Change is the only constant, and Fall always brings harbingers and metamorphoses. I arrived at the Factory on Wednesday to discover that the new vinyl record shop I’d heard about had opened right next door to our Roots Radio studio and venue. Welcome, LUNA Records to our very hip music and arts corridor. Then I learned that MCR was saying farewell to our longtime and loyal office manager Zack (he got a super-cool job) and added a new team member Daniel who is a media/marketing maven and a very kind and tall human. The biggest change of all though, and we’re sharing it here first, was that alas we were not on the FM airwaves. We are in the process of changing local radio partners. We’ve had to part ways with Hippie Radio due the fact that Indiana-based owners are focusing exclusively on their oldies-based format. So sad, but radio as you probably know is made of flux. We had a lot of great times with Hippie’s wonderful air staff and team. We wish them well and we wish ourselves well as we decide on a new local radio home. Meanwhile we are always and forever on the webcast and our own Roots Radio Network, including our weekly show podcast, 40 syndicated radio stations and 85 public television stations around the country. Stay tuned, as they say.
I think we put out a dang good show over those many air and web waves this week, notwithstanding some unfortunate feedback – feedback of the stage PA variety. If you’ve attended our shows regularly over the years, you’d have to agree our audio crew does a fantastic job A) making bands sound natural and comfortable and B) avoiding the squalls that are inevitable in any big sound system. But oh my, during John Conlee’s second song, some gear got out of position and set up an epic feedback storm that the audio guys couldn’t squelch from their boards. But our crack stage crew jumped in and discovered the offending microphone and speaker love triangle and moved them. Bam, we were back in business. I tell you all this because Mr. Conlee, an Opry star since the early 80s and a country gentleman if ever there was one, just sang through the problem like a suave professional. When he wrapped his set, we requested through Jim Lauderdale that he and his guys do that song – “Miss Emily’s Picture” – again, and they nailed it. That capped off a fine set that included (naturally) Conlee’s career smash “Rose Colored Glasses” as well as a spectacular new song (penned by Vince Gill and Leslie Satcher) called “Bread And Water.” John has released it as a single to the small but very real network of classic country radio stations out there. John did a sumptuous version of “Amazing Grace” to wrap the set before his invited encore. Most fun was watching some of the younger hippie-leaning musicians back stage admiring Conlee’s timeless voice and countrypolitan savoir fare.
Set two opened with a grizzled cat in a hat and all black seated in a chair with a 12-string guitar in his lap. Somehow, despite years of fandom for Peter Case, seeing him live had eluded me and now here he was, looking in all honestly a little world weary. But what came out of that chiming flat top and his deeply experienced lungs was effortless power, beauty, insight and focused indignation. “There are two million people in prison tonight in the USA” he sang with reedy focus in a song that boiled a national disgrace down to an emblematic place – a penitentiary – called “Pelican Bay.” Case was funny and dry between songs, like a folksinger should be. He told us for example that he’d had a TV payday when a song of his wound up on one of those teen vampire shows in a scene with “two shapeshifters making love on a pool table.” His original minor-key folk blues “House Rent Party” sounded like Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett only smarter. He switched to six-string acoustic for the last few songs, including a gorgeous Celtic-inspired flatpicked melody and a chorus that evoked Richard Thompson and a sojourn off into Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die.” I just adore Case’s soul and gravel voice, his incisive outlook and his thundering fingerstyle guitar. He’s a case study in integrity.
The second half of the show took a string band turn with two groups who are on a run of shows together because, as they demonstrated, they compliment one another. Horseshoes & Hand Grenades were the scrappy, energetic old-time part of the equation while the Infamous Stringdusters brought more instrumental precision and hooky songcraft. One set up the other perfectly. H&HG gathered around one microphone (five guys, two cow hats) and stomped the gas pedal from green light to checkers, finding reserves of speed at every turn. “For A River” managed to combine careful instrumental coordination with punk rock tempo. Davey Lynch switched between harmonica and accordion, giving the Wisconsin based band a tiny touch of that Midwestern polka thing. The show stopper was an a cappella chant called “Rattlin’ Bog” that wove voices in call and response into an accelerating freight train of words. It was weird and wild and roared to a sweaty finish and a standing ovation. Between that and Adam Greuel wearing his own pair of rose colored glasses, these guys endeared themselves at every level.
So then yeah, the Dusters did their thing, which is now more varied than ever. But that’s because they’ve got four lead voices and five stellar instrumentalists who can bring myriad influences into their mix at will. “Peace Of Mind” was built on a groovy blues base with Andy Falco singing the lead. “Rivers Run Cold” had pretty, floaty velocity and the voice of Jeremy Garret with its acrobatic yearning. They put all five guys’ voices to work at once on the gentler hippie gospel tune “Let It Go,” the warm title track of the most recent studio album. This one really gets stuck in my head in the nicest way, with Falco’s fascinating guitar riff making the only instrumental backing to the song. “Summer Camp” has a delicate fiddle and banjo hook and breezy vocals by bassist Travis Book. They closed with the power riffs and newgrass drive of Colorado, where we got to see some hints and inklings of the mega-jams that distinguish the Dusters’ full concerts.
I wrapped up my night reminiscing with my Duster pals on their sweet bus and wishing I could follow them down the road from show to show. Fortunately we have our own festival each Wednesday and it stays put. It’s a case of tenacious commitment to authentic artistry and if we can help it that’ll never change.