What was it about yesterday? Did you feel it too? About 5 pm with the sun low in the sky and the spring flowers popping like popcorn around the Loveless Barn I felt like I was living in a Beatles song, floating down a river past Strawberry Fields, high with a little help from my friends. No chemicals involved I assure you. Just a rush of euphoria about Spring and the audience about to arrive and the music about to happen. I love this time of year, and it’s great to feel it arriving a few weeks early.
When the show finally got underway, my mood only got better. Our guest host was honky tonkin’ ramblin’ man Chuck Mead, and as expected he lit up the stage and got us moving. Then The Roys made a joyful noise, offering songs with certifiably bluerassy titles (“Lonesome Whistle” “Coal Mining Man”) and bluegrassy drive. I’d perhaps mistakenly pegged this bro-and-sis duo as country leaning, but last night they were right there in the zone of Rhonda Vincent and the Lonesome River Band. Lee and Elaine Roy sang in locked harmony beautifully on the coal miner song, and I think Elaine’s voice is really special, with that Claire Lynch quality that’s both warm and punchy at the same time. One of the catchiest songs in their bag is “Trailblazer,” which was inspired, Elaine said, by the logo on the back of a bus during one of their many long drives. But then to develop the idea, she thought about her heroine Dolly Parton. That’s as specific a path to getting a song started and finished as I’ve heard all year. Do try that at home.
Then it was time for a much-anticipated set by Humming House, a new Nashville band that got a solid start in life by landing famous rock/roots producers Vance Powell and Mitch Dane for their debut album. But of course nothing would sound good on the record if it didn’t sound good coming out of the throats and instruments of the band, and they absolutely proved they’ve got it. With their almost choral sing-along sound, they evoke the bravado of the 50s folk revival and the swing of 1920s jazz. But it sounds new. “Cold Chicago” opened with its whisking tempo and infectious thump. “Mrs. Worley” was more winsome and effervescent. Mike Butera’s electric lent reverberant grit to “Stop Me Still.” And one of my favorites of the set, “Hitch Hike,” doesn’t appear to be on the album, so it was good to hear something new. Kudos to Justin Wade Tam and Kristen Rogers for bold, spot-on vocals and the whole band for an ensemble sound that will seduce you.
Let’s give David Olney the gold medal for reaching the crowd. They were very young last night. He is not, and he made a few jokes about that. But his direct, crunchy and truth-telling music drew thrills and cheers, culminating in an encore song and a standing ovation. The songs centered around Olney’s this-week release, The Stone, which is an impressionistic, searching look at the most consequential event in history, the death and resurrection of Christ. Olney does not tackle the light stuff. The music lived up, with its intensity and dark streaks. My favorite was “Brains” which casts the incarceration of Jesus as a modern-day police interrogation. And you could dance to it. While “In The End Is The Beginning” showed a prettier side, as the song echoed John Prine’s “Souvenirs”.
Finally, on this nice concise night of four bands, we got to hear from a band that wraps up just about everything we love about roots music. Bluegrass plus soul plus blues adds up to the Steeldrivers, a quintessential Americana band. Gary Nichols has a voice so large and gifted that he only has to use 50% of it to keep you riveted. Then at any point he revs it up and the audience goes bananas. His careful use of that dynamic is one of the many things we love about this quintet, along with Tammy Rogers’ voice and fiddle, Richard Bailey’s banjo and Mike Fleming’s bass. New to the outfit is the mandolin of Brent Truitt, and last night proved he was the right guy. The East Nashville record producer plays like he looks, lanky, craggy and handsome. He doesn’t push or drive like some bluegrass mando players. It’s got the laid back feel that lets Nichols really do his thing. The set featured favorites like “Reckless Side of Me” and some new stuff (they’re working on an album) like the hard, feminist blues of “When You Don’t Come Home.” That’s a Tammy Rogers song by the by. Then they hit us with their darkest, crankiest, bluesiest songs of all: “Good Corn Liquor” into “Blue Side of the Mountain,” with all their keening harmony tension and badass drive. THIS is why I love the South.
Chuck Mead did a great job all around, but the Loveless Jam is always the toughest part for a guest host, because it is the proverbial herding of cats. But with a song from his new Quonset Hut album, the great “Wabash Cannonball,” he conducted and directed and the tune came off beautifully. I heard the mighty rush of the engines and the lonesome hobo’s call.
One more show before SPRING. Preview coming soon.