Bell Curve

There’s beauty in symmetry and balance in a nice bell curve. Bear with my inner geek for a second. Scientists call it a “normal distribution” when they plot, for example, the numbers of people at each weight level and the graph comes out looking like a bell. And that was the unique shape of this distinctive Wednesday evening at Roots, when we flowed from a solo act to a four-piece to a five-piece and then neatly back to four and to one. It had an order that belied Jim Lauderdale’s wackiness. It had harmony.You can’t ask for a better invoker of the muse than David Wilcox. He’s a high priest of the singer/songwriter arts, which is so much more than crafting nice tunes and playing tasty guitar. It’s about the mood, and Wilcox conjures one, playing evocative riffs during his set-up stories and speaking in a trustworthy voice. He began our evening with his song that advises lovers to “Start With The Ending.” Then he sang a song I didn’t know with poetry that really blew me away. He rhymed “generations” and “vibrations” speaking of an heirloom guitar in “Patina,” and he sang “I like the work of a country brook/That has carved out a mountain and speaks for the time it took.” All this against a seductive, layered riff. The imagery and metaphor in a cappella closer “Hot Spring” was just as moving. You can write a song, buster.

I can think of plenty of wrong reasons to catch Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons, such as helping you write your PhD dissertation on the Ottoman Empire, bailing out your boat or unloading your collection of adorable porcelain figurines. These just would not do. But scratching your itch for spitfire twang and rollicking country blues? That would be appropriate. Spot on. The guys whipped through a short set that included a wild and fiery guitar solo by Adam Meisterhans (is that actually German for ‘master hands’?) on “Womanizer Blues” and aggressive singing by Mr. Fletcher all around. Closer “Drunk And Single” wasn’t quite as depraved as it sounds; the in-your-face swing and edge remained taught and controlled.

From mellow songwriter to loud country to silky state-of-the-art bluegrass? Sure, that works for us. Russell Moore said on stage that IIIrd Tyme Out has played Roots enough to feel like family, and we couldn’t agree more. They always bring out a crowd and bring on a satisfying sound. Moore sings “Gentle On My Mind” as well as anyone ever has, with just enough soul edge, and that was their opening gambit. They performed a very cool down-tempo version of “Sugarfoot Rag” that let the song breathe and the instruments exchange ideas before they hit the accelerator and blasted the tune back to its usual hyper-drive tempo for some quality grass mashing. I sort of requested “My Window Faces The South” in my preview, and by golly they decided to do that great Bob Wills swinger. And they rounded things out with good old reliable “Only You” with its street corner doo-wop harmonies and “John and Mary,” one of their signature songs. The fiddle/banjo breakdown in that tune was just exceptional.

New Country Rehab opened its set with a slow march and guitar/bass drone that made a spooky mood for John Showman’s re-imagining of Hank’s “Alone And Forsaken.” There was a density and darkness to the band this evening that presented them at least as much as an indie rock band with a fiddle as a country band with an outsized imagination (and they are both). The sweet effervescence of “Home To You” was all there however. Then the quartet punched hard through closer “Lost Highway” with its insistent stomp, police radio vocal and hill country blues guitar riffs. I craved one more song, but we were on radio time, whisking through a show that ultimately had great pacing.

Englishman Martin Harley had to go out there after three skilled bands and take on the crowd from a seated position with naught but a microphone and a Weissenborn guitar. Smartly dressed, he gave off nothing but confidence, and once he began to sing and play, we all recognized that was fairly earned. His guitar parts danced with multiple voices and layered rhythms. His signing was commanding and honest. His own song “Cardboard King” had a sweet Southern melodiousness. His take on Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied” swelled with passion and drew a standing ovation. And that was before his set-closing, show-stopping “Blues At My Window.” He took his time with this, and others might have been tempted to rush or fill the empty spaces with sound. But Harley’s patience and brave restraint was rewarded with a stock-silent audience. His behind-the-slide string figures were atmospheric and surprising. Then, when he made the big turn and brought his full volume and energy to the song, it was the kind of dynamic stunner that makes a night complete. The barn was alive and alert. He concluded triumphantly and the crowd rose as one to its feet.

Jim asked IIIrd Tyme Out banjo man Keith McKinnon to kick off the jam as the assembled leaned into “John Henry,” which worked great with Harley’s slide guitar, Meisterhans’s sparkly gold electric and multiple fiddles. All these artists truly rang our bell.

Craig H.

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