In Their Elements

Ah, the season of slushy ice and winter suspense is upon us. As I finalize this review on Friday morning it is truly snowing hard in Nashville, but Wednesday was one of those days that schools close over conditions that make the South a laughing stock from Cleveland to Calgary. Sub freezing precipitation is generally treated by our officials as a harbinger of the second coming. Never was the advice to “chill” so replete with double entendre. We at Roots never hesitated however. The show (rhymes with snow) will go on unless and until we’re surrounded by White Walkers. And while artist Daniel Hutchens and band nearly had to cancel due to a closed highway around Atlanta, they arrived at the venue in the late afternoon, showing that kind of determination and grit that makes Americana great. Our audience was more than respectable for any January day featuring ice of any kind. We appreciate everyone who made the night an enclave of warmth and smartly assembled sounds and songs.

Ron Block arrived with the opening tune from his new Hogan’s House of Music album, and I’d noticed on the CD that this banjo composition was especially bendy with a bunch of slurry ascents baked into its delectable melody. He made the banjo sound like a dobro, which made Rob Ickes’s dobro even more so. Sadly, the bendy bendy led to breaky breaky and Ron popped a banjo string for what he said was the first time since the 1990s. You never know what’s going to happen at Music City Roots! The remaining trio of Ickes, guitarist Clay Hess and bassist Mark Fain just kept on coasting and soloing and playing beautifully while Ron did a banjo pitstop backstage. He joined right back in for the final chorus and it all seemed like a planned part of the act. There were a couple of sweet and seductive guitar based tunes, one vocal and one instrumental. And they rounded out the set with two canonical banjo driven bluegrass pieces, the wonderfully off-kilter “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and the Earl Scruggs standard “Lonesome Road Blues.” It was experts in their element.

After their heroic push to make the date, Daniel Hutchens and his four piece band gave us a nice relaxed set of brightly harmonic southern rock with touches of Byrdsy jangle and sweet jamband flow. “American Country Ghosts,” a new song, offered the possibility that when we’re falling apart, our heroes are watching us and sending us imperfect lifelines. And I’m really glad he wrapped with the one song I recall from Hutchens’s appearance with Bloodkin a few years ago. “Pretty Girls In Summer Dresses” feels like a classic with its easy on the lips title and sweet melody. Throughout the set, the meat and potatoes sound was elevated by the overtones and keening ideas of pedal steel player John Neff.

I liked Matt The Electrician’s demeanor and vibe, both researching him and meeting him. But I was in the dark about the sound he’d make. And wow, did it turn out to be engaging and mysteriously beautiful. His sung melodies took unexpected little sidesteps and leaps, often locked with some complimentary figure on his acoustic guitar. He opened solo but soon brought on Stephanie Macias to sing harmony, and wow, the intervals they found were pure and lush, and they punctuated the songs with pregnant pauses and perfectly matched phrasing. Sometimes I can enjoy a songwriter like this so much musically that I forget to lean in to the words, but Matt sang with wit about an existential bear and about the difficulty of seeing the world clearly in “20/20.” He’s really a delight and he ought to like his folk singer moniker more than he seemed to in our interview. I think it’s electrifying.

A big, bearded band made a burly backing for the sharp and brassy vocals of Elizabeth Cook. An all new slate of songs just soared, and her voice was in spectacular form, validating the oft made comparisons to Dolly and Lee Ann. Opener “Dyin’” had the minor march of a Buddy Miller song, accented by a three beat clutched riff on electric guitar. When the mood shifted to a funky ride on “Methadone Blues” in the next song, Cook’s wide range was on display. The latter song made humane light of a grim family situation. Then she drew from the news for “Tabitha Tudor’s Mama,” which offered a bare glimmer of light before concluding on a deeply melancholic note. Finale “Straight Jacket Love” toggled between an old country waltz and a rockabilly rave as verse traded with chorus. It was all a harbinger of a big year to come for the incredibly gifted Ms. Cook.

With the news of Glenn Frey’s passing so fresh on our minds, the Nashville Jam had to be “Take It Easy.” It sounded like a dang tribute record – just cathartic and gorgeous. Now that two inches of snow are becoming three outside my window and all over the area, taking it easy may be our only option this weekend. Enjoy the elements.

Craig H.

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