Our audiences at Roots sometimes have the feeling of a coalition, temporarily uniting disparate fan groups of various artists on the roster. It’s a great system. Partisans of one band come out to see them and to experience the discovery that the rest of the night will inevitably bring. And rarely has it felt so much like that as this Wednesday night at the Loveless Barn. As I read the lineup at the open of the show, it was clear that each act had cells of loyalists on hand, in what was a sold-out crowd. How encouraging to feel those groups blur into a community consensus as the night went on. That doesn’t mean that my Mom-In-Law who came especially to see Claire Lynch came away LOVING Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes (and I don’t know either way yet), but the formula at Roots is premised on an elegant compromise between the familiar and the new. And it sure worked on this show. Because where some might feel whiplash, I think Roots peeps appreciate contrast and variety.
The rhythm of the night would be bluegrass/acoustic sets with ‘tweeners of loud power and passion. And up first, the pure, cool and crisp voice of Claire Lynch delivering songs from her new Dear Sister LP from Compass Records. And she delivered ample variety herself in the space of five songs. Where opener “How Many Moons” was silky and sweetly melodic, “Once The Teardrops Start To Fall” was more explicitly bluesy and groovy. The album’s title track proved a window into area Civil War history, and a stately, tuneful one at that. Then Claire and band showed a modern flash with the pulsing “Need Someone,” yet followed it with super grassy grass as they bounced happily through “I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow.” In this song the protagonists gets a little big tight but still believes his glass half full. That might describe a few folks at Roots too.
When they say (as they do a lot these days) that Nashville ain’t just country music anymore, they are clearing the path for bands like Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes, one of the city’s fastest rising pop/rock situations. They were even less Americana than I imagined, with a sound that pulsed on a hard dance beat, decorated by crackling and buzzy electric guitar and the clenched passion of Ellsworth’s voice. He stood at a keyboard, twisting and feeling the music while adding various zippy synthesizer touches and chordal motifs. The band did two long songs, both bracing and fun. They’re sure to electrify the air when they play the big outdoor riverfront gig this week. Their finish on Wednesday night was stately and grand. Their partisans and most everybody else seemed to love it.
Back to the mossy ground we went with Red June, which continues to evolve as one of the purest expressions of Americana music as I feel it. But perhaps because there’s so much of my native North Carolina in their DNA, with homage (to my Tarheel ears) to the Red Clay Ramblers, Mike Cross and Doc Watson. This trio (now plus a bass player) pass around lead vocal and instrumental duties, so it’s a small band with lots of personalities. Will Straughan sang “Biscuits and Honey” from an acoustic guitar before switching to dobro, which is really his specialty instrument. Fiddler Natalya Weinstein put forth her pure and artful voice on “Bittersweet,” which reminded me a bit of Nanci Griffith’s “Trouble In The Fields.” And John Cloyd Miller took the lead on “Cloud Of Dust,” the Dust Bowl ballad he composed and which won top bluegrass honors at this Spring’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest. The highlight however, as it often is with these guys, was the a cappella number. “Children Go Where I Send Thee” surged with feeling and perfect harmonies. The response was huge.
And huge was the band when The Oh Hellos took the stage. While their album is rather full and orchestral in spots, I imagined the duo of Maggie and Tyler Heath as likely fitting in an SUV. Not so. As Tyler said on stage “duo means something different in Texas.” And they were as visually arresting as they were musically. The bass player wore bells on his wrist. The fiddler had an 1890s moustache and a sci-fi violin. A backup singer with a purple head scarf appeared as if out of a Vermeer painting. There were two drummers – and an accordion player, all keys to unlock my heart. So when the full and cranked up on opener “I Was Wrong,” with its dense and amazing harmonies and its canon power, it was stunning and moving and surprising. The Oh Hellos share qualities with fellow Texas band Seryn, who lit up our stage a few months ago. But Tyler and Maggie’s songs are worlds unto themselves, and the thinking behind this complicated ensemble sound is impressive, not to mention the logistics. New favorites for sure.
I’d hate to follow the Oh Hellos, but the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band simply had another agenda altogether, so it was a nice night cap. After a bit of settling down as the sound system adjusted to this pure acoustic group, the band showed the experience and passion for the music one would expect from this quartet. Jorgenson (on mandolin) and banjo player/singer Herb Pedersen have been making music together for 30-plus years. And they tapped world-topping experts in Jon Randall and Mark Fain on guitar and bass respectively. All the ingredients were there to make some ‘grass most reminiscent I suppose of the Seldom Scene’s eclectic but respectful approach. Jorgenson sang an impressively high and lonesome lead on “Girl At The Crossroads Bar” and then worked the other end of his register on a very crafty version of Rodney Crowell’s “Wandering Boy.” Pedersen led with his banjo on the instrumental “Sled Ridin’” and Jon showed off his crystal cool voice on his own mega composition “Whiskey Lullaby.” It was nice, after that, to be reminded that Herb wrote the standard “Old Train,” long a favorite of mine from Tony Rice’s epic Manzanita album. Herb’s wistful take was a great way to end the set.
The big ensemble cast rallied for one more bluegrass tune with Jim Lauderdale and Jorgenson leading the way. It was the very first song I ever learned to sing on the acoustic guitar actually – “The New River Train,” and it became a showcase for some ensemble fiddling and impromptu harmonized verses from Red June. I think we all in the hall agreed that a lot of disparate ingredients had indeed been brought together into a coalition of the willing and the thrilling.