On the eve of our third trip to N. Ireland to explore the influence of the Ulster Scots on American folk music, the roots of our roots we like to say, this week’s Music City Roots offered its own object lesson. We could have presented the second half of this show in the middle of a Belfast intersection and it would have made total sense. Now, would the average Belfast passer-by expect a program juxtaposing Brazilian jazz with sardonic honky tonk with Celtic-infused Americana with contemporary bluegrass? Perhaps not. But it takes a real music lover to embrace our sometimes deliciously disjointed eclecticism. And we trust, dear reader, that you are one of those listeners and that if you were in Liberty Hall or online with us on Feb. 24 that you had as fine a time as we did.
Following Jim Lauderdale’s opening song (one I’d never heard before, to my surprise), we got a bonus single-song performance from Spanish-born, Atlanta-based, Nashville-consorting Victoria Canal. “City Shoes” surged with sadness over pretty minor chords. We’ll keep an eye on her!
Badi Assad, we learned, is pronounced Badji Assage, which is fantastically cool and it’s not lost on us that her name literally spells out badass. What confidence she brought to the stage, striding proudly while playing both delicately and powerfully on her nylon string electro-acoustic guitar. She sang through a head mic which gave her mobility and she used it, even doing a borderline samba while playing. She sang mostly in Portuguese, but one could follow the story of songs like “Voce Nao Entendeu Nada” though her drama and dynamics. She did a couple of covers of recent pop songs, as per her new album, including a bossa nova take on Mumford & Sons “Little Lion Man.” Beyond the organic polyrhythms of her right hand on the guitar and her vocal phrasing, she’s also gifted at scat and mouth percussion, around which she built her entire final number. She sang tones and made drum sounds at the same time. She popped her cheeks and throat and conjured a deeply corporeal groove. What came through mostly however was Assad’s charm and lifelong love of an audience and a good collaborative feeling.
Jonny Fritz and his East Nashville alt-country band definitely made for one of our more neck-whipping segues we’ve ever seen, but it only took about 16 bars of his Cajun grooved song of cheap hotel rooms and sleazy goings on “Goodbye Summer” to reset the whole mood and inaugurate the honky tonk portion of the evening. Fritz donned a baby blue electric guitar and thrummed away to kick off the oddly shifting “Are You Thirsty” with its twangy surrealism. There was some fine deep country fiddling and pedal steelin’ from Joshua Hedley and Spencer Cullum respectively and Jonny’s winking wit kept things frothy right through the closer “Stadium Inn” which seemed to be about more cheap hotels and ne’er do wells.
Then a turn back to the sublime. Is my over-the-moon love for I Draw Slow very particular to my tastes and their penchant for singing beautifully about my home state of North Carolina? Or will it prove universal, thanks to their divine blend of songwriting, singing and graceful old-time groove? I hope the latter, because I think they belong on the big stages at Telluride and Hardly Strictly. Opener “Valentine,” sung by Louise Holden, had a strong storyline and a calm, boom-chick bluegrass flow. Her brother and songwriting partner Dave sang over delicate acoustic guitar on the fascinating and original love song “My Portion.” Their best-known song “Goldmine” is a melancholy portrait of a sympathetic prostitute with a lacy tune. All their gifts, from melodic inventiveness to their intimate band connection, came through on the set closing segue of “Carolina,” with its Pisgah Forest imagery and heartbreak, into “Twin Sisters,” an Appalachian fiddle tune that drove cleanly along on the fiddle and banjo of Adrian Hart and Colin Derham. I Heart I Draw Slow.
Another acoustic artist who’s more than ready for prime time is Luke Bulla. He’s been like the prodigious science whiz kid who went to college early and then spent the next 10 years getting multiple advanced degrees. Let’s get on with it! Luke’s just superb as an instrumentalist (fiddle), singer and songwriter and he has the best musical network imaginable. Which is how his band for this evening came to include Bryan Sutton on guitar, Scott Vestal on banjo and Casey Campbell on mandolin, plus bass player Shelby Means and cellist Nat Smith. That configuration gave everything an authentic bluegrass underpinning even as the songs shone with contemporary cool. Two Buddy Miller tunes in a row – a ballad waltz and a smoky country grinder, wasn’t too many. “Tie Me Down And Set Me Free” had deep blues and high lonesome angst. The most inspired cover on the new Luke Bulla album is the Jamie Hartford song “Somebody’s Gonna Pay.” The song has been waiting for the bluegrass treatment for ever, and Luke’s voice – so classic but also unique to him – brought it one home.
Next time we see you it’ll be via the webcast on Friday, March 4 at 1 pm from the Empire Music Hall in Belfast. Then back at Liberty Hall on March 9 with more diverting diversity.