Invoking The Muse

Submitted by Craig Havighurst on October 25, 2013 – 19:59

The ancient Greek poets and classical authors of epics used to “invoke the muse” at the beginning of their works. It was a kind of prayer, either vaguely secular and directed at the universe or more specifically at the original Muses, said to be the nine daughters of Zeus who mediated the creative spirit. I’m a humanist so I put huge faith in the innate inventive powers of people and their brains without divine assistance. But I’m open to the possibility that when we’re in the zone, we’re getting a bit of help from the cosmos and the spiritual beyond – at least a tailwind if not specific ideas.

You’ll notice that as a radio show, Music City Roots has a certain ritualistic opening, where Keith Bilbrey and Jim Lauderdale offer some incantations that stay pretty consistent week to week. Following that tradition of golden age radio is for us a kind of invocation of the muse. The welcome message and the reminder that we come from the Edge of Music City and so forth are meant to prepare the stage as a semi-sacred place where the energy cycle from artist to audience to muse and back to artist is as free of obstacles and interference as possible. So this week it was lovely to hear The Wood Brothers sing “The Muse,” the title track from their wonderful new album, in which truth and beauty and insight are personified as a lover brushing her hair and a newborn bringing a new light into the world. Those daughters of Zeus seemed to be on hand, giving the artists copious amounts of inspiration all evening.

It started with Jim Lauderdale’s story of creativity and how a phrase in a book sparked a thought on a plane that sparked a song in a hotel room hours later called “Taking Your Sweet Time.” Then on came our first guest artist, A.J. Croce, a guy who has let the creative spirit carry him all over the stylistic map, through his career and through his set. Surrounded by fancy keyboards, he launched into “Right On Time” on electric piano with guitar, bass and drums in support. It was a sharp pop tune with dramatic stabs and stops. Then came rolling R&B boogie on the tune “Easy Money” and a classic country railroad beat on “Momentary Lapse of Judgment,” which came complete with a burning Telecaster solo from Michael Bizar. It was one of several Nashville-feeling touches, including his final song “Rolling On,” written with area resident and rock legend Leon Russell. Its funky swing had elements of The Band and Elton John, and it ended with a rousing, sophisticated boogie piano solo by Croce that showcased his long relationship with and deep understanding of his instrument. It got things moving on a triumphant note.

Poor Old Shine out of Connecticut shifted the emphasis to string band instruments, though not conventional by any means. Antonio Alcorn played a strange teardrop-shaped one-of-a-kind resonator mandola kind of thing. The band also prominently featured an antique pump organ, which uses bellows and reeds to make a calming drone – one of my favorite sounds to tell you the truth. The songwriting and delivery was really smart and sharp, so I was wrapped up by the end of the first la-la-la chorus. The short set ended with a moody, ambient stretch that crescendoed into noise before it dropped away to crisp guitar and mandolin chops behind the vocals, setting up the final song “Footsteps In My Ear.” This was a new band for me, and I’ll be sure to keep my ears out for them going forward. They made a good segue into local guys the Shelf Dusters Union, which focused on Grateful Dead style rippling blue rock and roll. Friend of the show and regular Vietti Chili singer Travis Stinson brought his soulful pipes to bear on songs by guitarist Anthony Correll. I especially like their tune “Buy A Snake” with its slithery pulse and its irregular lines. Fun stuff.

Robbie Fulks came wired for bluegrass and classic country with a hot Collings flat-top guitar, the amazing Ron Spears on harmony vocals, his old compadre Robbie Gersoe on resonphonic guitar and voice, plus the lyrical fiddler Shad Cobb, a regular around our place. I mention the entire quartet because this was a pure case of a strong ensemble meeting the strong material halfway. Opener “When You Get To The Bottom” achieved transcendence in the hands of pickers who understand the feeling of the 1950s style country-grass on which the song is modeled. The brisk and bright “Sometimes The Grass Is Really Greener” had a lush melody, sky-rending high lonesome harmonies and a sad, sad narrator who’s miscalculated the prospects for a good life and making good country music in the big city. Then thematically related – a man who finds himself far from home – was “That’s Where I’m From.” The tender music and vocals hushed the big and chatty crowd, and by the end I was counting the song among the moments when I felt I’d experienced a masterpiece – like Richard Thompson debuting “Vincent Black Lightning” or “Traveling Soldier” from the voice of Bruce Robison. Fulks is that great. Can we find some awards to give this guy or at least lay garlands before him as he walks around?

The night’s chief invokers of “The Muse” hit the stage with Chris Wood’s precise and groovy acoustic bass line that opens “Keep Me Around.” Brother Oliver joined in with fingerstyle guitar and percussionist Jano Rix started the set beating rhythm on his patented “Shuitar” which I would describe as a cajon with cojones you can carry. When all three voices joined together on the airlift chorus of the song, the room was totally galvanized and transfixed. The actual song “The Muse” is a tasty waltz with classical touches and beautiful lyrics. Before long, Oliver shifted to dirty vintage electric guitar while Jano stepped back to the full drum set, where he showed amazing inventiveness. They funked their way to the end of the set and then earned an encore from the audience (that’s what happens when y’all truly freak out, as y’all did). Then Jim and everyone else came back for a Loveless Jam on an American blues classic that the Wood Brothers covered on one of their early albums. With truly striking vocal performances from Croce, Fulks, Stinson and more, “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” became one of the most intense and well-arranged jams we’ve ever had. It would have pleased the gods.

Craig H.

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