My musical radar has been pointing over the horizon lately. Our musical Golden Age stretches around the world and it’s important to take that journey from time to time. I’ve been hearing and chasing tips on amazing artists from Europe and Africa, including mystical French electronica artist St. Germain (thanks to our photographer Tony Scarlati), Ethiopian jazz composer Mulatu Astatke and West African guitar master Lionel Loueke. The Roots team is about to embark on our third journey to N. Ireland for the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. And this week’s Music City Roots features a glowing global lineup with sensational and sublime talents from Dublin and Brazil besides of course the “Goodle USA” as a Darrell Scott song calls it.
I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw Badi Assad on our calendar. This is high cotton folks. I found out about her ages ago from Acoustic Guitar magazine, which told the story of a virtuoso Brazilian guitarist who also sang beautifully and who flowed between worlds with grace and ease – between Brazil, the US and Europe, between roots and refined. Growing up in Rio, she was inspired to pick up guitar by her older brothers who were hitting the big time. At 17, just three years after starting the instrument, she was named Best Brazilian Guitarist at a festival named for the legendary Heitor Villa-Lobos. That’s saying something in a country that invented bossa nova and favors an intricate finger style classical approach that turns the nylon string acoustic guitar into a piano. Assad’s intricately rendered solo pieces just take over my consciousness with their grooves and harmonic curiosities. When she sings she brings me to tears. Assad has recorded prolifically and won many guitar awards. She’s collaborated with the highest of the high, including Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma. All the great jazz and world festivals know her well and invite her back repeatedly. If we had a red carpet, we’d roll it out for this international master.
Another most welcome overseas visitor is I Draw Slow, an Irish band like I’ve never seen. They’re not the gang that’s going to break out the fiddles, pipes and bodhran and start in on traditional jigs and reels, but they exude a sense that they totally could do that on a moment’s notice. Instead, there’s a song-focused band groove that reminds me of how Olabelle or Crooked Still approach Appalachian music. IDS’s lead singer is Louise Holden; her brother Dave plays guitar. And you can hear how moving just the two of them can be on their recent single Souvenirs. Add the band’s bass, fiddle and banjo and you’ve got a full, enthralling experience. I saw them at World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, where they won over a big crowded bar and created an out-of-time experience. The musicianship from these guys is impeccable and they’re infused with a sad, exquisite beauty.
It’s a great week for artists who are on their own plane of quality and musicality but who may not be well known to our audience. Third case in point is Luke Bulla, who has played the show before as a leader, but it’s been ages. Luke was a prodigy fiddler who grew up in a musical family in the pacific northwest. He won his age class at the national fiddling championships in Weiser, ID for years in a row, including the Grand Champion division at 16. Then he got involved in all kinds of cool hybrid experiments including work with friend Casey Driessen. Their fiddle and voice duo shows around 2000 were enthralling. Luke’s been poised for years to break out as a major league new acoustic artist and songwriter, but he’s been held up by all the amazing people who want him to work for them instead. He’s been a stalwart player in Lyle Lovett’s band since 2009. He’s also worked with the Watkins siblings’ band W.P.A., Brandi Carlile, Darrell Scott, John Cowan and many more. His voice is like liquid gold. He writes and arranges. He’s really one of the great all around talents in roots music. At last there is a debut album, produced by guitar wizard Bryan Sutton. I can’t tell its exact status, but folks have been eagerly awaiting it, and this Roots appearance is a good sign that the Luke Bulla Arrival may be at hand.
From a very different place and planet is Jonny Fritz, one of the great characters of his generation. The former Jonny Corndawg is a bohemian rambler, motorcycle enthusiast, leather worker and recording artist who seems to hang out in all the hot circles. He made his album Dad Country at Jackson Browne’s studio after a chance encounter. Last time I saw Fritz, he was on stage as a special guest of Dawes at the Bluegrass Situation in LA. He’s their pal, and he co-wrote their recent single and album title track “All Your Favorite Bands.” Jonny will open the night with his unique unpredictability.
You could search the wide world over and not find lineups with this kind of variety and quality. Bring your passport. You never know where this will go.