A fun and fascinating video made the rounds a few years ago that pairs some nutty footage from a music festival with voice-over insights from CD Baby founder and music thinker Derek Sivers. A shirtless guy starts dancing like a lone loon on a grassy hillside. Soon he’s joined by a second guy, who is welcomed into a new, two-man dancing tribe. Then more people join. And within a minute, a huge crowd is dancing together. Sivers built a TED talk around this video, pointing out the vital role of the first follower, whose courage to join the first guy “turns a lone nut into a leader.” This, he says, is how movements truly begin.
Well dang if exactly that didn’t happen at Roots on Wednesday night. During the final song by funky soul band Space Capone, propitiously titled “I Just Wanna Dance,” a very tall dude took a courageous spot in front of the stage and busted out his moves. Before you could say “awwwk-ward” he was joined by two guys who – double take – WERE MEMBERS OF THE NIGHT’S OPENING BAND. Then a lady in a Space Capone shirt appeared. And then the rush was on, producing an all-ages flash mob disco mosh pit of epic proportions at the Loveless.
This was but one of many delights and diversions at this deep-Winter, pre-Olympic edition of Roots. The only bummer, and it was a big one, was the storm-related travel snafu that kept Suzy Bogguss and her band from getting back from New York in time to play. They DID land safely back to Nashville after 24-hours-plus of delays, we’re happy to report, but way too late to be part of the show. They’re working on a make-up date.
The weather almost scuttled John Mark Nelson and his four-piece band as well! But thank the musical gods it didn’t, because I’m putting down this Minnesota marvel as my first monster discovery of 2014. So young and talented and so personable and professional, they impressed at every level. Let’s call the music bright, smart songwriter-driven indie pop with crafty use of textured guitar sounds, courtesy of impressively dreadlocked Matt Patrick. Solos were handled largely by multi-instrumentalist and one-time Compass recording artist Jake Armerding, who was given room to run on both fiddle and mandolin. Acoustic bass and drums were meticulous and earthy. But the songs came from Nelson, whose voice is calm and composed, whose lyrics are fruitful and whose unexpected melodies will not let me alone. “Shorebird” was ethereal and truly evocative of a seascape. “Rain Comes Down” was freakishly catchy with a swift train beat and a soaring chorus. And just to round out the whole package, John told the story on stage of the wreck that totaled the band’s Suburban just a day before and their heroic adventure finding a way to Nashville with ten minutes to spare for sound check, all while Patrick made ambient music behind, as if rehearsed. That’s what we call great radio.
Fred LaBour, the man behind the man who is Too Slim in Rider In The Sky, told me on stage that he’s come to terms with the fact that he’s a compulsive entertainer and that merely being in the most entertaining cowboy band on Earth wasn’t quite completing his inner Henny Youngman. It was but the sixth performance of Say No More, It’s Freddy LaBour, but based on the laughs, there will be many more. On stage with naught but a guitar, a hat and the clothes on his back, he got the audience laughing along, singing along and snapping along. They would have joined him in his musical face-playing if he’d encouraged them. Keep your eyes out for “Prozac Polka” and “My Load Shifted” on the Cowboy Singer Comedy Alter-Ego hit parade.
And what fits nicely between solo folkie comedy and the world’s greatest Western band? Well if you’re Music City Roots, you call on an eight-piece band playing retro soul funk. Space Capone is a wave pool of slinky beats, trippy-blippy keyboard sounds and major seventh chords. Aaron Winters sings falsetto-laced lead vocals, tinged with Prince-ly staccato sex-appeal and supported by a bunch of dudes singing harmonies as smooth as a disco teen queen’s thighs. Yes, after careful consideration, that’s how smooth they were. You’ve already been told about the dance party that ensued, and it truly was one of those MCR moments you don’t see coming that but burns itself into the history of the show.
Completing our terrifically transgressive troika of talent, we welcomed Riders In The Sky to the stage. Among their many virtues, this band makes it possible for us radio people to completely stop worrying about the broadcast for 25 minutes. It’s polished from 36 years of practice, but it never feels tired or recycled. I had been seized by a rare impulse to get some popcorn a few minutes before, so as the Riders performed I felt like I was at a Saturday matinee in 1949. They gave us a dramatic “Ghost Riders In The Sky” and turned Woody Paul’s stellar fiddle loose on a medley of standards. They swung their way through their Grammy-earning Toy Story songs with fluid key changes and segues. Ranger Doug, playing his drool-making, envy-engorging, sweet-chunking vintage Stromberg arch-top guitar, showcased his yodeling gifts in the song about Jessie the cowgirl. And they wrapped with, what else, “Happy Trails” in glorious harmony. The whole thing was positively Stombergian.
That set up a four-to-the-bar swing on “Take Me Back To Tulsa,” a song so good it’s beloved even by those, like me, who’ve never been to Tulsa in the first place. Soloists stepped forward from the Space Capone mothership, the indie band from Minneapolis and the Cowboy quartet to make it jazzy and bright. To those of you who came, and especially to those who’ve been with us from early on as believers in the Roots vision, thanks for being our first followers and keeping us from looking like lone nuts.