Italians with harmonicas. Memphians with ukuleles. Chicagoans with dreadlocks. We’re up for anything that swings at Roots, and this week we experienced all that and more, including an audience that came with open minds and big ears. This was one of those weeks where I showed up as curious as anyone, having researched the artists to the best of my ability but with no prior experience and no clear sense of how they’d fit together. But they were wonderful and more than fitting.
Friend of the show Larry Nager recommended his friends in the Memphis Ukulele Band for a set and we’re glad he did. They sat in a row at the front of the stage – four men of various ages with ukes of various styles and colors plus a young woman in the middle with a tambourine. Her name is Kyndle McMahan, and she had much more going on than percussion parts. She turned out to be a beautiful singer with a spot-on, colorful voice that was featured on “Blue Bayou” (sounding great against a wash of shimmering ukulele strings), the sassy soul of “Valerie” and the Ann Peebles song “You Keep Me Hanging On.” There is clearly much more to come from this young singer. Meanwhile, the dudes more than held their own on swinging, hot jazz sorts of tunes featuring some impressive lead uke over on my side of the stage.
I told this to La Terza Classe on stage and I’ll tell you now. Between their first appearance on Roots less than two years ago and now, they’ve gone from joyful and shaggy to impressively tight and musically complete. They did standard American folk songs, but each one had its own twist and feeling, with smart arrangements and feisty groove. Biagio offered speedy harmonica on “Nine Pound Hammer” plus brilliant personality and magnetism throughout, including in our chat room. Rolando’s bass solo on “Wayfaring Stranger” caught my ear. Adriano’s muted trumpet playing on an original song was clean and bluesy. But best of all was the vocal harmony. When they joined four or more voices together, as they did set closer “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” they just nailed it. They come off with a bit of a formal feeling of Weavers era folk music, but then this band from Naples is living its own iteration of the folk revival, and it’s reviving to hear it. I noted the second standing ovation of the night, but there were two more to come.
From one band of wanderers to the Way Down Wanderers we went, and these young dreadlocked fellows brought the night’s rocking energy. Even with the cutting, arresting voices of Collin Krause and Austin Thompson on display, the opening tune “Path To Follow” was all about a punchy fusion of drums and banjo. Austin’s vocal leads like “Dead Birds” had a rippling and dense quality almost like rapping. Collin’s songs like Blacktop Highway” had more raspy tenderness. Musically there were jungle drums and mandolin in “Up North,” alt-Irish-country fiddle in “Sweet Morning Vision” and punk grass pogo drive in closer “Truth, Son.” Everybody it seemed loved this improbably poised and focused new band.
Of the four bands of the night, Julie Rhodes and company was the most unadorned and free of hooks. No progressive hair styles, quirky instruments or stamped passports. What this quartet brought was foundational American music and brilliant tone all around. Julie’s voice is brassy and malleable and emotional. Danny Roaman’s vintage electric guitars sounded just stunning as he massaged them with both fingers and slide. This plus a funky, supple rhythm section made hearty musical soul food enhanced by fine songwriting. I loved the country soul of “Go On Sweet Love Of Mine” and the flowing funk of “Collector Man.” She told us in her interview how big an impact the Newport Folk Festival had on her, and we hope Julie has a big impact on that festival and others in the coming years.
Guest host Peter Cooper led a Nashville Jam edition of “Rolling On A River” and with that another season came to a close. I can’t believe how much has happened since January. We got to welcome back some of our favorite current Americana stars (Della Mae, Elizabeth Cook, Steeldrivers, Honeyhoney). We hosted amazing Roots debuts by major figures like Michael Martin Murphey, Secret Sisters and Robben Ford. How about that Sam Phillips celebration with Bobby Rush and Sleepy LaBeef? And our recent Berklee night with Gillian & Dave? How about Blackberry Smoke and Chester Thompson bookending a show? And another communion with the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival? I can’t recall a finer season set-for-set. Thanks for being part of it. Just two weeks off and we’ll be back at the Factory on April 13. Hope that fits your schedule.