist Chuck Palmer, here playing cajon. Then more musicians emerged and they smoked my brain with the Afro-pop inspired instrumental “Aiisha,” composed by guitarist Raja Kassis. (Thank you Raja, for your CD with this and other striking, beautiful instrumental music; I loved it on the ride home.) Presently, Luk reappeared with break dancer Kamal Davis and they traded riffs on the floor as the band traded riffs on stage. It was physical and intense and elevated the energy in the hall exponentially. But it was far from over. Yet another dancer, Tiffany Chan, emerged wearing a Tibetan cowgirl outfit. She danced joyfully, gracefully and stylishly to a modernist “Soldier’s Joy,” pairing cello with the clawhammer banjo of exceptional young Tyler Hughes. The set ended climactically with “Follow Me To The Sun,” a broadly expansive and joyful stomp that saw (we’re pretty sure) Tiffany and James return in a two-person Chinese lion costume, which vamped and danced and stretched toward the ceiling. Good to get the night started with such daring whimsy and a wild standing O.
From extravagance to simple elegance we went, as Kerri Powers took the stage with nothing but a chair, an acoustic guitar and a tapping tambourine strapped to the toe of her boot. Reading about her I assumed she’d be a folk strummer, but she began to lay down some of the finest country blues fingerstyle guitar we’ve had on our stage. It was shades of Rory Block, Chris Smither and, all the way back, Blind Blake and Gary Davis. She’s got the dance and snap and melodic intent that makes the Piedmont style one of my lifetime favorite styles, and we too rarely see women focused on these skills. On top was a fascinating, strong voice rich with barbs and prickles. She was super bluesy on opener “Tallulah Send A Car For Me.” But she also slowed things down with tenderness on “Train In The Night.” And she was cheeky in “Peepin’ Tom.” This was laid back, well written and beautifully sung stuff.
We’d already had a Chinese lion dance, but now it was time for Judah & The Lion, a maximalist band from Nashville that feels destined for big stages. They are strong-singing, movie-star handsome Judah on guitar, flaked by pals Nate and Brian on banjo and mandolin respectively. Opener “Rich Kids” is slow and fast at the same time, with a seductive pulse and drive. Behind the bluegrassy looking front line is a drummer plus a keyboard man AND an accordion player, so the sound is full and orchestral. Nate’s banjo rolls were particularly effective on “Mason-Dixon Line” which is about seeing and loving the whole country but coming to rest in the South. I get it baby. The similarly positioned “Southern Ground” segued into a rousing “I’ll Fly Away.” But they really milked the final song “Water” for enthralling effect. It began with a slow-burn, chain-gang style beat and soulful harmony vocals, enhanced by an increasingly loud audience singalong. By the end, the band was thrashing around with punky abandon and somehow created fab rocking chaos without knocking anything over. There are many layers and ideas in this lion’s attack, and it was clear they could hold that up over a full show. Hope to catch that some time soon.
After three strong flavors of surprise, it felt right to bring the show home to tried and true country music, with commanding singer John Berry and a generous band taking to the stage with the title track to his 1995 album Standing On The Edge of Goodbye. There were other hits in the set including “Kiss Me In The Car” (which had Dave Eggar’s break dancer grooving energetically over by the bar) and “Your Love Amazes Me,” which I thought of as kinda cheesy at the time but which proved its solidity on our show as a fine sentimental song. As I said earlier, the surprise in Berry’s set was his focus and passion. He’s been at this a long time. He’s got little to prove. But he’s absolutely not phoning it in at this point. He wants to share his music old and new with folks, and our crowd was very much meeting him halfway. His suggestion of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” for the Nashville Jam was inspired. We’ve never done that one before, and it delivered on its title by ending the evening on a mellow restful note. One doesn’t want to fall from great heights without a soft landing.