Did I give fair warning? I told you that Australia’s Henry Wagons cultivates audience participation. I mentioned that he might be somewhat interactive. A scenario I did NOT anticipate was any of our lovely crowd being encouraged to make gagging, last-breath-on-Earth sounds over a microphone for live broadcast to the world. No, I didn’t game that one out, but you know, this activity turns out to be freaking hilarious. Like gut-splitting, eye-watering ultra-funny.
Okay, for those who were not there, what the hell am I talking about? The last song of Henry’s set (closing out the night as it happened) was a dark and twisted number from his dark and twisted new recording “Expecting Company?” called “A Hangman’s Work Is Never Done.” Against a menacing backdrop of horror-movie organ and bass, Henry ennobled the lonely strife of the executioner in song. It’s a tough day’s work, you know, tougher than many other jobs. And part of this involved some eyebrow-raising theatricality wherein mic cables may or may not have been suggested as a hanging rope. Having been shown a high bar for death-rattle gags by Henry, the singer strode into the audience and solicited more of the same. Our pal Jay Millar from United Record Pressing was the first victim, though I suspect he may have been told to expect this. His agonizing phlegm-addled gasp was inspired. At that point, I was like ‘Ooo! Me! Me!’ but Wagons didn’t notice. Instead he conscripted a woman who we suspect may NOT have ever dreamed of aspirating on the air. He had to really coax her, but on the second attempt, she died admirably.
So yeah, this climactic song was a little darker than most Roots performances, but dang it was memorable and it got a standing ovation. It capped off a night of soaring songs and some good old down home music from the guy who built The Down Home. Up first, Samantha Crain sealed my impression of her as a young songwriting, singing, arranging master. She carries herself with a studied cool and calm and she sings with this confident, elegant and special voice. I’ve only begun to really swim in the songs of her brand new Kid Face album, but the live versions truly seared them into my heart. “Never Going Back” has a gorgeous climbing melody. “Kid Face” has a big bloom of a chorus. Crain brought a larger band than on her last Roots date, and the fuller arrangements with five other musicians were lush and absorbing. Among the textures – a cigar box slide guitar, electric piano, wiry electric guitar and a bloopy vintage toy keyboard. It all added up to aural magic supported by really great songs.
Banditos from Birmingham, AL offered a short but energetic set, opening with a country blues uproar built around Jeffrey Salter’s Travis-style guitar and some slamming banjo. Mary Richardson took charge vocally on “No Good” as the band slowed down. This sextet is raw and rangy – a bar band for lovers of loud soulful country fusion in the vein of The Defibulators.
A perfect calm-down counterpoint came from Ed Snodderly, veteran of the East Tennessee traditional music scene and a founder/owner of the vaunted Down Home in Johnson City. His opener “Gone Walking” had the rolling raggy blues fingerstyle feel of Doc Watson, with irregular rhymes and lines that kept the intrigue high. Before the set was over he played on dobro and banjo too. And what a gift with words he has, both spoken and sung. Snodderly told lovely, engaging stories and sang lines like “Life’s a gambler on a streak/ Time will make us gone / but I’ve got a life of my own” that layered the poetic over the plainspoken. The songs of Shawn Byrne, up next with a big old rocking band, were more contemporary in their country feel, but they were smart and hooky. Opener “Redemption” was built on slow, thundery textures and evoked old Satan himself in the classic country way. “Simpleton” offered a portrait of a guy for whom ignorance is bliss. “Old Cook Pot” is a soulful tune that evokes the Old South. And he wrapped with the spacious road song “One Hand On The Wheel,” with Shawn’s skilled work on his Les Paul matched up beautifully with Tommy Harnum’s gossamer pedal steel.
Henry Wagons closed the show – as I said – with big balls and a big baritone. His inspiring homage “Willie Nelson” pulled everyone in to the Wagons orbit. Then the comedy began in earnest as he hilariously singled out a couple to dedicate the subversive love song “Give Things A Chance To Mend.” Guest vocalist Kelly Day sang duet parts on songs from Henry’s new collaborative album, including the part of a victim of a vermin infestation on “Unwelcome Company.” I mean when you’re looking for catchy tunes about big rats in your apartment, there’s no better source than Wagons. He did his favorite “Keep Your Eyes Off My Sister” and closed as described above with his portrait of a sad-sack working stiff who just happens to execute people. I hope no bad dreams ensued.
Guest host Peter Cooper assembled the weekly mass choir of guest artists for a spin through The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” and we had another show in the history books. Sure it had its in your face moments, but as Jim Lauderdale likes to say, ‘you never know what might happen at Music City Roots’. And we want to keep it that way.