How cool it was to see pictures of Chuck Berry at Busch Stadium in St. Louis last weekend, where they honored the 87-year-old icon with a bobblehead doll. He looked great, in person and in plastic, and unlike some other senior celebrities, it was easy to tell the difference. Also recently, Berry was named a winner of the Polaris Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of music. The citation notes among other things that Berry “turned the electric guitar into the main instrument of rock music. Every riff and solo played by rock guitarists over the last 60 years contains DNA that can be traced right back to Chuck Berry.”
So how could one not think about Chuck Berry as Wednesday night’s Roots revved toward the finish line? Tim Carroll spiked up his clever songs with proud punchy riffs ringing from his Les Paul, in furious tandem with a two-fisted rhythm section of Steve Latanation on drums and Bones Hillman on bass. I admit I’ve struggled to integrate rock and roll into my definition and conception of roots music and Americana, with its country, folk and blues core. Most of what we call rock and roll falls outside of “roots” for me, but early Elvis and Chuck Berry sure fit. Elmore James and T-Bone Walker? Oh yes. And that was the tenor of our opening artist Patrick Sweany. In between, we enjoyed pure country and blazing Celtic-inspired fusion. So it was that kind of beautifully rounded night we strive for at MCR. But it was bookended by electric guitars, sweat and passion. And those things will get you a lot farther than genre categories.I don’t know if Sweany had that voice gifted to him by fate or if he’s worked to cultivate its uncanny blend of animal hunger and velvety croon. But it is one of which I’m freaking envious. If I had that voice I would sing blues rock too. He’d be squandering something if he didn’t. Set starter “Working For You” opens with that voice singing alone and with wiry intensity against a fat drum beat. In fact drummer Dillon Napier deserves praise for the way he anchored this set with a blend of hill country and heavy hip-hop grooves. The electric guitars of Sweany and sideman Zach Setchfield sounded like a Memphis horn section in some places and like Led Zeppy fire elsewhere. Closing song “Every Night, Every Day” was a smoldering blues in 6/8 time, and Sweany stretched out with his best guitar solo of the night. He worked up a mighty sweat under his jacket and tie while having as much fun as a kid at recess. But he’s also a pro. He changed into a clean dry shirt for his interview.
There’s a wonderful new generation of female country traditionalists coming up, and woe to the gods of radio for offering no space in the “country” format for such talents – Caitlin Rose, Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves of course. But they’re here for us to enjoy, and to that list add Kelsey Waldon, whose Kentucky roots practically sprout out around her ankles as she sings. “Town Clown” and the title track to her upcoming The Goldmine album were drenched with pedal steel and melancholy. “High In Heels” is the song emerging for me as Waldon signature. It’s dark and sad – a profile of a woman who’s turned to let’s say not the most enriching form of work so as basically not to starve. But the song floats and it respects its characters.
Then it was a clear the decks moment, because we knew Scythian would make use of the whole stage. That’s what happens when rock star charisma meets Celtic dervish fiddling. It’s four guys up front with a drummer bolstering the groove, but they’ve got plenty of groove on their own. They’re showmen too, who know how to build to a moment. They opened with two fiddles plucked (its title was “Pluckett’s”) and one bowing an ornate Irish theme. When the tune revved up it was danceable and syncopated. Then “Paint This Town” was an amiable party song, sung loud. My favorite stretch came in “Sheldon House Reels” where the front four divided into two fiddle/acoustic guitar pairs. They passed the ball back and forth as their medley built and then joined forces with incredible power and density. These guys just exude joy and make a connection. They were like: “We want to come back,” and we were like “Yeah!” So that’ll happen.
And thus the wheels of our musical night did turn back to rock and roll, which in Tim Carroll’s hands nods to Chuck Berry, as per my opening, but also to The Jam and the Sex Pistols, to The Faces and the Animals and Alex Chilton and so many damn good bands. “Talk To God” is a sort of no-atheists-in-foxholes kind of song. “Pure As Coal” is classically riffy and conducive to fist-raising. The hot 1950s knife-fight groove of “They Still Make Rock And Roll” did get some dancers up in front, as Tim offered a silver lining to the decline of American manufacturing. And “What’ll We Do Til Then” let the set breathe with a softer touch, a mystical ambience and nice percussion colors by Latanation.
Jim Lauderdale, who’d opened the show with a magnificent performance of “Grace’s Song” let the blues suggest the jam, and the assembled cast’s take on “Matchbox Blues” was compact and spot-on. It was perhaps too short though, with all the talented guitar players getting one spin around the changes. I could have listened to Sweany and Carroll trade guitar solos all night.
Was it fun? I’m nodding like a bobblehead.