Things are warming up. On Tuesday evening I was at the ballpark basking in a perfect 70 degree night with a skim of pollen on my beer (you should try it – delicious). Then Wednesday, it’s a scorching 87 degrees! An anomaly I’m sure. Of course that’s the day our beloved barn’s HVAC system had some kind of seizure and would not respond to our ministrations. So it was a bit warm in there, and we hope it wasn’t a bother if you were our guest. I actually loved having the tents open and the spring air flowing around. The performers? They worked up a sweat of course, but they’re in training for the summer festy season anyway. Nothing they can’t handle. The music was the right kind of hot, from open to close, from lush duo artistry through global groove, hard-edged hillbilly songs and feisty nouveau old-time.
It was delicious and auspicious, because not only were we kicking off our exciting Spring 2013 season with a celebration of The Nature Conservancy (all the more reason not to air condition). We were welcoming or being welcomed to a new local radio home, the very cool Hippie Radio at 94.5 FM, independently owned, with its HQ right on Music Row. The mix of their flower power with spring blooms and breezes – and a welcome return to Loveless chicken and biscuits – made the night a garden of earthly delights.
I built up The Saint Johns a lot based on a couple of online videos and trust in my pal Bruce who’s been producing them and gushing about them for some time. So I was out on a limb and on the edge of my seat as this young and attractive duo took the stage to open the season. Whew! If anything I underplayed their talents. From the opening “Ohio” to the hit-worthy “Your Head And Your Heart” closer, their voices soared and the songs seduced. We’ve seen quite a lot of guy/gal duos on the scene of late, and it’s a natural format. And whil I appreciate the spare acoustic elegance of The Civil Wars or our new friends Johnnyswim, deep down I’m a sonics guy who loves great songs and voices enhanced and complimented by the textures only a band can provide. And what a band they brought. Lean, intelligent and efficient they were, with the electric guitar of Derek Wells making ambient soundscapes here and punchy melodic ideas reminiscent of U2’s Edge there. Co-leaders Louis Johnson and Jordan Meredith have a calm chemistry and pristine voices. You want to see these guys.
HuDost is sort of a duo too, with Jemal Wade Hines and Moksha Sommer leading a cast of support musicians. They led off with Eastern moods and lofty vocals. Their new song “Lay Me Down” was, they said, a co-write with Steve Kilbey of Aussie band The Church (loved those guys back in the day), and it had an electric pulse I remember from that band’s alt-rock sound. The very creative pedal steel playing of Joe Garcia was a pleasure to hear on this one. They saved their sweetest for lastest, as they brought some friends on stage and had their musicians step to the mics for a near a cappella “Broken.” It was church house gospel with immaculate harmonies and one of my favorite tones – a reed pump organ playing an endless drone.
I told Roger Alan Wade that his set made up for my missing all 16,000 in-the-round performances at the recent Tin Pan South festival, because I can’t imagine anything in the guy-on-stool-with-songs format outclassing what he laid on us last night. From my reading about Wade, I imagined a guy with some smart aleck about him, and I figure he’s capable of that. But what we heard in his rough-hewn voice was the spirit of Billy Joe Shaver or Guy Clark, by which I mean vivid storytelling, elegant use of language and two boots deep in the soil of country music. “Deguello Motel” and “Chillicothe Rain” both portrayed hard-luck dudes with such clarity I felt I’d met them. “Warm Spanish Wine” reminisced about a lost love with precise memories and lines like: “your corn silk hair hung down your neck, in tangled strands of loose neglect.” Stand back. Master at work.
Then it was time to bring it on home with The Howlin’ Brothers, and down home it was, with fiddle, banjo, doghouse bass and guitar. They bid us in the opening song to go down South and have a real good time, but weren’t we already there, doing that? “Gone” was a sad song that sounded ragtime chipper with its cool chord progression. And I loved their John Hartford shout-out-in-song called “Julia Belle Swain.” Kudos to Jared Green for not only playing solid rhythm guitar and singing some cool leads but for adding percussion with his clogging feet on an amplified board. Does he do that through long Lower Broadway sets?; no wonder he’s so slim. Ian Craft sounded good on banjo but flat great on fiddle. He’s got timing and feel, and his leadership on the square-dance-worthy “Hartford Rap” raised the energy level through stages of clapping along to hollering and finally a standing ovation. Anyone who’s ever boogied happily at an Old Crow show needs to give The Howlin’ Brothers a listen in a live setting.
Jim Lauderdale led the Loveless Jam as always, and they went back to the gospel well – not to mention civil rights history – with “Down By The Riverside.” I think we’d all laid our burdens down long before, but it felt good nonetheless. Nobody had a care in the world by the time it was over. Did anybody catch the show on Hippie? We’d love to hear from you if you did.