They say Tennessee is really three states that don’t mix well: East, Middle and West. But we know better. When Bobby “Rocky Top” Osborne can pick along with Memphis soul veterans, a jazz banjo fiend and a Telecaster-wielding country twanger on a stage in Nashville, it gives us hope for reconciliation in these divisive times. They can’t raise the debt ceiling in Washington, but our own “gang of six” acts sure did raise the roof at the Loveless.
Up first was the commanding Guy Davis, one of the premiere contemporary bluesmen in the world, and his experience and gravitas was clear from the opening notes. He brought a 12 string acoustic along (hard to carry, harder to tune) for the upbeat “That’s No Way To Get Along.” Then it was Delta-ish guitar on “The Chocolate Man” and dazzling harmonica on “Did You See My Baby,” when Davis seemed to sing and play the harp simultaneously. He got the crowd clapping along to his down-home pulse and set a great mood for the rest of the show.
Amy Black was in from Boston, showcasing in just a few songs the range and vocal power that’s getting her noticed around the country. “Dance Floor” had a calypso groove (or was it a rumba?) while “Whiskey and Wine” was a tasty and mournful country lament. And then “One Time,” the title track from her current CD stepped up into an R&B swagger with a cool thumpy beat. She’s got a lot of brass and confidence on stage, and it’ll be great to see a longer set in the future.
Dave Gleason was such a twangy surprise. I thought I knew most of the Telecaster-loving country artists out there, and he’s been in Nashville for most of a year, but he was a newcomer to me. His thing draws on an obvious love of the Buck Owens/Don Rich chemistry, and last night David invited the outstanding Kenny Vaughan along to be that other guitar. There’s nothing like the sound of two Telecasters played by experts, and I loved the bright, cascading instrumental “San Joaquin” for that very reason.
The contrast and compliment of the next two artists just couldn’t have been more delicious. In Ryan Cavanaugh you have a guy who soaked up traditional bluegrass as a kid and then took a banjo and headed off into the jazz fusion stratosphere. Then you have Bobby Osborne, one of the early bluegrass progressives, who today sounds timeless and deeply country. Ryan’s amazing quintet played just two tunes, but they were appropriate jazz length of nearly 10 minutes each, and they really went over. “Grand Dragon” was thick and heavy with a spectral synth part and a great banjo/drum kind of duo solo. Then “Long In The Tooth” was more lyrical and riding. This flavor of jazz is really near my heart’s core, so I was thrilled that everybody seemed to really dig it. As for Bobby Osborne, this was right down the Music City Roots alley, so his band’s luscious harmonies on songs like “Beneath Still Waters” and the rollicking joy of “Rocky Top” were like old friends. It was also just a joy talking to Bobby on stage about discovering the music of Bill Monroe and about singing “Rocky Top” on the 50 yard line of Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee, where the song is an anthem. May you be so relevant at age 79.
And speaking of aging gracefully, the Bo-Keys ended the evening on a thundering, funky climax. What a treat to have a drummer, a guitar player, a keyboardist and a singer from the golden age of Stax and Hi Records in Memphis. Scott Bomar who assembled this band of vets with legendary guitarist Skip Pitts, locked in with drummer Howard Grimes, while the small but mighty horn section swelled and dive-bombed on “Hi Roller,” the opening track from the band’s new CD Got To Get Back. As a guitar player, I was transfixed by Pitts. His parts are so thoughtful, complete and articulate. It’s rare to hear a rhythm guitar part fill so much space so clearly. Plus he showed off terrific lead chops in “I’m Going Home,” and he thrilled by reprising his historic part on the theme from “Shaft” along with Grimes on one of the most famous hi-hat parts in history. We also need to give special credit to the band’s vocalist Sir Henry Ivy. He was gorgeous on “Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” and he really elevated the Loveless Jam, joining Jim Lauderdale and everyone for a show-closing “Dock of the Bay.”
It was an epic really. Three hours. Six acts. Great vibes. And just about every style of music we could hope to feature, reminding us that we are indeed one nation, united under a groove.