The word kept popping up in my notes. Wednesday was a gentle Spring evening full of gentle grooves. Oh, there was plenty of energy and surprise, but Deer Tick and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ it was not. If your idea of a great night out is classy music in a classy setting like Tanglewood, this was a superb night to be at Roots. And when Colin O’Brien and his all-star string band channeled John Hartford, my headline for the week revealed itself. My blood pressure and heart rate were a few clicks lower when I went home than when I arrived.
The smoothness of Kellin Watson set the tone. With a sharp three piece band plus two stellar harmony singers, Watson opened with a breezy, jazz-speckled song called “What’s The Difference.” She lets her vocal lines take just a few liberties with her strong melodies, never over-singing. “Tight Rope” had country bounce in the verse and smiling swing in the chorus. In the slower “Shoot Out The Stars” we got an even better chance to hear the smoky curls in Kellin’s pipes. And speaking of lovely voices, the harmony singers were Sarah Dugas whom we adore and who’s played the show before, and Molly Martin, low-key East Nashville stunner who made one of my favorite albums of last year. Oh, the talent. The great songs continued with “Swagger” and “Chains Of Love,” which by now feel like familiar hits, at least to me. We’d love to see that come true for many others as well.
I’m a huge fan of Game Of Thrones, and I’d not be surprised to see Canadian folk/blues singer Matt Andersen appear as a character in Westeros, wielding a broadsword. A mighty tree of a man was he, with wild hair and beard. A voice hath he like thunder made of tree bark and velvet. And he punctuated his blunderbuss vocals with ripping solos on his acoustic guitar. He opened with “Make You Stay,” a blues about chasing a woman to New Orleans (Now THAT’s Americana). “Lost My Way” built on a super-funky guitar part. And he finished with an ode to the miner’s hard life in “Coal Mining Blues.” This all earned an enthusiastic standing O. Andersen is now a great big signal on our radar.
Willie Watson might not last long in mortal combat with Andersen, but the slender folk singer could match him for volume, albeit in a higher register. Watson, finding a new path post Old Crow Medicine Show is lending his strength and passion to traditional American songs, which Wednesday night included “Mexican Cowboy,” also known as “Hills Of Mexico” by Roscoe Holcomb, and “Stewball,” an 18th century broadside that found its way to Peter, Paul & Mary in the 1960s. Willie has a clean, cutting, warbling voice that gets to the point and respects the lyrics of the songs. He did a fine job pulling the crowd in, Seeger-style. And his take on Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” was so energetic and heartfelt that he drew a standing ovation before it was done.
Then along came Colin O’Brien and a dream team so well-strung they were called The Nashville Stringy Band. Mike Bub controlled the heartbeat on bass. Matt Combs fiddled with his astonishing blend of grace and traditional fire. Mike Compton made the band’s syncopation and swing happen on mandolin. With a band like this, a leader could just coast, but O’Brien was right there with his banjo, guitar and amplified dancing shoes, making a rhythmic statement that his idol John Hartford would admire. He sang very well too, offering an easy baritone on “Sweet Sunny South,” which is among my favorite songs ever and some enjoyable originals like “Hey You” and “The Derby Song,” in which he told a seemingly autobiographical story of acquiring his black hat and his penchant for the old song-and-dance. Hartford’s classic “Gentle On My Mind” was of course on my mind by this point, and set-closer “Banjo On My Mind” reinforced it.
A blazing jam band wouldn’t have been the right recipe after that, but Grant Farm is laid back even when they’re negotiating quick-step sixteenth notes as they did in the train-beat opener “Song of the Wayward Son.” They followed with deeply country “Don’t Talk To Me When I’m Lonesome,” with twinned vocals between leader Tyler Grant and his old partner in crime bassist Adrian Engfer. I love the 1970s L.A. style chord changes that took “Gospel Road” a bit uptown even as it had roots in the country church. They updated and up-funked Peter Tosh’s “Can’t You See” to round out the set with a quick-step jam that took us to the Colorado high country.
It was all over too soon, but we enjoyed some Grant Farm overtime as Tyler’s tasty guitar set up a fine and celebratory Loveless Jam on “Unclouded Day.” There were superb solos and vocals all around and thus did our night come to a simple, gentle, conclusion.