It is a sad week in American music as we must say a final farewell to the brilliant, complicated and world-changing artist Chuck Berry, who died on Saturday at age 90. The rock and roll pioneer had a bridge-building vision that allowed him to fuse rhythm and blues and pop into a movement that had potency beyond music. It give young generations a voice in culture and lay the roadbed toward Civil Rights. Yet beyond even that, the immortality of Chuck Berry will be in his songwriting. It’s a well so deep that Bob Dylan called him Shakespeare. Take a song like “Memphis,” which has more story packed in 165 words than should be possible, with a man pouring his heart out to a nonplussed phone operator as he seeks his Marie with every clue he can come up with. And there’s the twist where we realize Marie isn’t his sweetheart but his little daughter who’s the custody of his estranged wife. The last time he saw Marie she had “hurry home drops on her cheeks.” That kind of heart-stopping lyric is why it wasn’t a month ago that our musicians rendered a Chuck Berry song as the Nashville Jam on MCR.
Does Mr. Berry have any direct bearing on our proceedings this week? Not really, besides the fact that guest artist Beth Bombara resides in St. Louis, Chuck Berry’s lifelong home base. But we are reminded I think, by pondering how Chuck Berry directly and explicitly inspired diverse legends such as The Rolling Stones, Merle Haggard and Allen Toussaint, that this thing we call Americana is about the whole story of the authentic connections among people in this diverse and ever-cycling country. Root systems look a lot like networks of neurons in the brain, and their associations with electricity and flow and connectivity explain the singular metaphor behind this show and the musical movement we cherish.
There’s no root system deeper or denser than the blues of course, and this week as we open our Spring 2017 season, we’re proud to welcome back the exceptional and spiritually committed blues musician Guy Davis. When he appeared back on a warm sunny evening at the Loveless in July 2011, I noted that “his experience and gravitas was clear from the opening notes.” And that experience is a unique window on American history. He grew up steeped in high black culture, as his parents Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee made art on the theater stage and cultivated a world around them of creativity and activism. Folks like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier dropped by to hang out, according to a wonderful conversation with Davis’s sisters published recently in Ebony. Guy Davis, a veteran acoustic singer, songwriter and interpreter has pursued music with the same worldly, humane vigor. “I look back and see myself as a part of a historical continuum,” he has said of his relationship with the genre. “The blues — the longer it’s been a part of my life, the deeper I get into it. There seems to be no end to the depths that you can find.”
Davis has been releasing records since 1995, most recently a tribute to his heroes Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee with harmonica man Fabrizio Poggi and an eclectic collection of standards and originals called Kokomo Kidd. There, he covers Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” with panache and burns way down low with Charlie Musselwhite’s harp in a magisterial six and a half minute “Little Red Rooster.” When it comes to authentic, ambassadorial blues evangelism, he truly is The Guy.
What else is in store in this seasonal harbinger of a show? Well, we didn’t have our annual Irish blowout this year, but we’ll not let St. Patrick’s Day go unnoticed as we invite to the stage Silences from County Armagh in Northern Ireland. This acclaimed quintet offers a stylish and melancholy beauty with notes of Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley. The boys will arrive in Franklin hot off a run of performances at South By Southwest, so that should make for some interesting conversation.
The pop touches of Silences will find a compliment in the full sound of Beth Bombara, whose acclaimed new album Map & No Direction kicks off with slide guitar that evokes David Lindley’s lines for Jackson Browne, plus a hearty rhythm section. The Grand Rapids native has been making big-boned folk rock out of St. Louis for some time, winning awards there as a top songwriter and Americana act. She reminds me a lot of Natalie Merchant in her throaty vocals and slightly Celtic lilt to her melodies. It’s gorgeous and absorbing recorded work, and I can’t wait to see how it translates live.
Completing the fab foursome on Wednesday will be Portland, OR duo Fox and Bones, featuring the endearing Sarah Vitort and Scott Gilmore. They’ve cooked up a whimsical backstory that sort of guides their music and personae, based in a journey of self-discovery and even some kind of heist plus other events to be determined as they go. They’ve earned a video close-up from Portland Public Broadcasting and they just returned from an extensive tour of Europe. And yes, she wears little foxy ears that may or may not be permanent.
We’re looking forward to seeing you and to likely closing out the show with another Chuck Berry classic.