So THAT’s what the buzz is about. I’d seen the Civil Wars on YouTube and enjoyed their album, and it all sounded really good. But it was hard to glean what exactly had shot them on the rocket ride they’re enjoying. There’s abundant great rootsy singing and songwriting out there in Americana, and it so often seems like the good stuff reaches the converted but has a hard time cracking music’s glass ceiling. But the Civil Wars are gonna be on the Tonight Show this week after just two or three years together. Fans swarmed to the Barn to see them. They left a Ryman audience rapturous not long ago. And now, having seem them live, I know why. Chemistry. Pure, unadulterated communication and empathy. Joy Williams and John Paul White gaze at each other and take incredibly subtle cues from each other. They aren’t a couple, but people project a bit of wishful thinking about that on them, and that’s okay. It’s just wildly compelling – and yes, romantic – to see two superb singers in dialogue, projecting energy and commitment through elegantly woven lines, bold, rushing dynamics and exciting phrasing.
And this was just one act of five! The Barn last night was all about chemistry, from Jonathan Edwards’s intimate rapport with the audience to the barn-burning Cherryholmes finale. It was packed and happy, substantive and fun. Just the way we like it.
It was a great treat to meet Jonathan Edwards, who looked so fit and lean and young that it was hard to believe he was a major musical figure from the late 60s. With his brush cut hair and bare feet, he looked like a bit of a musical shaman. And from the first notes of his career-making hit “Sunshine,” he imparted good, healing energy. He’s been persuading audiences to engage with him for a long time, so no surprise he went over great, but we see a lot of solo performers and few who seem so confident and aware of their listeners. Oh yeah, he also has a wonderful, visceral voice, and it sounded great on material new and old, especially his set-closing stoner classic “Shanty.”
The Vespers followed, and it’s been really exciting to watch them develop their music and presence. We’ve enjoyed them every time they’ve come by, but last night was the first time I thought, “Whoa, baby. Bonnaroo.” The twinned voices of Callie and Phoebe were charming and persuasive as always, really shining on the reggae-inflected song “Flower Flower,” which got the kids dancing up front. But it was “Close My Eyes” that shook me up. The song built to a dizzying climax, made full with electric bass and drums. It rocked but remained rooted. The Barn erupted. Standing O. Much bigger stages await.
David Vandervelde proved to be quite the rocker too. But a decidedly melodic one with great skills on the guitar. Woozy electric lap steel really lit up his anthem to “Beer,” and of course I heartily endorsed the message of the song. The Civil Wars I told you about, though I might also note the effectiveness of their stark stage presence, she in a black dress, he in a tux-like ensemble. It doesn’t hurt that he looks a bit like Johnny Depp and she a bit like Liv Tyler, but hey, the music is more than all there and one can’t put a price on “compelling.”
Finally, that brought us to our historic finale. The surprising, enthralling family band Cherryholmes is calling it quits after about 12 years and millions of miles. They sure made their mark, and it was awesome to have Ricky Skaggs make a surprise appearance on stage to thank them for their time on his record label and present a plaque with their Billboard bluegrass chart history. They played a nice long set, featuring their intense brand of bluegrass. I sure love their twin fiddle instrumental “Tallahassee” and I may have to refer back to our Livestream archive from time to time to get my fix of that tune. They also of course anchored our Loveless Jam, which featured the bluegrass version of “Sitting On Top of the World.” I think that’s how everybody felt, so why not sing it?