Sarah Potenza quoted her always quotable musical pal and fashion consultant Elizabeth Cook on stage at Roots this week. “Let the fringe do the work,” she said as she talked about one aspect of her transition from coffee house singer to stage rocker and the interesting choices and challenges it brings. Sarah’s fringe was long and purple and flowy, like a jungle bird. Her friend and fellow performer Crystal Bowersox sported her fringe on brown leather pants. But there was nothing fringy about their performances or the overall sound of a mesmerizing parade of foundational Americana music in Liberty Hall on July 29. From a folk soul opening to a retro-soul funk-ass finish, it was an epic edition of the program featuring one of the best guest duo performances we’ve ever seen.
Crystal, we learned, is a new Nashville neighbor, and while she was hanging out pre-show with her song collaborator Robby Hecht, I discovered what a charming and laid-back lady she is. Then she went on stage and presented the very same self-effacing self who just happened to have blockbuster vocals and songs. She played a lone harmonica intro of “You Are My Sunshine” to kick off the strutty and self-explanatory “Sunshine Brighter.” “Bite The Bullet” was more of a downtempo prayer with a big money note and an ending that earned the first big audience response (of many) of the night. Ian Crossman (Potenza’s husband, borrowed for guitar duty) played twangy, smart solos. And the whole band really shone on the finale, when “Dead Weight” grew into big waves of beautiful chords, with Crystal’s voice leading the charge. The results included chills on my neck and a standing ovation from the crowd.
If you know anything about my predispositions and tastes, you’ll know I just freak out for accordion driven Cajun and zydeco music from Louisiana. And so it was a charge and a delight to have The Revelers come by our Factory. They kicked into the danceable, swinging “Asteur Je Peux Voir” and the six-piece band showed just how many weapons it has right away, with sharp solos on sax and archtop guitar. Drummer Glenn Fields sang an old-time rock and roll, swamp pop kind of tune on “Please Baby Please” which ended with a twin electric guitar feature. “In The Proof” had a sort of Tex-Mex vibe, showing the broad reach and intermingling of the cultures on the Gulf Coast. And closer, another French tune, hewed closest to the dry, slappy groove of zydeco music. Also there was much amiable and witty stage banter and much kindness directed toward the show and the evening in general. Merci beaucoup pour la félicité Messieurs.
I mentioned Sarah Potenza’s journey, and we feel like we’ve been along for the ride a little bit. She first played roots two years ago in August of 2013 with her country band The Tall Boys. Now she’s got The Voice under her belt, and she told us the experience helped everything, from her sense of self to her ability to, well, belt. This week’s set offered the fullest sound and most assured presence we’ve seen her yet. I loved the blues and grit of “Hard To Want.” She banged out some certified Southern rock with “Granddad.” And I loved the quirky guitar lick and moody performance on the molten “Valley of Tears.” But the highlight of our night came next – a fully realized and fleshed out take on “My Turn,” which is destined to be a calling card as she rolls out to the world next year. Its climax was emotionally ferocious and tender at the same time. That could have been an ideal set capper, but she then invited Crystal up to the stage and these good friends sang the dangdest duet on “Jolene” you can even imagine. Everything was right about it from the smoky rolling groove to the back and forth vocal lines that sometimes merged into biting harmony lines. It’s rare enough to see our guest artists pair up for a song, and this just couldn’t have been stronger.
I’d heard a lot about AJ & The Jiggawatts due to years of hot sweaty shows at Nashville’s premiere venues and the stories they begat. And while they were overdue for our hopefully premiere venue, they did what they promised, delivering slippery, shoe-sliding funk and soul fronted by the charismatic and sonorous AJ Eason. “Beale Street” married a boiling, SHAFT-like verse to a hard-edged crunchy chorus. The horn section – Austin Little on trombone and Andrew Hager on saxophone – were spankin’ spot-on all the way through, but Hager’s solo on “It Is What It Is” tickled my jazz bone. Loved AJ’s verbal call and response fugue on that one too. Andrew Muller played deadpan but deep-grooved guitar over on stage right, and he really carried the load on the set closer with the fastest wah-wah pedal action I’ve ever heard. It was a shimmy machine gun that deserved go go girls in white leather boots.
The Jiggawatts worked with guest host Peter Cooper to make a stellar Nashville Jam happen out of Bill Withers’s tune “Use Me.” It was an inspired choice that let the instrumentalists and singers take turns and shine. The show is the core compensation package. The jam is a fringe benefit.