This week, the footwear told the story. Young bluesman Selwyn Birchwood wore purple patent leather shoes. Keelan Donovan sported stylish dress shoes to go with his narrow plaid tie, crisp white shirt and melodic acoustic pop. Taylor Brashears wore cowboy boots as a compliment to her Patsy Montana inspired western dress. While Whiskey Shivers went barefoot. What was consistent was that our feet out in the audience were set to tapping by everything we heard. This is how we walk the walk at Roots.
What a nice varied lineup on a night when we had a huge group of fans and folks in Liberty Hall for their first-ever MCR (I took a show of hands at 7:50 and was kind of intimidated). The pressure was on – first impressions and all that. But I have to think the newbies were impressed. They gave Birchwood a standing ovation before he was even done with his set.
Yes, the kickoff of this episode (our fifth anniversary by the way, thank you very much) was a real jolt. Selwyn Birchwood and his trio came out banging on some slippery funk that saw his guitar blending long lines with short staccato stabs. I also loved the full-band freezes that built tension over a couple of totally empty measures. The segues from song to song were liquid. They stretched things out and offered lavish guitar and baritone sax solos. The epic ballad “Love Me Again” put Birchwood’s low gravelly voice to good use and let him really show off his phrasing and touch on the electric guitar. Closer “Don’t Call No Ambulance” featured stripped down Mississippi juke joint fingerstyle picking and a perfect mingling of power and restraint. The next era of the blues is in good hands.
Keelan Donovan’s trim and timeless fashion reflected the elegance of his songs. With rolling fingerstyle acoustic guitar and the spare backing of a drummer and acoustic bass player, he delivered the reassuring “It’s Alright” the freshly melodic “When I’m Gone” and the thumpy minor-key groove of “Honeysuckle & Wine.” A truly appealing songwriter with an edge of vintage croon in his voice, he reminded more than one of us of Pokey LaFarge. Then it was on to Taylor Brashears who throws back in the nicest possible way with the breaks and cries in her classic country voice. Her songs swing – gently on “What It Feels Like To Love” and with more burn in “Tennessee Honey.” Our guitar playing pal Wes Langlois, wielding a silvery Stratocaster, held the music together like a deft modern day Hank Garland. Taylor wrapped her satisfying set with the song that got her on to Team Blake on The Voice in recent days: “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man.” So great that the spirit of Loretta lives to scrap with the country bros and show ‘em how it ought to be done.
The show closer had both fire and finesse as Whiskey Shivers took the stage with their wide-open slam grass and power folk. Opener “Friends” was indeed friendly, in a nice easy going tempo. But they hit the gas on “Won’t Be Found,” which rages along at like 300 beats per minute with washboard percussion and Bobby Fitzgerald’s fiddle going at an impossible blur. “Pray For Me” had a Cajun feeling. Cheerful whistling and Avetts-like singing made “Angel” a real winner. I think all five guys took a turn on lead vocals, which was great, but the real joy came from the a cappella, all-together stomp in “Graves.” Its arcane work-song vibe gave way to a punky fury, which was held together by impressively even banjo from James Bookert.
Everybody gathered on stage with Jim Lauderdale to sing and pick on “Shady Grove,” which always stirs happy memories of Doc Watson. If that doesn’t give you happy feet, I don’t know what would.