Last weekend I snuck off with my wife to New Orleans for French Quarter Fest, a three day celebration of local music from what I like to call America’s original Music City. The depth and breadth of sound was remarkable, and yet everything there resonated with a common sensibility. It was OF ITS PLACE, which all great music is, at least when it starts out.
I had the same feeling last night at Music City Roots, though obviously swapping Nashville for New Orleans. The night simply brimmed with artists who, individually and in various combinations have added to our Music City gumbo (damn, I swore I’d never use that metaphor again). It was a gathering of old friends and intimate collaborators with Nashville as their common point of reference. Perhaps Jessi Alexander, co-vocalist of 18 South put it best: “You just booked family tonight.”
When 18 South debuted on MCR last fall, it was love at first gig. They represent everything the show’s about, with their smart and fresh fusion of country, blues, soul, gospel and a deep groove that has more than a few streaks of New Orleans color. So we had ‘em back. Jessi and husband Jon Randall Stewart more or less front the band with a co-vocal attack, and as much as I love their signature set opener “Late Night Ramble” last night it was the ballad “Wanna Be Blue” that really moved me. Jessi is an astonishing singer and writer, and with the expert backing of her mates Jimmi Wallace, Guthrie Trapp, Mike Bub and Larry Atamanuik (keys, guitar, bass and drums respectively), she just inhabited the song and made a moment of transcendent, authentic emotion.
Speaking of family, just after I interviewed our show closer Gary Nicholson, we were treated to a short set from his songwriting son Luke. Gary was hilarious, telling us he was happy that he didn’t have to pretend he liked his lad’s work; he actually really does. And so did I. Luke strapped on a harmonica on his rack and tore with folky commitment into his song “Fake Frown” and over the course of three songs, I was left with an impression of somebody who’s hip to contemporary songwriters like perhaps David Gray, while revering the elders too. He did grow up around some pretty good writing after all.
Then it was a turn from Seth Walker, who’s been in Nashville for less time than out other guests but who’s built a range of relationships really fast based on his enormous talent. His reputation preceded him, and it became clear why. This guy is a master, whose songs would have been joyously received by Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertigun back in the classic Atlantic days. He’s totally in control of chord changes and melodies, and his voice has that rich expressive quality that made Sam Cooke and Nat Cole stand apart from the crowd. Walker’s “I Got A Song” was a tour de force. He brought Jessi up for a duet on a sweet gospel original called “Lay Down” and he had Gary Nicholson, now a regular songwriting partner and close friend, join him for “More Days Like This,” which left the audience singing along serenely. This cat is a major discovery, so keep your eyes out.
We invited John Cowan back to Roots last night for a set to celebrate the release of his eclectic new CD The Massenburg Sessions, so named for George Massenburg, the audio and production genius who steered the recordings. John’s set was diverse too, with a vocal/fiddle duet and an a cappella gospel turn on “Jesus Gave Me Water” and a Tony Rice-penned instrumental “Gasology” which I haven’t heard in ages. Finally, there was the surprise climax when the legendary Del McCoury came out to sing the bluegrass classic “Can’t You Hear Me Calling.” How does this get any better?
As foreshadowed, Gary Nicholson took the stage for his final set, backed up by, who else, 18 South. The synergy was perfect. They gave the right dry-as-Texas-dust feeling to “Fallin’ and Flying,” the song Gary co-wrote with the late great Stephen Bruton for the recent feature film Crazy Heart. They hit the groove with just the right slither for “Same Kind of Crazy,” a Delbert McClinton classic co-written by Gary years ago. And then, in one of the best show closers we’ve ever had, Seth came back out to sing the title track from HIS album “Leap of Faith,” which he’d co-written with Nicholson. Not only is this a brilliant song, the performance evolved into a large but tasty guitar three-way with Guthrie, Gary and Seth trading expert licks. That paired exquisitely with the Loveless Jam on “Yes We Can,” by the great Allen Toussaint to bring a long but too-short night of music to an end.
You don’t want to miss shows like this. Come out next week. Bring your family.