Gumbo is the most overworked metaphor in music commentary, but only because it’s so spot on. That mystical stew (the contemplation of which has made me furiously hungry) is European, African, Caribbean and Native American in its origins. It’s high-rent and down-home. It’s got one name but as many recipes as there are people who make it. And all that is beautifully true of roots music as well. And so waking up after this Wednesday night’s show, with artists and influences from the Carolinas, Texas, Nashville, Louisiana, the ATL and the U.K. – a night with banjos on both ends, with crying steel and the tightest horn section I can remember on our stage – it’s gumbo I was dreaming of.
Our booking team was clever in balancing the roots fusion of Barry Waldrep, the closer, with that of The Carter Brothers in the opening slot. Danny and Tim are warm, sincere fellows who honor everything about the legacy and traditions of their Carter Family kin and their North Carolina musical upbringing – except for anybody’s rule book. Can a banjo and a Stratocaster have a conversation? Yes, as we heard in the funky, striding “Fatback” and the Celtic-tinged “Road To Roosky.” Does a mandolin pair beautifully with a Rickenbacker 12-string electric? Yes, as we learned in the Byrds-adelic “Green River.” As the Carter Brothers traded licks and sang in robust harmony, guest electric guitarist Mike McAdam polished the whole thing to a showroom shine with his clean, pitch-perfect electric slide guitar.
Then we were off on a genre journey whose first stop was pure country music courtesy of young Cale Tyson, whose voice, from the distance of the Blackstone beer man, sounded uncannily like Gram Parsons. The yearning and earnestness was there, all mingled up with the blues. The band was spot-on, especially Smokin’ Brett Resnick on pedal steel, who has his name on a plaque on the front of his guitar and who plays in his socks. He’s also too young to be that dang good on such a difficult instrument. Anyway, the honky-tonk of “Borrowed Love” and the Mexi-cali waltz of “Gabriella” warmed the soul. Classic country seems like it’s back in the mix of Americana of late, and it’s great to see.
Up next, a wee British invasion, as the six guys from Welsh neo-folk band Rusty Shackle took the stage. They opened with their current album’s title track “The Bones” with a clear cutting (and delightfully accented) lead vocal from Liam Collins, a great stompy groove and a barn-filling La-La-La chorus. The beat behind “Rosie” had a New Orleans syncopation, helped by a smartly directed audience clapping part. The guys dipped into some skiffle, a roots tradition we’ve never have heard at the Loveless before, with the Lonnie Donegan cover “Cumberland Gap.” And we might not have had the Beatles with out Lonnie Donegan, so there’s that. Rusty Shackle, playing its first ever gig on US soil, grew ever tighter and seamless as the set evolved, until closer “3 AM” pulsed with power and finessed harmonies. A trumpet added color. The tune had as much drive as a bluegrass train song, and it inspired some dancers. The whole thing was answered with a lusty standing ovation. May all your American shows be as successful guys.
Then came my surprise of the year so far – indeed one of the great revelations of my time at Roots, where discovering new bands is a regular occurrence. How Mingo Fishtrap has eluded my attention and affection so far (especially with that name and their busy touring schedule) is frankly a mystery and an embarrassment. This is one of the finest bands I’ve ever seen, in terms of the ensemble connections and effortless, energetic arrangements. Many will see them and be transfixed by the caramel and smoke voice of lead singer Roger Blevins, Jr. And he’s amazing, singing with command, sophistication and soul. But for me the magic was where the rhythm section (including indispensible conga/percussion player Mikel Urdy) met the trio of horns. The trombone, sax and trumpet section couldn’t have been slicker if you’d wrapped them in satin and coated them with butter. According to the MRI machine we keep backstage for post-show analysis, Mingo Fishtrap lit up the parts of my brain that respond to rural gospel, Congo Square churn, Motown, Muscle Shoals and Steely Dan. And I wasn’t the only new fan. They inspired the biggest dance mosh we’ve had in months and calls for an encore that were gladly reciprocated. Consider me trapped.
The only way to follow that was to ramp up the intensity a bit and Southern-rocking jam-master Barry Waldrep and friends provided just that. Drummer Paul Riddle, founding member of the Marshall Tucker Band, brought the muscle and electric guitarist Benji Shanks the gut-shaking volume. Our pal Josh Shilling brought the swirling, jabbing keys, and Oteil Burbridge the funky, complex bass. It would be intimidating to lead this seething snake pit, but Waldrep, a mountainous man and commanding musician, had no trouble, holding his banjo like a heavy metal guitar. The songs came from Barry’s new Smoke From The Kitchen album, starting with the banjo melody and power chords of “Blackjack Mountain.” The Southern rock elements got even darker and thicker for an update of “Dig A Hole,” with Shilling and Waldrep harmonizing on the vocal. A great Allman Brothers-like guitar solo enhanced “Smoke From The Kitchen” (which may never be performed closer to an actual kitchen than it was here). And set closer “Coal Dust Revenge” featured a banjo face-off between Barry on his five-string and Burbridge on his banjo style bass, another Roots first. It was a rhythmic fusillade, enhanced by a great drum solo from Riddle. We don’t see those enough.
Barry proposed “The Weight” as a closing jam, a tune that takes a lot of listening and coordination as anyone who’s ever attempted it in an open mic gang sing knows, but after one slightly out-of-synch “put the load” chorus, they found their groove and the familiar harmonies and satisfying songwriting of The Band rang through our rafters. Jim Lauderdale, Tim Carter, Cale Tyson and Liam Collins offered great verses. Barry sang his duo-style with walk-on guest John Cowan. Because you never know what might happen at Music City Roots. Gumbo was served.