File this one under Clarifying Moments: Halfway through an encore song by Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ Wednesday night at Roots, as Kevn Kinney and company was ripping the roof off the Loveless Barn and rending the sky with lightning bolts of electric guitars and pile-driving rhythm, I wanted to see if anybody was tweeting about this amazing set by this beloved Southern rock band. So I glanced at the wonder slab in my pocket, and while yes, there was some obvious enthusiasm pouring forth from the audience within and without for OUR set, the tweet that made me nearly snarf Blackstone pale ale out of my nose came from the Grand Ole Opry, where it seems they were having their own climactic moment: “Can’t get much better than a full house on their feet singin’ along with @rascalflatts…”
For those who don’t know about my history with Rascal Flatts, they are my bête noir, my nemeses, my Darth Vader (and no, they’re not my father). I’ve lacerated them in print and over beers. I once called them “namby AND pamby” in The Tennessean. I cringe every time they get associated with the venerable Grand Ole Opry or show up for some event at the Country Music Hall of Fame, where plaques of Waylon, Cash and Kitty stare at them. Their songs are cheez-wiz on a Styrofoam cracker. Their voices eat at me like a corrosive chemical. So, in my humble opinion, (influenced I confess by years of listening to the likes of Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Django Reinhardt, Connie Smith and great bands like Drivin’ N’ Cryin’), art and entertainment actually does get a whole lot better than a Rascal Flatts singalong. Indeed it’s better than that 95% of the time at the Opry.
But I digress. There’s a show to review, and I believe our guest artists cleared the bar set by the Opry tweetmeister, like pole-vaulters going over a hurdle.
We closed with unabashed rock and roll, and I shall return to that in a moment, but getting there, we enjoyed another smorgasbord kind of night, with American music from varied towns and styles. Nashville’s Thad Cockrell opened things up in lone songwriter mode. It was a rare appearance too, as the alt-country crooner is now focusing pretty exclusively on his pop/rock band Leagues. On display was why Thad has been celebrated for a decade: a voice of powerful purity that rides a razor’s edge between alto and tenor. His melodies bite hard, as in the soaring “Rosalyn” where the chorus floats like milkweed seeds on a breeze. For his closer “Great Rejoicing” he brought out an impressive chorus of support, including Phoebe Cryar from The Vespers and artists Bryan Simpson and Courtney Jaye. It cultivated a perfect atmosphere for the night to come.
Now apparently the Dirty Bourbon River Show of New Orleans didn’t read the memo that says “emerging artists” (often so designated in our Vietti Chili second batter slot) aren’t supposed to actually steal the show — as in packing it up, removing the furniture, absconding with the lights and sound gear, etc. I mean give other bands a chance! These guys RAVED and charmed with brazen vocals, slippery sweet drumming and a horn attack like we’ve never seen. They reminded me initially of Holy Ghost Tent Revival by way of the Crescent City. But with even more theatrical power and flair. A rangy dreadlocked Jesus-esque cat in a black suit sported a massive Sousaphone as he laid down the bass lines. The trombone player was in black tails decorated with ribbons and epaulettes. One fellow moved from arch-top guitar to accordion to trumpet as the set progressed. Their “Dirty Bourbon Second Line” and their dark, smoldering “Wolfman” and the sick syncopation of “Ain’t No Place Like New Orleans” earned them a big old encore, and they made great use of it by turning into an all horn quartet that whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Please come back boys. Please come back.
Next it was back to Music City with a songwriter whose eclectic tastes and skills have led him through all kinds of bands and ideas, from the famous De Novo Dahl to his current life as Phantom Farmer. Often a solo act, Farmer scaled up for Roots with a fine, drum-less band that played classic country music with just a dropper of surrealism. The Farmer was a heavily bearded guy under a brown wide-brimmed hat with his jeans tucked in his boots and a silky acoustic guitar. His voice? Wow, I’d say Orbison-ish, with much more curl and pathos than I was expecting. His refrain of “wild hearts can’t be broken” in his final song was a match of message and messenger.
Then some ants arrived at our picnic, welcome ones who jammed. The Carpenter Ants are a 25-year old ensemble from Charleston, WV, still working with their original four-piece lineup. That’s rare and special, and so were the joyful vocals of Charlie Tee up front and Jupiter Little from the drums. The forecast was sunny and funky as they kicked into the old Fats Domino song “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday.” Michael Lipton sparked up the songs with some clear-cutting Telecaster twang, and more electric guitar came from the unexpected guest sit-in of Tim O’Brien, their fellow West Virginian and apparently crash-pad host for the band’s stay in Nashville. They left us swaying with two uplifting gospel rock tambourine shakers. It was tight and right, as one would hope after 2,000-plus shows.
Now we don’t generally rock hard on Roots, but when we do, we try to go with an exemplar of the art form. I’ve heard about Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ for years but never came across a show. Now I know the reason for the longevity and fan fervor. They’re riffy and loud but also tight and colorful. “Ain’t Waitin’ on Tomorrow” was a high-wattage blues in the manner of Zeppelin. “R.E.M.”, their tribute song to a great fellow southern band, let things get a little more transparent and jangly. The stacked vocals and lyric checks from that legendary outfit were nourishing and nostalgic. Then leader Kevn Kinney set up the final planned songs of the set with a great story about an early visit to Nashville and an encounter with a tailgate evangelist that led into the D’N’C’ sing-along favorite “Straight To Hell.” The encore was a tour de force. I’ll be honest – I don’t tend to seek out music this pummeling and fat, but there I was, feeling every distorted note.
Jim Lauderdale led the assembled artists in a rousing version of The Band’s “Ophelia” which by the way sounds great with a Sousaphone and a New Orleans drummer. With a few great solos and some euphoric singing, we were out of there. Be sure to come back next week. It’s Guitar Night, and I’ll resist saying that it can’t get much better than that, even though it might be true.