The thing that you have to keep in mind about comedy at Music City Roots is that really, it’s all about the music. Our friend songwriter, bandleader and emerging comic mastermind David Mayfield guest hosted for Jim this week, and I thought he was hilarious. We certainly hope you guys enjoyed this zanier than usual show. I tried my best to be an effective straight man. Otherwise I think my own jokes landed like dead fish. I wasn’t born with the funny so much. But I can tell you between the glowing smiles of guest artists Lulu Mae, the wide-open enthusiasm of Midday Farm Report, a bluegrass band playing heavy metal songs and Mayfield’s antics, this week’s show was a pile of smiles.
It began with Alabama songstress Hannah Aldridge, who surprised me a little with her dark rocking country fire. She sang of ghosts and bones in minor keys with swampy electric lap steel and slide guitar lending an air of southern danger. “Black And White” took a more reflective tone and told of her Muscle Shoals upbringing. “Born To Be Broken,” the title track to her upcoming album, returned to hard bluesy country music from the point of view of a conflicted desperado (or desperadette?). So that left it up to Midday Farm Report to bring the smiles. These guys are basically a father/son acoustic duo with powerhouse bass and drums in support. They came with big beards, long hair and big hearts. “TV In The Country” had a lilt and twinkle that put me in mind of Jerry Jeff Walker or Marley’s Ghost. Closer “The Other Way” swelled with a big southern rock chorus. Their excitement about playing was infectious, and that’s what it’s all about.
At the middle of the show was elegant songwriter Amy Speace, who certainly evokes smiles as well, even if they tend to be more wistful and complicated smiles than those from a back porch string band. With a delicious sounding five piece band, she kicked off with a tone of resilience in “The Fortunate Ones” and moved on to the allegorical song of broken love “The Sea And The Shore.” This one’s a masterful mingling of lyric, melody and texture, supported this night by an ambient wash of lap steel and a simply gorgeous string trio of bowed bass, cello and fiddle. That was my chill-bump moment of the show.
The seven members of Lulu Mae are smiling machines. With a couple of married couples, including Sarah Finley with her baby bump, and obviously close friends all jamming away with common purpose, the joy was infectious. Musically they put me in mind a bit of the Black Lillies or The Whiskey Gentry. They work from a country core but they aren’t afraid of laying on electric energy. “Coraline” put Sarah and husband Joel out front in a folkier vein, and “The Fiction of Speed” (interesting title) layered on sonic surprises like melodica, ukulele and trumpet. But it was set closer “Memphis Woman,” a brand new single, that really showed what Lulu Mae can do. It’s punchy as hell with a satisfying Led Zeppy riff that answers the vocals.
Iron Horse doesn’t play for laughs, but I definitely was smiling as I compared these guys to the Cleverlys a few weeks before. Both cover rock and roll bands with acoustic instruments and a bluegrass beat, but where the Cleverlys sing Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lady Gaga songs with heaping helpings of irony, the Iron Horse treatment is deadpan and focused on drawing the most musical ideas out of the blaring tracks they’re handed. So the set had an element of a parlor game, trying to figure out which Iron Horse numbers were original songs written with their bluegrass roots in mind and which were reworked rock and roll. Opener “Polar Opposites” sounded to me like the former, but it’s a Modest Mouse song. “Letter To You” was Iron Horse all the way, from their Horse And Pen album. I knew “Enter Sandman” because it’s pretty awesome and so is the Iron Horse arrangement. They actually draw the melody out better than the clenchy throated James Hetfield. I truly love their take on this spooky song.
David Mayfield had one final test of his new host-ship left, and that was to lead the Loveless Jam. No small feat this, and something we take for granted now with Lauderdale, since he’s done it so many times. Mayfield directed traffic nicely on “When The Saints Go Marching In” and after a bunch of great singing and playing, when it became clear that it’s kind of hard to coordinate an ending, he did the next best thing and led a second line parade into the crowd. Then again, there was no way a show with Mayfield was not going to involve some off-stage action. A core rhythm section stayed behind on stage and kept the swing going while the parade circled the room. And then somebody tagged it, and it was a wrap.
It was a rough week for music, what with the Miley Cyrus debacle sucking up precious air time, brain space and cultural bandwidth. Every time the celebrity industrial exploitation machine spews forth something that deranged and bad, it redoubles our dedication to sharing genuine music made by and for human beings. For another week, I hope mission accomplished. With smiles, laughter and a few groans, thrown in as a bonus.