“This is a brand new movement folks,” said 77-year-old Bobby Bare on stage Wednesday night at the Loveless. “This is what’s going on in music.” This legendary and ultra-hip country star was talking glowingly about his band (more on that in a moment) but I think he was talking as well about the whole scene and (though he had not heard them yet) the lineup of remarkable bands that were about to follow his amazing set. We proudly claim the mantle of movementhood and have ever since we started Music City Roots. It’s an evangelistic, idealistic, populist sermon from the mount for music with integrity and authenticity, and I think we’ll be nicking that bit of tape from Mr. Bare to play every day at noon on RootsRadio.com as our rallying cry.
As for Bobby’s band, yes, it was state of the American art. Band of Joy drummer and sonic skins wizard Marco Giovino plus upright bass icon Dave Roe made the foundation. It was framed out with guitarists Chris Scruggs and Wes Langlois in expert support. Windows were by fiddler/mandolinist Jonathan Yudkin. Gorgeous exterior with spiffy, expensive trim by Buddy Miller, whose guitar tone would impress Johann Sebastian Bach and his best friend God. And then on top of and commanding all, the stentorian country boy baritone of Bobby Bare. With the ease of a master, he interpreted some of the finest songs from the American folk canon against the coolest grooves a Nashville A Team could conjure. The lope and languor of “Boll Weevil” was the perfect setting for the gem that is that sad and funny song. Bare really massaged “House of the Rising Sun” into the tragic story that it is. And “Tom Dooley” was just pure, bluesy yearning country music (yeah, we still do that here). I don’t know what could feel better in the head, heart or gut.
The profound eclecticism of the night came clear in the opening bars of the second set. Well really it became clear in the name of the band itself, because there aren’t many country/folk/blues outfits called Matuto. Guitarist/co-leader Clay Ross told us the name is Portuguese for ‘hillbilly’ and while the music borrowed form the rustic sounds of both Brazil and America, its complexities and textural sophistication bespoke the band’s New York address and its members jazz schooling. They answered my oft-asked rhetorical question: if one rhythm is good, why not a bunch of them? And the polyrhythm didn’t only emanate from brilliant drummer Tim Keiper and percussionist Ze Mauricio. Clay’s linear guitar lines and Rob Curto’s pulsing, singing, sighing accordion kept things angular and interesting and dance inspiring. It was mostly instrumental, though Clay offered a vocal on “Tears” and everybody sang the “Matuto Chant”. My favorite though, as an aficionado of fusion and hybrid music was “Horse Eat Corn,” an explicit collision of Appalachian fiddle music and Brazilian folk funk. The twinned melodies on guitar and accordion are something I’ll be revisiting in the archives often.
The next surprise was a bold and brazen one. I’m pretty hard to please when it comes to ROCK. I got my ya-yas out years ago and I’m more impressed with texture and space than piledriving power. When I heard just a snatch of the Delta Saints soundchecking Wednesday afternoon, I thought to myself, “hmmm; they’re loud.” But having my skepticism melt away and my enthusiasm rise to nearly unhealthy levels as these guys performed was truly fun. Young and on fire, this five-year-old Nashville band formed at Belmont University and has honed something special. Why? Because they know how to modulate their energy. Their power is counter-pointed with finesse. They hit you hard then drop back and smolder then whip you again, so the tunes were mini-epics that also had spice and soul. Lead singer Ben Ringel is truly gifted, and his icy electric dobro playing was as stylish and on point as his singing. Lead guitarist Dylan Fitch took a solo that grew from texture to tempest in the best possible way. Good lookin dudes too. How is this band unsigned? How?
David Olney don’t need no stinkin’ record label. He’s an enterprise unto himself. He came bearing a new mini-box set called Body Of Evidence that includes his last three EPs, an impressionistically connected, thematically fascinating cycle of cycles that plays like a Robert Altman film. While Dave often gets pegged as a folkie, he never fails to rock our world with fat organic textures and vocal intensity. He opened with an older tune, the tropically touched “Panama City” from a 2007 album. Then he lifted from the most recent of the new EPs, re-imagining the story of classic folk song lovers Betty and Dupree. Sergio Webb’s electric guitars sparked throughout the set but really lit me up on “Johnson City Blues.” And it’s hard to overstate the intelligent cheekiness of Olney’s song “Brains” in which a solider lamely attempts to interrogate Jesus Christ, TV cop style.
And at last, the band I was running around pre-show testifying about, the astonishingly efficient and flexible Lake Street Dive. “Hello, Goodbye” opened with a snappy samba-like riff on drum and bass. When singer Rachael Price launches the melancholy lyric in tandem with a harmony trumpet line, the tune pops like one of those magician’s bouquets that erupts out of nowhere. Price has deep jazz singer training and a voice like crushed velvet. She’s bolstered by explosive three-part, pitch perfect harmonies from her teammates. “Go Down Smooth” had touches of Motown. “Don’t Make Me Hold Your Hand” features a brilliant and involved chord progression handled deftly by guitarist/trumpeter Michael Olson. They are all outstanding musicians, but Bridget Kearney on upright bass deserves special accolades. As her colleague Mike Calabrese the drummer told me, she has all the precision you could ever ask for plus huge heart. She plays with enormous physicality that helps tone and rhythm jump out of her difficult instrument. Count these guys as among my very favorite bands.
Jim Lauderdale played a brand new song recently co-written with Bobby Bare to open the show (more puuuuure country) and his idea to close everything up was the inspired “Mack The Knife.” With so much jazz expertise on stage, the tune really came off lush and smoky, with a scarily in-character vocal turn from David Olney and killer solos from Clay Ross’s guitar, Rob Curto’s accordion and Olson’s trumpet.
And with that Loveless Jam we closed out what I think was my favorite show of 2012. It was exactly the kind of variety and excellence in songcraft and bandcraft we aim to spotlight.