It’s always a good day at work when a conga line breaks out. In this case it was the Shinyribs Express snaking all around the audience in Liberty Hall, with the Austin roots music Svengali Kevin Russell leading the parade in a mint green suit. Our lineup of four-by-four excellence and rootsy variety would have been memorable without it, but on this stormy/spectacular Spring evening we enjoyed the company of sublime musicians who also entertained. Our audience was lively, responsive and often on their feet.
I interpret “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” to the degree that it’s coherent at all, as a song of generational self-awareness and anger at the merchandise machinery of modern media. So I’m in some kind of world of double irony by pulling the quote for my title this week. But in fact the song took on entirely different colors as interpreted by opening artist Liz Vice and her efficient, super-musical two-lady band of Jackie Millau on keyboard and Yvonne Aranjo on drums. In their hands, this 90s anthem became a 2 am jazz tune with pathos and longing. The chordal language was different, the groove a thing unto itself, which is the essence of artful interpretation. Vice was equally virtuous on her original songs. “Save Me” and “Sweet Peace” were moving and healing. The latter song was inspired by and dedicated to a man who requested that Liz sing to him as he was dying from cancer. The performance left a deep impression on us. I think among the last sounds you could hear on earth, Liz Vice’s voice would make a damn good choice.
Moving on to bluegrass, like one does, we experienced an artist that makes me say unto thee: Watch out. Get ready. The music is in great hands and 70 years after Bill Monroe met Earl Scruggs, bluegrass is still novel and thrilling. Billy Strings is his name and flatpicking is his game, but he delivered way more than machine gun guitar. He led a five-man band of young, long-haired super pickers. He sang like a wise master with spot-on harmonies. The songs were super solid down-home bluegrass without apologies, but they could turn on the jam spigot like a gusher, as they did in a long “Meet Me At The Creek” with blazing but smart solos all around. Billy adopts many physical postures as he plays, including metal monster, punky pogo bouncing, upright bluegrass gentleman and stage prowling band leader. He’s great at striding up to a soloist and drawing the best out of him just by energetic proximity. It was a stunning set, capped off with some pure banjo-driven velocity on a song titled with good old bluegrass irony, “Takin’ A Slow Train.” There ought to be no slowing down Billy Strings.
I have some dear old friends in the DC area who consume live music like plants use CO2, and they are of the opinion that Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell is the greatest entertainer going in roots music. I now see why. He’s James Brown as a white guy with male pattern baldness and a pointy goatee. He dances in a way that gives me a deeply personal sense of hope. But more to the point, he leads a freaking fantastic big band and renders fun, shapely songs with syncopated, stanky Southern grooves. I love “Red Quasar” with its poppy jazzy chords and surreal lyrics. Russell turned one tune into a Jimi Hendrix spirit dance with a ukulele. Of course he led the conga line as the Tijuana Train Wreck Horns riffed on Latin vibes in the song “Poor Peoples Store.” And just when the set seemingly couldn’t get better, they concluded with a snap-to, danceable take on David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” which got me all emotional again and satisfied something very deep. How soon can Shinyribs come back??
To wrap the night, we went from over-the-top to smooth restraint and Memphis elegance with the Bo-Keys. I recently heard a nice description of the famous drummer Steve Gadd that he was “in no hurry to get to the One,” meaning the first beat of each measure. That’s the feeling I got about singer Percy Wiggins and the rhythm section on these laid back tunes from the country/soul tradition explored on the band’s new Heartaches By The Numbers album. Wiggins crooned beautifully on “Set Me Free” and “She’s All I Got” and more. This is comfort food music, performed with love and nourishment. The two man horn section brought a Mariachi touch to “I Hope You Find What You’re Looking For.” Their encore featured the instrumentalists, especially guitarist Joe Restivo, on “Last Date” and it was a lush, jazzy jam.
Our all-hands finale visited Memphis in more ways than one with “Take Me To The River” where the only tragedy was a complete lack of microphone on Billy Strings guitar solo. I’ll always wonder what that sounded like. But with four horns from two bands and the very drummer (Howard Grimes) who played on the original Al Green record, the overall feeling was indeed one of being dipped and sanctified. Not to mention entertained.