What do y’all think at this point about Twitter? I used to fear it. I spent a few years squinting at it with perplexed befuddlement. Then I gradually got more interested and involved, and today I’m kind of in awe that it exists. Contrary to certain cynics, it’s NOT people telling you what they had for breakfast, unless you follow boring breakfast people. For me, it’s more like the news tickers of a bygone age, chirping out headlines in a steady stream. I bring up the little blue bird because it seemed to me that this week’s show lit up our Twitter world even more than most. Not that we’re in Lady Gaga territory or anything, but it was a particularly fun night to follow the 140-character fireworks. The artists were involved. They had many fans with something to say. Maybe it was the variety and the night’s brisk pace. It was indeed an event worth sharing. You’ll understand though if I use full-length paragraphs to tell you about it from my seat beside the stage.
American Aquarium has a lot of firepower in its amps and six manly dudes, but they held a lot in reserve as they got started. Opener “Man I’m Supposed To Be” was built over a subdued tom-tom beat and a wash of slow-moving guitar textures. But the sextet fired up their roots rockets for the rippling “Southern Sadness” and set closer “Wolves.” Lead singer BJ Barham had an intense gaze and an attention-grabbing drawl of a voice. They’re self-admitted downers in their lyrics, with portraits of dissolution and despair. But you don’t need to dwell on that while dancing along.
In a night of hard gear-shifting, Songs of Water came next with their global perspective and wild collection of instruments and timbres. Some tunes had strong Eastern/Persian influences, as with the set opening instrumental “Luminitsa.” Others had Celtic or Appalachian overtones, especially when the hammered dulcimer (by more-or-less leader Stephen Roach) and fiddle (the dazzling Elisa Cox) worked together. Michael Pritchard offered expert and varied percussion from the back, which is critical to keep this kind of music grounded and moving. The final tune “Everything That Rises” was a real masterwork with passages, key shifts, flow and gorgeous dynamics. Multi-instrumentalist Luke Skaggs has rather accomplished parents named Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, who watched on with pride from the crowd.
Irene Kelley was our bluegrass belle in a dazzling red dress. Her band was hand-picked from the cream of Nashville’s acoustic pickers, including MCR regulars Richard Bailey (Steeldrivers) on banjo and Mike Bub (18 South) on bass. And the songs came mostly from the new Pennsylvania Coal album, save for her career highlight song “A Little Bluer Than That,” which was cut by Alan Jackson. I’ve grown really fond of the wistful album opener (and set opener here) “You Don’t Run Across My Mind,” which was a Kelley co-write with our journalist/artist pal Peter Cooper. It has an unconventional kick off for a bluegrass song, verses that sigh and a chorus that flies. Kelley’s daughter Justyna joined in as a singer and even co-writer on the wafty and clean “Breakin’ Even” with luscious three-part vocal harmonies that included guitarist Wayne Southards. In a night of strong flavors, this was a brighter, lighter set.
The Vespers appear to be in fine shape after five years of growth and traveling. They’ve just wrapped a new album and are looking for the best release strategy, so we got to hear some of that new material and the new directions they’re pursuing with it. It’s exciting stuff, including pop and hip-hop colors that will serve them well. Callie Cryar sent the first shock waves out with her vocal on “Grinnin’ In Your Face.” The song built to a rocking climax and a soaring high note that most of us could not accomplish. She owned it. Sister Phoebe claimed the melodic lead on “New Kids,” while Callie offered the band’s first rap passages against Taylor Jones’ spanking drums. That’s new, kids! Of course The Vespers are at their best when both women are matching each other with haunted sibling intervals they seem to have invented, and we got plenty of that in the polychromatic closer “Sisters And Brothers.” The melody here (and the sentiment) will have you smiling sweetly to yourself.
So a tight and colorful show it was, whose brevity and efficiency maybe reminded me of Twitter as well. Our boss and co-founder John Walker did a great job at the podium for a traveling Keith Bilbrey. Jim led a wonderful “I’ll Fly Away” Nashville Jam. And we had a sensational crowd as well. So large but so quiet! They almost made me nervous during the interviews. We were thrilled to have the Skaggs/White family in the audience, and plenty of our usual friends and some new neighbors from the Franklin scene. We’re about the music, but it’s the people – musician and civilian – in our community that make everything go. Our friends include far more than 140 characters.