Big Bands (And One Little One)

Submitted by admin on May 10, 2013 – 13:32

Americana music is a minimalist art form, by and large. At its core is the lone songwriter with an acoustic guitar, and major heroes in our world know that their audiences won’t demand a full band on the road and often prefer the spare elegance of a solo show or a single accompanist. Heavy production in the recording studio can be seen as a departure from authenticity.

But the times they are a’changin’ as a certain troubadour famously said, both in solo mode and on stage with some pretty vast ensembles. On the charts and in our barn, we’re seeing more horns, more keyboards and sometimes string sections fleshing out bands and making some lush and large sounds. And I say more, more, more. I grew up on classical music. I love jazz orchestras and mass choirs. Of course it’s harder to maintain order and clarity as the bands grow bigger, but we got to hear a few ensembles Wednesday night at the Loveless Barn that made maximalism work.

Buffalo Clover rolled in with ten pieces, including a three-man horn section, two electric guitars, a keyboard player and a second vocalist to augment Margo Price’s impressive, cutting lead vocal. This East Nashville band fuses classic soul with hippie-friendly Southern rock into a sound that would go well with a shot of whiskey, a pint of Blackstone beer or a puff of smoke. Opener “Same Side” featured fat riffs and shaky tambourine in a feel-good scene setter. “Drunken Spree” sounded less inebriated than its title, though everyone was clearly having fun. Then things got really nice and funky as the brass section swelled and the rhythm section fell into some slippery grooves. Margo invited Jim Skinner, their friend/collaborator and the night’s closing artist, up on stage for a duet on the original “Hey Child,” and this was a killer set capper, with a dynamic melody, fabulous harmonies and a roaring climax.

There was nothing little about Little Bandit. They brought in even more bodies than Buffalo Clover, and they weren’t just taking up space. The horn trio stayed up there. A three-person string section added another layer. A pedal steel emerged. Leader Alex Caress, a stylish fellow with a fabulous hillbilly couture jacket, sat center stage at a keyboard with his hot lady harmony singers right behind him. It was quite a sight, but I was more than a little nervous about a train-wreck. But no. This was among the most astonishing and ravishing three-song sets I’ve ever seen on our stage. Caress struck an Orbison/Elvis vibe on “Pitiful Heart” which swayed in 6/8 time. He crooned elegantly on the slower “Dianna” and then it was time for “Diamonds,” a symphonic epic of sad and delicious countrypolitan, like a lost Billy Sherrill production. It gave me chills and dropped my jaw. I haven’t heard the broadcast recording yet, but I’d imagine this will be a shoe-in for a future compilation album.

Then a surprise and a contrast that I think made all the excess sound even better. The great Don Schlitz, legendary modern-era country songwriter (and Loveless Barn neighbor) did a drop-in, three-song solo set that united the audience in delight. Who doesn’t want to hear “The Gambler” as interpreted by its author? Don’s version had a finger-style flow and a somewhat different melody than good old Kenny Rogers. Then Don did a funny song about bad tattoos and he wrapped with a song I did NOT know he’d written, the mega bluegrass crossover hit “When You Say Nothing At All.” Yeah, that’s a pretty good song. Sheez.

Up next, a small band with a big sound, as the Dex Romweber Duo took us on a journey through the deep dark South with its raw but refined country punk. I think Dex always starts his sets wit “Mexicali Baby,” perhaps because it gives his guitar a chance to lock in with sister Sara’s syncopated, jazz-inspired drumming. With her head down and a crouching posture that’s coiled with energy, she uses all the textures and possibilities of her drum set while Dex wavers between precision and sonic chaos. I lost count of the songs but it was all enthralling and just the right kind of abrasive. Like rock and roll.

And then on came Jim Skinner, a man we discovered is as kind as he is blind. We just barely scratched the surface of his interesting life in our interview, but the guy glowed with positive energy and love. His appreciation for his musical friends and collaborators in East Nashville and the Buffalo Clover team infused his blues with joy. With most of Clover as his backing band, he started with a 12-bar shuffler called “Travelin’ Down Highway 61.” Then as the set progressed, some of the more soul and pop ideas came forward. “I Sing Cause I Like It” was as sunny as its title. “The Blues Is An Itch” had a great melody and really ought to be in the canon of Robert Cray; he’d freaking love that song. There were superb solos from guitarist Matt Gardner and harmonica man Bones, owner of East Nashville’s 5 Spot, where much of the Buffalo Clover/Jim Skinner collaboration happens. We wish Jim well as he continues to establish himself in Nashville and as he enters the studio in the coming days to make an album.

With that, the army of musicians all swayed together on “I Shall Be Released” and our audience was released into the balmy night. Thanks to all the artists for a really big time.

Craig H.

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