We at Music City Roots take pride in our eclectic taste and there are sometimes nights where the old Monty Python expression “and now for something completely different” keeps coming to mind. But sometimes, like last night, there are shows that flow and mesh so inevitably and smoothly that one could imagine the lineup going out on a multi-state package show. We enjoyed five acts anchored in country music, each with its own quirky and cool take on the legacy, each straddling the antique/modern divide in its own way. Some wore overalls and some wore sequins, but the segues were seamless.
If you want to jump-start somebody’s heart, get a defibrillator. If you want to shock a radio show into life, hire the Defibulators, a badass hillbilly-meets-indie-rock outfit hailing from the hills and hollers of New York City. Since their debut album Corn Money came out just over a year ago, this big and rollicking band has made a name far beyond its urban home. It’s because they manage to inject a lot of hokey fun into country music without sacrilege, and it seems some of that is rooted in a love for the show “Hee Haw.” Last night, lead vocal pair Erin Bru and Bug Jennings matched their plaintive, winning voices on a brand new song about that influential show, asking the vital question: “is there Hee Haw in heaven?” We also loved the set opening, fiddle driven “Ol’ Winchester” and “Go Go Truck,” in which Jennings imagined his future as a big rig driver with a party as his payload. He was so moved by this idea that he took his mic deep into the crowd and serenaded our Nature Conservancy friend Trish Crist while standing on one of our pews. Perhaps he was recruiting her for a pair of knee-high boots.
As we have observed before, there’s something afoot in New York on the old-time country front, and yesterday we enjoyed another band from up yonder that’s got hillbilly fever. This was the more activist folkie sounding Spirit Family Reunion, who stomped and sang in big upraised voices with a flair and passion that would have made Pete Seeger proud.
After two string-driven bands worthy of a hootenanny, it felt good to shift gears and head toward country music’s literate side with young Austin-based songwriter and bandleader Leo Rondeau. Some may see him as still heavily indebted to his strong Townes Van Zandt influence, and there is a string resemblance in face, voice and style. But I was utterly transfixed by this guy’s uniqueness and songcraft. His melodies really went places. The characters in the songs were three dimensional. Playing his own wiry leads on an old brown Telecaster that matched his big brown cowboy hat, Rondeau cut an impressive figure on stage and directed his songs to satisfying climaxes. There were also subtle pop overtones that gave some of his work a Tom Petty-like vibe, and I’m really looking forward to the next time I get to hear him again.
The smart songwriting continued as Eric Brace took the stage with the latest iteration of his long-running collective Last Train Home. Guitarist Dave Coleman and lap steel/harmonica man Jason Goforth lent an airy ambience to some of Brace’s most popular material – his literally spacey ballad of the moon landing “Tranquility Base” and his blistering and amazing “Last Good Kiss.” Guest host Peter Cooper, a regular duo partner of Brace, joined the guys on stage for their spot-on Tom T. Hall cover “I Flew Over Our House Last Night.”
And that set everybody up for a perfect finish – a short but powerful set from our pals The New Familiars, who showed off music from a new album that was not QUITE ready for sale on the old merch table last night. But you’ll want to watch for next week’s release, because as always, these guys bring new ideas, fresh takes and open minds to go with their robust vocal and ensemble chops. “In Love With The World” had a Byrds-y psychedelic edge. “So Alive” was hooky, like U2 on bluegrass instruments. While “9 to 5” evoked a little Pink Floyd, a little Nick Lowe. Keep evolving guys. That’s what we love about you.
It really did feel like a family reunion, with lots of visiting and picking back stage. So it felt more than appropriate to hit the stage for the Loveless Jam with the ensemble staple “Momma Don’t Allow,” which sprouted new verses depending on what instrument seemed closest at hand. There were maracas, triangles, fiddles, banjos and screaming and hollering, and Momma had to just deal with it.