Almost Heaven

One never likes to have a show when friends are in harm’s way, but thankfully the news from New Orleans turns out to be not too bad, as Hurricane Isaac dropped a ton of rain but seems to have not been a catastrophe. And there was apparently more mighty wind blowing around Tampa Wednesday night as well. But even with those distractions, the Loveless Barn filled up, and another excited crowd came together in body and spirit to honor something stronger than weather and waaaaaay more honest than politics. The lineup promised to be and was wildly eclectic, almost disorienting, but when you know you’re heading toward a closing set built around an album called Calling Me Home, it offers a certain reassurance.

The first thing that struck me about the return of North Carolina eccentric genius Malcolm Holcombe was that he set up to play standing. That’s different! Does it mean anything? I don’t know, but he did open the night with stand-up-pay-attention material. His long-time musical compadre and producer Ray Kennedy came along and stoked up the amps with his electric guitar, giving “I Call The Shots” and “Twisted Arms” sonic firepower to match Holcombe’s intense rasp. His lyrics (see them here) are hard to understand on stage, but they couldn’t be more inventive or challenging. Then Holcombe trended the set toward softer side. He made “Trail O’ Money” into a duet with Ray, and then for the last two, Ray was replaced on stage by Ray’s elegant wife Siobhan who sang harmony on two final songs, which were sweet and folky. Malcolm showed again why his the most mercurial and fascinating artist in singer/songwriter music. I will say however that I’ve conducted easier interviews. Wink.

On to the night’s true wild card, a fellow whom our team discovered via Asheville channels. I started out excited because of his boldness in playing an unorthodox instrument in a personal and sophisticated way. Jonathan Scales plays jazz on the steel drums or steel pans, and their warm, blossomy tone sounded great skittering around difficult chromatic passages. His band – Cody Wright on Jaco-ish electric bass and Questlovian drummer Phill Bronson – was top-flight. There were passages of time-addled dissonant beauty and passages of glorious arpeggios inspired by J.S. Bach. Jonathan showed he’s making the right musical friends when he invited Futureman of the Flecktones up on stage for a percussive sit-in. Most fun was “PanGrass” which toggled between floaty and driving, a perfect tribute to all the styles that float around our show – in one tune.

The background of Eaten By Dinosaurs is as heavy-sounding as their name, with a long stint in Wilco by drummer Ken Coomer and Gibb Droll’s two decades of being a respected band leader and sideman. As people, they weren’t ferocious at all; Greater guys you couldn’t meet. But the music did indeed roar, in colorful explosions of riffy rock. Gibb massaged his Stratocaster with passion. Willowy harmony vocalist Shelley Colvin in a flowing earthy gown/robe added to the early 70s ambience of the whole thing. “Birmingham” had Pink Floyd-ish beauty. The closer “44” was a fantastic and involved instrumental that let Gibb Droll climb even higher and shred even harder than he had during the build-up. Dude can play.

John Francis brought along a guest who made me double take. Sarah Peasall? Of “In The Highways” of O Brother / Peasall Sisters fame? The same. Her voice is crisp and country. John’s is emotional and tough. And they clicked, joining voices on the country stepper “Love, Oh Love” and then some affectionate wordplay about John’s adopted home state and its musical/cultural story called “TenneSeein’ Things.” His “Johnny Cash On The Radio” also evoked country’s past with a lot of heart. I can see why John Carter Cash is coaxing this guy’s talents to the fore.

Finally, an artist who has truly been on a personal roots music journey. Kathy Mattea’s country music had folk deep inside it when she was on the charts back in the day. Now she’s immersed in the tradition and wearing it on her sleeve. But where sometimes this brand of hard scrabble life-of-the-worker kind of folk leaves me happier in the head than the gut, Mattea has made it completely absorbing by bringing her impeccable taste and tone to these songs of coal and West Virginia. Her three companions – David Spicher on bass, Fred Carpenter on fiddle and her longtime right hand musician Bill Cooley on various instruments – created an easy, ear-tickling space for Kathy’s caramelized vocals. I just adore this woman’s voice, with its pitch precision and its nuance. She annunciates the words with the respect and clarity they deserve without sounding forced or precious. Her opening was a Si Kahn song from the new Calling Me Home album called “Gone, Gonna Rise Again” that’s as uplifting as it sounds. A Larry Cordle song came from the point of view of coal itself. And Kathy’s take on Jean Ritchie’s “West Virginia Mine Disaster” was just breathtakingly lovely and haunted. There is a small cadre of Americana/classic country females who’ve risen to the near deity level in the music culture and who get tons of attention. I truly would rather hear Kathy sing for 90 minutes than any of them.

The Loveless Jam, led by Jim Lauderdale stunt double and super tall Grammy nominated producer and songwriter Peter Cooper, also nodded to the Mountain State. “The green rolling hills of West Virginia are the nearest thing to heaven that I know,” everybody sang. We’ll be calling the West Virginia Visitor’s Bureau in the morning to see if they’ll share the video.

Craig H.

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