“This is definitely the best big band barn gig I’ve ever played,” said swaggering singer Jim Bianco, with little fear of being contradicted. Definitely the best we’ve ever seen too. At this point, Jim was most of the way through an audacious set. There were ten other guys on stage – schooled jazz musicians (including six horns) in formal black. Jim, in a vested suit with pink tie sang like Tony Bennett-meets-Leonard Cohen and tossed glitter confetti in the air. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was a night of style and symmetry. Bookended by awesome Amys and balanced among country, soul, jazz and pop, the 199th edition of MCR at the LC was a humdinger.
It’s always a joy to see an artist circle back to play Roots for a second or third time and to feel the growth that’s taken place in the meantime. Amy Black returned after three years with more poise, deeper songs and an amazing Nashville band. Drummer Paul Griffith set up a chug-a chug-a shake behind opener “Nobody Knows You.” Amy’s lustrous voice and perceptive heart were most affecting in “I’m Home” and “Alabama,” two of the anchoring songs on her new This Is Home album. (That disc’s producer Lex Price was up there on bass keeping things grounded.) On closer “Cat’s In The Kitchen” Amy abandoned her guitar mid song so she could dance to its slippery shake and lead an audience sing-along.
The Bankesters appear to be a close family – literally. They were gathered so tight around their vocal mic I can’t believe they made their arms work on their instruments. But they sure did, with assured bass playing from Melissa anchoring the tasty vocal harmonies of her and sisters Emily and Alysha. Mom and Dad Phil and Dorene lent voice and guitar from very nearby. Their gospel-tinged and energetic bluegrass struck me – especially on opener “Love Has Wheels” as being, what’s the word I’m looking for, oh – HARD. The vocal lines, the high harmony and the speedy lyrics were just really ambitious. The sisters took turns on lead vocals and they ended with Emily singing their catchy “When I’m Gone,” the A.P. Carter song that’s made an improbable resurgence on the wings of a flying, rhythmic cup.
The tone remained bright and uplifting as The Farewell Drifters took the stage. They’re another example of artists who’ve evolved over their Roots visits. They’ve added a drummer. Clayton Britt pretty much stays plugged in on electric guitar, which meshes nicely with Zach Bevill’s acoustic. Songs from the new Tomorrow Forever album sounded open and celebratory. “My Brother” was slow and deeply felt, showcasing the guys’ capacity for lush and lovely vocal harmonies. Closers “Bring Em Back Around” and “Tomorrow Forever” built surging fields of energy and groove, yet underneath it all is the folk music that motivated this band in the first place.
Our crew did a great job setting up Jim Bianco’s huge band. There was barely room for them. Two sax men were stage left while stage right stood two trumpets and two trombones – all manned by some of the best players in town. Bianco radiated confidence and panache as he made it clear this was going to be a set of smartly written new standards with big band orchestration, whether we or Americana music were ready for it or not. This is very happy terrain for me, so I picked up on the swing. Some in the audience were clearly picking up on Bianco’s smoldering vibes; I heard shrieks and giggles from the ladies. Jim’s wordplay and smart rhymes provided all kinds of hooks. His song about “the stuff that love is made of” was sexy with entendres double, single and otherwise. His closer “Here’s To Those Who Wish Us Well” is just a tour de force anthem to the abiding power of good will and life’s rich abundance, with a smart-ass attitude. This was a debut performance of a striking vision. We wish Jim well in his big band dreams.
But if that band played a lot of tricky chords, our final set with Amy Ray brought everything right back to the ground with clear, refreshing country music. I’m not sure which makes the deeper impression – the quality of Ray’s songs or the rich, layered alto voice in which she sings them. Her song “Anyhow” which begins with a moment from the aftermath of a dog vs. copperhead showdown (dog won) reminded me of Darrell Scott in its resonant imagery and interesting musical turns. “Pills” typified the bluesy, easy sway of most of the set. Textures from Matt Smith’s steel and Jordan Hamlin’s accordion added cushy pillow-top comfort to the grainy roots of Amy’s guitar. And when Ray mashed on the mandolin during her song “Duane Allman” it made for a proud, striding set-closer. And Amy’s suggestion of Fogerty’s “Lodi” for the Loveless Jam went so well with all hands on deck it felt like a natural extension of her performance. We got to hear Amy again one night later at Scenic City Roots, so yay.
How do we know it was our 199th show? Well with the move to the Factory At Franklin coming in July, we’ve been taking stock of lots of stuff and fearless leader John suspected we were getting close to a big round number. So we counted. And yep, next week is our 200th show at the Loveless. Be with us for that little landmark.