If you want to put up a building you have to dig to bedrock. If you want to bury a body, a not uncommon contemplation in bluegrass, you dig a hole in the cold, cold ground. And if you want to expose the roots of something, ditto. Bring a spade. We dig for information. We dig deep when we commit to getting something right. And when we love something, in a hip kind of way, we dig it. Seems like all of the above applied to our night at the Loveless Barn this week, as our show dug through the layers of roots music, from the busy and stylish to the earthy and simple.
In opening the show with Seryn, the audacious and anthemic folk rock group out of Denton, Texas, we trusted you, dear listeners, to need no easing into the evening. They appeared and sang “Disappear” at full thrust. The documentary being made about the band is called Canvas of Sound, and that’s an apt description for what Seryn does. I don’t listen to these guys for the words; for me it’s all about the passion and the textures and the tasty chord clusters in their two-, three- and four-part vocal harmonies. Nathan James Allen said in his interview that he’d evolved from a rigid acoustic-guitars-only posture to electric only at the band’s urging, which was interesting to learn, because his clear, spectral and echoing guitar, reminiscent at times of U2’s Edge, is one of the band’s most powerful signatures. Trenton Wheeler is a powerful singer and he makes a lot happen with a ukulele as well. Jenny Moscoso showed great range playing keys, banjo and guitar, while singing beautifully.
Matrimony took us a little farther toward the roots with a folk rock attack that at times seemed as if somebody had taken Seryn’s music and dialed down the “abstract” knob. But to be sure, they offered many distinctive musical statements, including shifting moods and rhythms. Ashlee Hardee Brown’s clean, cutting voice was front and center on “Giant” in which a ballad-like head plunged into a driving mid-section that evoked the 80s new wave radio of my Carolina youth. The band is from North Carolina too so I heard a southern twang in Jimmy Brown’s Northern Irish accent. “Mecklenburg Co. Jail” had distinctly country touches. The mix of roots with rocky riffy power made for a great on-your-toes set.
Then somebody slid up the bluegrass fader in the mix as the Deadly Gentlemen took the stage. Truth be told there’s as much debt to the Beatles as Bill Monroe, but therein lies the charm. “Thieving In The Evening” was a funky blues where they established the vocal duo core of Stash Wyslouch (guitar) and Adam Chaffins (bass). Given that Adam, a long-time friend of and frequent sideman on Roots has only been in the band since November, we can see how flexible the DG are, ready to do whatever’s best for the music. The vocals slipped in between harmony and unison on “Bored Of The Raging” with its big hummable melody. They also do this thing where tunes set up in stately four/four time can suddenly add a whip-fast sixteenth note part, as with Mike Barnett’s fiddle on “Faded Star.” They wrapped up their set with actual Beatles and a rousing take on “I Saw Her Standing There.” But I would have mentioned The Beatles even if they hadn’t played The Beatles.
A little bit deeper in our dig came Ray Benson, offering up a sublime songwriter performance that placed his rich and under-appreciated voice up front. Though what was going on everywhere else was pretty fine too, because his band for the night and this tour is the incredibly skilled Austin outfit Milk Drive. “Give Me Some Peace” was a swift folk rocker with a dazzling chorus. “Killed by a 45” had country vibes and subject matter, including love, desperation and death. A Waylon Jennings/ Gary Nicholson song let Ray turn in a vulnerable ballad. But then the jam was on, as “It Ain’t You” built and built to ripping solos and ultimately one of those performances that earned all kinds of scribbled stars on my note cards. The set closer “Crossroads” had a Spanish/Mexican minor-key roll and it too cruised with band interplay and excellent fingerpicking by Mr. Benson. ‘Twas a Texan tour-de-force.
Now I suppose true roots music bedrock would be Mississippi Fred McDowell or a West African akonting, but with the music of Flatt & Scruggs, you’re only a couple of geological layers above, and there’s no doubt that their repertoire, well played and sung by masters, is as enriching and sustaining as anything in our world. And that’s what we got with the Earls of Leicester, the string-tie wearing throwback bluegrass band featuring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Shawn Camp on guitar, Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Johnny Warren on fiddle, Charlie Cushman on banjo and Barry Bales on bass. From the opening punch and roll of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” these masters showed that the classic sound and craft was injected into their bloodstream very young. The drive, timing and phrasing was all correct, balanced between the loose and the precise. The vocal core of O’Brien and Camp was amazing, because Shawn, without altering his God-given voice sounds a lot like Lester Flatt. I never thought about it before, but there you go. Johnny Warren, the band’s direct blood link to the Foggy Mountain Boys, filled his fiddling father Paul’s shoes ably, especially on his feature “Black Eyed Suzy.” And Cushman did Earl’s part proud on the tricky “Randy Lynn Rag.” Above all, you could tell how much fun these guys were having, and it was infectious for sure.
Jim Lauderdale let the Earls take the lead on another Flatt & Scruggs classic for the jam, and our guests – which included quite a few brilliant bluegrass musicians – did a great job making “Salty Dog Blues” salty indeed. We couldn’t have dug any deeper or dug it any more if you’d pulled a back-hoe up to the Loveless.