It’s funny and sad that the first word association we in music world tend to have with “rehab” is the act of sobering up with professional help. Because it can also mean overhauling a house to make it more stylish and comfortable, a much more copasetic definition. So while some might assume that New Country Rehab out of Toronto must be one of those dissolute outfits with taco shaped cowboy hats and a boozy fan base, that’s not even close to right. Experiencing this innovative quartet on Wednesday evening at Roots, I was struck by their deep commitment to rehabbing country music itself with intelligence and respect. It was part of a great season-opening show that served up country music four ways.
New Country Rehab didn’t play first, but I start with them here because they were my revelation of the night – an exemplar of what Americana is all about. When NCR offered us a ground-up remix of “Too Many Parties” from the Hank Williams catalog, with surf guitar timbres and a punchy new melody, it was a nervy high wire act. I was transfixed like I was with that Wallenda guy last week, and like him, Rehab never wobbled. The band’s original material was even more original than that. Set opener “Empty Room Blues” began with a moody, modern aura of bowed bass and fiddle but snapped into a train beat with an Appalachian melody.
Lead singer John Showman is not in fact showy in the least, but he is mesmerizing. He led the band with a fiddle crooked in his shoulder and a voice of strength and effortless candor. Bass player Ben Whitley is key to the overall sound with his aggressive style. And recently installed guitarist Anthony DaCosta validated his new gig with his fiery solo on “Too Many Parties” and his spacey arpeggios on “The Last Hand.” That set closer started out reminding me of old sea shanties and Gordon Lightfoot at the same time. Then it swelled into rocking orchestral climax. I never thought I’d need rehab, but please check me in for an extended stay.
NCR’s modernism sounded particularly delicious after Amber Digby’s opening set of pure honky tonk and dance hall country music. Her band featured five guys, two white cowboy hats, one pedal steel guitar and a real deal upright piano, perhaps the first that’s ever been hoisted up to the Roots stage (and I don’t know for the life of me how they did it). The shuffle beats and keening guitar parts were familiar and nourishing, but in this kind of music it’s the vocalist who’s on the spot with only phrasing, emotion and pitch control to distinguish herself. Amber has it all, adding up to a sound that should endear her to fans of Connie Smith or Tammy Wynette. “I let my imagination run away with you,” she sang in one of her most potent and poignant songs. “One More Thing I Wish I’d Said,” a song she did as a duet with Vince Gill on her last album, sounded great. And as if her voice hadn’t already soared, it further opened up on the final song “Where Will You Go” in a way that suggested her long dance hall sets must be something else once she gets fully warmed up.
There are so many harmony driven folk duos these days you could start a magazine, and Knoxville newcomers Cereus Bright could make its cover pretty soon. They’ve found a comfortable sound distinguished by swoony singing and picturesque songs, fleshed out with a minimal but effective bass and drum rhythm section. One song shares its title with the band, and it’s as delicate and elusive as the night-blooming namesake flower. While “Goldmine,” the title of their debut EP pops with delight and the professions of love only a couple of snake hipped troubadours could deliver. Tyler Anthony and Evan Ford are the instigators here, and we got to see them again the following night at Scenic City Roots, where they confirmed that yep, they’re a fine band with much promise.
We wrapped the bill with Eric Brace & Peter Cooper, who must certainly have made the cover of Folk Duo Monthly at some point. I’ve seen them a lot but I’ve never heard them as boldly musical and absorbing as this show with a big, all-star Nashville band. The rhythm section of drummer Paul Griffith and bass player Dave Jacques propelled the onrushing “Ancient History” while Peter and Eric took turns with the rapid-fire name checking and word play. “Johnson City,” their great night-in-jail song, bloomed with harmonic colors. An obscure Tom T. Hall cover (count on them for these) “Mad” sounded pure outlaw 60s.
Peter told me in a short interview before the show, with writerly style, that Eric has a “big flannel voice” that’s easy to sing harmony with. I’m not sure what fabric Peter’s voice is, but together they do sound very plush, especially on the tour de force country original “She Can’t Be Herself.” And the instrumental guys? My gosh. New friend and collaborator Thomm Jutz played crackling electric guitar. Fats Kaplin provided the quicksilver steel the guys love so much. And over on stage left, polymath Rory Hoffman dazzled on mandolin, clarinet, accordion and etc. He’s a force of nature.
With such great bands on hand, everyone opted to give a hand to The Band and play “Evangeline,” and the country/Cajun waltz sounded especially magnifique with Rory’s accordion pulsing away. Thanks to all who came out for our very full season opener and thanks to the Nature Conservancy for your continued support at Roots. Hope we raised some big bucks for you. If you need me before next week I’ll be in rehab.