I don’t often lead these reports with our Nashville Jam, but sometimes our show-closing, all-hands feature goes exceptionally well. And this week it felt like some cathartic starburst that brought together all of the energies and chemistries of the nights four acts. And that is exactly what it’s supposed to do under ideal circumstances. The song was “Why You Been Gone So Long?” from the pen of Mickey Newbury. A lot of us bluegrass heads glommed on to the song as recorded by Tony Rice. But my research says it was first recorded by the long forgotten Johnny Darrell in 1969 with a dank electric guitar twang and a twisty beat. And that’s the beat that Jim Lauderdale (who was back after a few weeks of being gone so long – why?) set up as Nikki Lane, Michaela Anne, Paul McDonald and Parker Gispert brought their distinctive voices to the verses. The choruses were huge and tight and joyful. Sometimes we really nail it. But it had been a special night all around by that point anyway.
I only know Athens rock band The Whigs from a few spins here and there and I love it because it’s so close to the southern college rock I loved as thirty years ago. But it didn’t set any of us up to know what frontman Parker Gispert would sound like in solo mode. The answer, and I say this with reverence and understanding of the limitations of the analogy, was Neil Young. It was in the tremulous voice that went falsetto with ease and the soft attack of some very sharp words. “Life in the Goldilocks Zone” borrowed cosmic and astronomical ideas for a song about true love depending on the right combination of attraction and distance. “Magnolia Sunrise” with its alt-tuning and peculiar guitar amping technique sounded just gorgeous as he sang about taking in a calm beautiful day on a farm. This was all really moving.
Michaela Anne brings a strong dose of the crystalline clarity and emotion that made Emmylou Harris stand out in the 70s. She also just loves country music, which showed in the sound and lyrics of “One Love Song” and “Bright Lights And The Fame,” the title track of her most recent album. “You And Me” had a lush western tone, and the set closer “Louisa” was a quick stepper that evoked a honky tonk. Hoping for bright lights and fame galore in Michaela’s future.
Paul McDonald is Mr. Enthusiasm and Mr. Energy. His wiry frame is always in motion. His voice hops around and emotes. Put this fireball in front of a seven (!) piece band and you’ve got a roof raiser. There was boppy stride in “Hold On,” a more somber tone with emphasis from a cello on “Tell Me Something” and a lush arena scale in one of his later numbers. To close he strode into the crowd and sang on the chairs in “Call On Me.”
My first impression of Nikki Lane about three years ago was mixed. I wasn’t convinced that it wasn’t more about the cool clothes and posture than the music. But it didn’t take long to realize I had nothing to worry about as she put out great albums and kept playing a LOT in and out of town. Her show closing set this week was mighty fine, with color and twang and personality. Opener “Highway Queen” is a bit of mythologized autobiography. The country ballad “Forever Lasts” was powerful, made richer by her energy with her sweetheart/guitarist/co-producer Jonathan Tyler. Sweet steel and soaring voices really capped it off. The set closed with “Jackpot,” her viva Las Vegas twister that I’ve had on earworm repeat in my head since Wednesday.