While it has a decidedly mixed track record as a political philosophy, there’s a lot to love about musical collectives. They tend to spring out of scenes and communities, which comports with roots music values. And the format – a core band with fluxing instrumentation – lets every show take on its own personality. If the personnel isn’t completely set in stone, everybody’s on their toes. This week’s Roots featured an explicit collective from Boston and Dave Eggar’s traveling circus-tra (we coined the term in pre-show conversation), which certainly has collectivist tendencies. And overall, this late Spring edition of MCR will I think hold up over the years as a highly collectible one.
As Jim Lauderdale was calling us to order with “Joy Joy Joy,” his song sung by Ralph Stanley, a couple of Ralph Stanley’s biggest fans joined us in the hall as spectators. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were said to be there to catch our first act, the Scandinavian female duo My Bubba, whose attentive, carefully phrased harmonies seemed to owe a great deal to the Welch/Rawlings guidebook to duo singing. They opened with an a cappella number accompanied by some crafty and coordinated clapping and body slapping, though the overall effect was featherweight, and our hushed crowd observed it attentively. Bubba’s thumb-style guitar picking was quite engaging, and My’s Norwegian lap harp, a boxy zither, made a truly glowing and gorgeous curtain of harmonics. Subtle it was, lulling us into a state of bliss. It was the very opposite of brazen soulful passion. That would come next.
The revival and reinvention of Bonnie Bishop will, I hope, be one of the big music stories of 2016. The new album being introduced this week (Ain’t Who I Was on Thirty Tigers) is superb, but it may take a live performance to fully appreciate Bishop’s controlled emotion and delicious vocal timbres. From the first lines of “Mercy,” she filled the stage with aural light and smoke. “Right Where You Are” had churchy verses and a earthy roll. Her truth-telling and vulnerable title track was a story patiently told, drawing out chills and tears. The band was tight and funky like a New Orleans bass drum, and their precision and professionalism was super clear on the Philly soul stabbing figures of “Too Late.” Bishop makes the room bigger not just with her sound but her smile, which just keeps beaming even through the blues.
Then it was on with the collectives, and I’ll set up my remarks on Session Americana by letting you know that as soon as the show was over I ran over to buy their new album on vinyl. Because this is a band worthy of analog grooves, and I had to take some of their camaraderie and freakishly good taste home with me. We knew this group was different from their unique stage configuration, which recreates their pub setup. They literally bring their own round cocktail table mounted with condenser microphones so the string players can sit in a tight circle with organ, bass and Billy Beard’s tiny cocktail drum kit just behind. The songs were just fantastic. “Making Hay” had a slippery syncopation and a touch of film noir electric guitar but thoroughly rural subject matter, sung with gusto by ace harmonica man Jim Fitting. “Helena” brought a bit of Brit pop melodiousness with Tele and mandolin making a descending chord progression while Jefferson Hamer sang with a voice that called to mind a young Neil Young. Then the melancholy “Not Where I’m At” took a lofty, pretty turn with yet another lead vocalist. And to wrap it was a rollicking prayer to beer, beer drinking, beer making and beer appreciation, so what’s not to like? The arrangements were tightly packed as their rapport, and the overall musicianship just fantastic. Better bar music was never made by white guys sitting down.
One could only top that with a bit of a spectacle, and Dave Eggar can be counted on for that. Nine musicians took the stage as their leader kicked things off with the first of several cello dialogues with his tap dancing friend Andrew Nemr. He by the way was mentored by Gregory Hines and thus was world-freaking-class, tapping, I’m happy to say, a few feet from where I sat. Eggar’s solo led into a big rolling folk rock number about a “crooked road,” which might describe the journey connecting classical and roots music. Eggar knows its path. Next came a couple of vocal turns by Nashville’s Cindy Morgan, the first an original for a Hollywood film then a gospel grass kind of song with Dave strumming his cello like an acoustic guitar. I can’t find the name of the pedal steel player on stage left but he was sensational, especially on the anthemic “Waiting.” All this time longtime MCR favorite and Eggar collaborator Amber Rubarth waited in the wings. She really delivered on two closing songs. “Novacaine” was roots jazz from the big city and an encore paired her voice with Dave’s cello only for a haunting and lovely finale.
The Nashville Jam featured some good old Hank Williams – the bright side of the bard wherein he “Saw The Light,” and with so many pickers on stage used to the collective ideal, we had another record-worthy closing number. From each according to her ability and to each according to his need. It’d be nice if the real world worked like that too.