Hidden Connections

With rare exceptions, musicians are social and collaborative creatures. Meet a cerebral singer-songwriter and you could easily be one or two degrees of separation from some rock star. For example, who would have suspected that Nashville’s best-kept-secret Jeff Black was pals with hyper-platinum recording artist John Oates? And what’s John Oates doing hanging out and writing with newgrass mandolin star Sam Bush? Well, it’s complicated, but it’s also delightful and enriching, as last night’s Roots proved.

Much about the evening felt fresh and surprising. The Loveless looked particularly amazing and festive, with an extra dose of twinkly lights and paper lanterns suspended in the rafters. (Was that for us or did somebody get married there this weekend?) The crowd was also huge even early on, despite the CMA Awards downtown and the giant toxic traffic jam on I-40. So, thanks brave souls. And we had new blood on stage. The great broadcaster Kyle Cantrell, former Opry/WSM announcer and current bluegrass maven for SiriusXM struck the perfect old-time radio tone. And with Jim Lauderdale gone for his Elvis tour, we were blessed to have the Last of the Full Grown Men Webb Wilder, whose a natch at this announcing thing.

We gave the stage first to Jeff Black, an artist who inspires deep loyalty and affection among his fans. Easy to see why. With a voice poised between golden serenity and rough-hewn blues and songs that evoke very personal interpretations and images, he’s just a musical magnetron. The audience was as hushed as any we’ve ever seen on Roots, sitting riveted with eyes locked on our own Man in Black. For me, he conjured up memories of discovering the amazing Joe Henry way back when, with his similarly centered passion and peppery Southern flavors. Backed only by a mandolin and a guy with shakers and an Indian drum, Black offered a varied set, including a funky, striding song called “Plow Through The Mystic” which he told us will be the title of his next album, coming early winter. Can’t wait.

It wouldn’t feel like a Roots without one spiky, alt-country band and yet we had two. Brooklyn-based Yarn opened up with a big guitar driven fanfare and a ripping mandolin solo. Songs like “Down On Your Luck” delivered a rock solid acoustic/electric punch, and throughout the band was happy to jam out. That was followed by Brian McGee, a band leader from Asheville who collaborates with Roots alums like the Honeycutters and Sam Quinn. He is a starkly impressive singer-songwriter with a crack band that evoked the Stones, the Plimsouls and the Burrito Brothers. Must be something in that Asheville water.

We can’t say this often, but then on came the rock star. John Oates of the giant and influential duo Hall & Oates has been swimming in folk and blues territory lately, getting back to some of his favorite songs and artists of his youth. He opened with some songs of his upcoming, Nashville-recorded album Mississippi Mile, including a nicely re-thought “Palette On Your Floor” by the great Mississippi John Hurt. And with an awesome band that included Sam Bush, Guthrie Trapp, Mike Bub and Jimi Wallace, he delivered soul satisfaction with very fresh arrangements of H&O hits. “You Make My Dreams Come True” was done in a kind of vintage swing style that let Guthrie play the knobs of his electric guitar, and “She’s Gone” proved a remarkable hybrid of acoustic roots and Steely Dan-like pop jazz. John’s voice was rich and expressive, his fingerpicking fleet and impressive. Most of all though he was the world’s nicest guy, making all of us feel grateful to have him around.

We got sooo lucky to have Sam Bush in the house; he had to turn down an invite to play with Dierks Bentley on that CMA thing they do on national TV to be with us, and we hug his neck for that. Showmanship, songs and crazy picking are always ensured. Last night he opened with the quirky, offbeat timing of “On The Road” and segued into “Circles Around Me,” the title track of the current album. He nipped into the hard bluegrass sound with “Out On The Ocean” and the Dawg-like composition “Whayasay.” It was the full Tour De Sam, and it earned one of the loudest, wildest standing Os I can recall. And in a rare move, since we were well off the WRLT airwaves by then anyway (We’re just too full of love to fit in two hours!) the powers that be let the SBB do an encore of “Riding The Bluegrass Train” even before the all-hands-on-deck Loveless Jam, for which the folks pulled out a vintage bottle of The Band and did a rousing “Up On Cripple Creek.”

So a good time was had by all. Lovely to see all kinds of musician pals in the crowd, including Ned Luberecki, Warren Pash (writer of that H&O classic “Private Eyes”), Randy Kohrs, Bill Lloyd and next week’s guest Ben Cameron. Speaking of next week, y’all come!

Craig H

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