One of my favorite things to watch is our Music City A-Team musicians supporting an artist who’s new to them and who keeps them on their toes. Trumpet player and singer Joey Morant may have been wearing the gold sportcoat and tie in the spotlight on Wednesday night, but for long stretches of his set I was riveted by bass player Mike Bub, keyboardist Jimmy Wallace, guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Justin Amaral and steel guitarist Doug Jernigan. To say Joey is unpredictable is an understatement, but the boys in the band were clairvoyantly with him at every turn. Whether Joey was cruising into another bridge in “Crazy” or diving into a finale on “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” he communicated with nothing but phrasing and subtle direction that only experienced musicians understand. He acts; they react. It’s one of the subtle miracles that makes music possible, and I got a face full of it on this week’s fun, rangy show.
I’ll have to be brief this week because we are packing and preparing for our big adventure in Australia, where we’re putting on next week’s Roots at the Tamworth Town Hall as part of that burg’s big annual Country Music Festival. But here’s the Jan. 16 show in a nutshell. Jason Ringenberg stepped up when it became clear we needed a sub for the traveling Jim Lauderdale. He brought his gangly good humor along with his guitar and stage moves as he opened the show. Then he brought on Don Gallardo and How Far West. I’m one to say that Americana doesn’t have a specific sound, but if you averaged out all the sounds and textures it does have, you’d arrive at a sound like Don’s. It’s meat and potatoes songcraft and arrangement with a graceful blend of electric and acoustic timbres. Kyle Everson’s dobro and Joe Andrews’s mandolin really elevated the solid mid-tempo drive of the band. “Sinking Ships” had a great rippling push, while “Burgundy Wine” steered hard country. The songs are smart and super tuneful. Always a pleasure to hear Gallardo’s work.
The Volunteer String Band proved we should never take them for granted, playing a set of soulful bluegrass that won the crowd over top to bottom. Most of their songs this night were from the Grateful Dead repertoire, but pumped up to max with Travis Stinson’s huge and on-target voice. The rhythmic drive that comes from this quartet is stunning too. Then host Jason played some country punk on a solo acoustic guitar, which takes nerve and verve. “Moonshine Guy” is a distillation of the Scorchers awesomeness. “He’s a three-legged mule in a one horse town,” is one of its gem lyrics. Then he got tender with songs for his daughters – and a bit subversive with his Farmer Jason kid song that lets little ones sing along with the refrain “I’m a punk!” How better to keep your kid from becoming a punk than this?
Drivin’ N Cryin’ returned with monumental magnificence. They can be freakin’ loud but they took their time getting that way, opening instead with Southern pop psychedelia of “With The People” and “R.E.M.”. The pure and robust sparkling guitars were anchored by Sadler Vaden on a Danelectro 12-string. It sounds silly to remark on it but everything was in such perfect tune that the air was kind of electrified with choral guitar. It was a chiming, beautiful sound and a superb bed for Kevn Kinney’s keening vocals. On “Hot Wheels” and “Underground Umbrella” they truly wielded the rock and roll sword. Vaden’s shreddy guitar solo here was epic arena gold. In a barn!
And finally Joey Morant. God what a character. Everything you’d hope for in a Southern old-timer who’s seen it all and done it all in music. He’s campy but crafty. He can and will work a room until it’s under his mind control. His sing-alongs came with choreography and (go figure) a lesson in the coastal South Carolina dialect known as Gullah. He strode into the audience and flirted with the ladies. He raised the roof with his sky-high trumpet playing. And he kept things very Nashville with country classics done in his swing/gospel/jazz style. As I said, the band had his back, and they swung, or swinged, or swanged, whatever it is.
Our own band of showpeople is ready to go to Tamworth, so next time I check in with y’all it’ll be from a sweltering summer setting. Can’t wait to share pictures and stories from Down Under.