The wide hallway outside Liberty Hall in the Factory became a thicket of Christmas trees this week – a tunnel of twinkle. It was a beautiful sight after a cold dark day, as the team and the crowd gathered for the first of three December Roots shows leading up to our Dec. 17 season and year finale. And we enjoyed a show that was both forest and trees, as solo songwriters bookended a couple of crafty and excellent bands.
Based on his busy, excellent records, I suspected Cory Branan would be bracing and original, but I had no idea how. On stage he gave the impression of somebody so intelligent as to be almost jittery, like his head was flooded with ideas and ways of interpreting his own songs. His lyrics were fascinating and funny. He sang in the opener, in a raspy and real voice, about chasing and ultimately winning the heart of the “prettiest waitress in Memphis.” The song “Come On Shadow” was a clever dialogue with our mysterious companion. A final song, built on speedy flatpicking licks and stomping foot, paid homage to Jack Daniels whiskey, reveling in the “bittersweet and sour mash.” But for all the wordplay, worthy of artist kin like Hayes Carll and John Prine, I was held transfixed by Branan’s edgy, unpredictable guitar playing. He made every kind of sound one can make with strings and box. He made weird chromatic runs and dove all over the neck in a constant exchange with the lines of his songs. I’m embarrassed I’d not seen him before, but that’s why we have Roots, right?
Tumbleweed Company brought five sensitive and skilled musicians to the stage and kicked in to their set with a sort of thrumming rumble topped with a pulsing fiddle. Singer/guitarist Ryan Toll initiated an interesting melody, and the song dropped beats here and there – one of my favorite hooks and one that showed the band’s background at the Berklee College of Music. Yet it was never egg headed. Songs like “Troublesome Ghost” had sweet pop elements but with touches of country fiddle. Keyboardist Jeff Adamczyk shifted from harmony to fine lead vocals on “Guilty.” Toll donned an electric guitar for some dirty, droning riffs on “Send In The Drones.” And while throughout I kept thinking these guys were a parallel incarnation of the Black Lillies, they kept throwing little musical surprise bombs in there that distinguished it from straight roots country. Looking forward to more from these guys.
The final two sets dialed down the complexity in favor of emotional directness. The country music of Margo Price & The Price Tags is primal, salty and strong. They are the essence of why East Nashville is the new Lower Broadway. It’s shuffles and twang, with fiddle and steel. But the songs are all original and the topics are up to date, as with Price’s take on the frustrations, temptations and sleaze of the modern music business. All the while sounding like Loretta and Tammy. Price has a clear, aching voice that invites you into her hurtin’ and drinkin’ frame of mind and then seems to make it all feel better. Then we shifted gears to Kevn Kinney alone on stage with a guitar and a lamp. The folk intimacy directed all attention to his lyrics, which touched on the decline of his home town of Milwaukee, the travails of folk singers and various sundry characters. He set a calm mood with his keening voice and he set up a couple of simple guitar solos with the help of a looping pedal. He wrapped the set with the Replacements song “Here Comes A Regular,” so that, plus some R.E.M. references, stirred memories for those of us of a certain age and Southern, musical disposition.
Peter Cooper guest hosted, opening with his fine and appreciative rendition of Jon Byrd’s December song “Silent Night” and ending the show leading “The Weight” with its crazy round of a chorus. No weight on us though. We headed home with visions of frosty branches and wintry forests in our heads. Now where’s that snow we were promised?