Belfast to Bluegrass


The Music City Roots St. Patrick’s Day Afterparty managed to celebrate that most Irish of holidays with nary a tear-soaked “Danny Boy,” or drop of green beer.

Instead, the cliche-free show lived up to its name, filling the Factory in Franklin and Hippie Radio’s airwaves with roots and branches of Celtic music and its American offshoots.

The night was bookended by traditional Irish music’s most direct domestic descendent, bluegrass, by two very different bands. Jim Gaudet & The Railroad Boys started things off with a five-song set that showcased its leader’s fine songwriting, from the comic “Handle the Truth” to the spooky, minor-key murder ballad, “The Wind Blows Cold.” Driven by the fiery picking of fiddler Sara Milonovich, mandolinist Sten Isachsen and banjo player Scott Hopkins, the Railroad Boys closed the show with an imaginative cover of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life,” into which Gaudet tossed a few subtle lyric changes, notably a tribute to Guy Clark in his line, “the song about the Randall knife.” It’s hard to have your own sound in a bluegrass band, but Gaudet and his fellow veterans have an easygoing style all their own, an unpretentious mix of folk and bluegrass that got the evening off to a great start.

Then things got stripped down to basics, with the wife-husband team of Evie Ladin and Keith Terry. Ladin sings and plays infectious clawhammer banjo, while Terry is a master percussionist. They opened with “Jump Back,” blending voices backed only by their “body music,” using torsos, legs and feet as percussion instruments. It was Appalachian string band music pared to the absolute minimum of accompaniment, but packed with an orchestra’s worth of rhythm.

Then things got genuinely Irish, thanks to Colin Magee of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, host to MCR’s recent Ireland adventure, coming soon to the Music City Roots PBS-TV show. Magee brought on four of his best singer-songwriters from Nashville’s sister city – Mark Graham, Allie Bradley, Warren Attwell and Paul Tully. The quartet did an “in the row” set, alternating songs and adding the occasional guitar lick or vocal harmony to one another’s performances. Any of them would have fit right in at a Bluebird writer’s night, a testament to the universality of “three chords and the truth.”

And then for something completely different. Pianist Erik Deutsch, who spent part of his childhood here, returned from Nashville’s sister burrough of Brooklyn, N.Y., fronting his band The Jazz Outlaws. Featuring guest steel player Pete Finney, Deutsch and his accomplices spent the next few minutes blowing minds with their unique blend of jazz, funk and gentle country textures, all in the service of memorable melodies. Too often modern jazz can spiral into deep dives of theory and technique, but like the legendary sessionmen and women of Nashville’s Golden Age, Deutsch and The Jazz Outlaws actually listen to each other and play in service of the song. From the good-natured saunter of “Pickle” to trumpeter Jon Gray’s New Orleans-flavored “Diamonds, Heels and Suits,” the Mexican-tinged “Ballad of San Pancho” or singer Victoria Reed’s showcase, “Dearest Darling,” this was music that was simultaneously groundbreaking and warmly familiar. Their set was a great example of what MCR does best (and I say that as a fan of the show as much as in my role of substitute co-host/interview guy) – it provides an introduction to what often becomes a new favorite band.

The night was rounded out by another hot young combo, Austin-based Wood & Wire. It was a return MCR date for the quartet, which now features virtuoso mandolinist Billy Bright, along with the dynamic lead voice of guitarist Tony Kamel, the thoughtful banjo picking and magnificently embroidered string tie of Trevor Smith and the granite-solid bass of Dom Fisher. Well-versed in traditional ‘grass, W&W pushed the envelope with high-energy original material from their new album The Coast. This is a band on the move; they’ve got a near-perfect balance of youthful energy tempered by skilled musicianship.

The Nashville Jam brought it all together, packing the stage with the whole musical mob for a classic that combines Dixieland jazz, bluegrass, and bluesy old-time hokum – “Deep Ellum Blues.” With Jazz Outlaw trumpeter Gray and W&W banjo man Smith trading licks, we were a long way from the Emerald Isle, but you can bet that we scared off any snakes that may have been hanging around The Factory.

-Larry Nager

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