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Doing Splits

As far as I know there’s only one figure in the contemporary roots music community who can pick “Blackberry Blossom” like a boss and also do a tumbling run that ends in a cheerleader split (not at the same time, but I wouldn’t put it past him). If David Mayfield came into your mind just now then you get an Americana cookie, because that’s who I was thinking about! It’s been too long since we saw and heard from the bearded weirdo, but he brings his always explosive sense of entertainment to the Factory this week along with a great roots rock band, a mod folky couple and a quintet from Colorado that split the bluegrass atom. Let’s take them in order of appearance.

Nobody has to go to work splitting rails by hand anymore thank heaven, but I’m also grateful that we get to hear The Railsplitters, a quintet that’s adopted the simple and effective slogan “Unconventional bluegrass from Boulder, Colorado.” I saw them at Folk Alliance and was thoroughly knocked out by their inventiveness, instrumental mastery and vocal harmonies. I noted an almost barbershop quartet precision to the singing, as well as a strong pop sensibility. Banjo player Dusty Rider is a ninja of the instrument, a true revelation. Lead singer Lauren Stovall brings a clean and cutting beauty to the foreground of the band. These assets and a strong repertoire of original material nabbed the Railsplitters the prize as Best New Band at Rockygrass last year. They have two albums to their credit and a very bright future.

Up next will be two musicians we’ve heard from in two very different sorts of bands who’ve moved on and teamed up together. Shelby Means was the driving, dynamic bass player for all female and all fantastic bluegrass band Della Mae for some years. Joel Timmons was a member of Sol Driven Train, the South Carolina band that charmed and grooved us back at the Loveless Cafe with songs like “Watermelon”. So the story goes that Timmons was on his way to a SDT gig at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion when he was stopped in his tracks by fair Shelby smacking her doghouse bass. They met and eventually they sparked up a romance and a duo called Sally & George, a nominal tribute to Shelby’s grandparents. We can hear the duo’s story and eclectic musical explorations on a new debut album. Expect a delightful and spare set focused on vocal chemistry and translucent songs.

As a semi-regular author of artist bios, I read other bios with a mix of (usually) admiration and (sometimes) befuddlement, but I know a cleaver turn of phrase when I see one so I’ll start telling you about Yarn by quoting the last line of the band’s official narrative: “They're not just a live band, they're a band for people who want to live.” Slick! And having some experience with these guys, we at Roots would endorse. And this most recent bio describes a band that’s weathered some change and transition, as lead singer/writer Blake Chritiana shook off some bad juju and moved to North Carolina. The guys are calling the 2016 album This Is The Year a “fresh start” and a “stepping stone” to the future. On it we hear easy-going, rambling front porch music, appealing to bluegrassers and Deadheads in equal measure.

And the David Mayfield Parade will close the show. Beneath the antics and camp of Mayfield’s big persona is a really excellent songwriter who’s earned deep respect from his friends and touring mates such as the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. We first heard David as a member of progressive bluegrass band Cadillac Sky, where his dervish energy was matched by his precise and dazzling picking. But on his solo albums, the most recent being a Compass release called Strangers, Mayfield can be tender, insightful, dark and beautiful. The Washington Post nailed it when it wrote “his songs are sturdy enough to work in any format, because his tunes are that lovely and his words that understated.” That said, the words may be the only thing understated about him.

So we’ll go from rail splitting to side splitting on Wednesday night. It’ll make you do somersaults.

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