It’s one thing to put on our live radio barn dance up against the Country Music Industrial Complex Flaming Truck Awards, which seems to happen several times a year. It’s quite another to be Nashville’s Wednesday night alternative to The Rolling Freaking Stones. Not only were the senior sultans of strut playing a vast outdoor concert at LP field, they’d proven their gentlemanly awesomeness by getting their pictures made around town and hanging out at the Mercy Lounge on Tuesday night while Nashville rockers played Stones covers in a tribute to the late Stones sax man Bobby Keys. Between that and front page news about major upgrades to the “It’s so old it’s cool again” Municipal Auditorium, it’s been a week when vintage is hip. As it always is. It would be shocking if there weren’t something classic and chrome-plated at Roots. And this week it took the form of classic uptown blues, gutbucket roadhouse rock and viper jazz.
Lucy and Wayne of Hymn For Her are a one-of-a-kind couple. Kasey “Follow Your Arrow” Musgraves would be like ‘Whoa, conform a little, maybe?’ in their presence. But no, we wouldn’t change them if we could. They rock the linoleum off the floor and they make a show out of every carefully constructed song. Opener “Hollis Brown” (Bob Dylan’s anguishing tale of a desperate family murder/suicide) built from spare acoustic guitar through bass drum stomps through a controlled explosion of power riffs on Lucy’s signature cigar box guitar. She then sang lead on a folkier song called “Highway Maggi” with sweet chord changes. The set featured a truck radio microphone, hand percussion, banjo, flailing hi-hat, harmonica and that’s all from just two people.
Far more people – seven by my count – were involved when the Nashville Celts took the stage. Fiddle, pipes, guitar and banjo made a joyful, rushing sound as if from twice that many. Leader Ric Blair framed the set as a preview or glimpse of a Celtic connections show coming up that traces the roots of American music to the great legacy of Ireland. And that’s one of our favorite subjects as it happens. Anyway, Blair and company stretched that concept, from classic Irish reels to Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and even One Republic’s “Counting Stars.” The set sure kept us on our toes. Likewise with the troupe of Irish step dancers that came out for some impressive prancing and high kicks. But the sound was the main event here, with interlocked parts as precisely carved and fitted as Blair’s beautiful Celtic themed acoustic guitar.
I love shows where Acts 1 and 2 are wildly different and Acts 3 and 4 are of a piece. It felt that way this week as Janiva Magness segued into Davina & The Vagabonds. Never mind how their names are like anagrams of each other. The former brought sophisticated blues and soul while the latter leaned into traditional jazz. Both brought slick bands, evocative, self-penned songs and stunning voices. With Janiva’s track record, such as winning the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award, I’m embarrassed not to have been a fan already. Her vocals, truly knockout stuff, reminded me actually of our hometown champ Jonell Mosser, with punch in the midrange and caressing mellowness down low. Janiva (pronounced GEN-i-vah, by the way) left no dull phrases or lines on stage. She remarked that her songs, the borrowed and the self-written, are true to her life, and as Jim Lauderdale said on stage of Keith Bilbrey, it was “unbelievably believable.”
Davina was less of a surprise to us as a cherished MCR Alum, but it was cool to hear new material and to feel the depth that a few more years of experience and traveling have brought to her music. She and her four-piece, horns-and-rhythm-section band wound through more styles than I could count in 25 minutes of music. “Sunshine” was a quick-stepping 6/8 shuffle. The Tango-ish “I Try To Be Good” gave way to “heavy metal of the 1920s” in a song about Louisiana. In Davina’s case, she drives her voice like daredevil in a sports car on a winding mountain road without guard rails. You keep thinking she’s going to go airborne but she nails every curve and twist with thrilling verve. In between songs, she banters with the audience with blunt Midwestern candor and wit. And she shows her guys in their secret agent man suits how much she appreciates them. Us to, especially the big horn spotlight moments and a killer warp speed drum solo.
The Nashville Jam was Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin” and apparently walking fast, because it clocked in as one of our shortest finales. But no worries. The show rocked. Maybe not like the Stones, because nothing rocks like the Stones. It was actually delightful to see the hundreds of pics and posts from friends of the show who took part in the big love-in on the east bank. Even injured Tommy Womack made it – in a wheelchair – with his son, a long time dream. He won’t be swiveling his hips like Jagger any time real soon, but it’ll happen. In any event we appreciate those who filled our hall and let us make like rock stars for another night.