Back when I worked at The Tennessean with Peter Cooper (who hosts this week’s show by the way), I learned that he and I had diverging views on the whole jam band thing. Once he asked me about Phish: “does the good lyric fairy ever visit them?” As if I was prepared to or would ever argue that “Fluffhead” is in the same literary category as “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Well no, it’s not and I wouldn’t. We just generally and temperamentally tap in to different aspects of music. He’s a song guy (as proven by the many excellent examples he’s written) and I’m a sound guy, wired for rhythm, dynamics, counterpoint, dissonance and other musical delights well before I think about the cerebral magic of a great story or message. Americana in general is more song-oriented and ambivalent about the free flowing, dance happy jam band ethos. I see them as utterly complimentary and self-reinforcing, as this week’s Roots will demonstrate.
Jeff Austin, mandolinist and band leader, was a founding member and veteran of arguably the most popular jam-based bluegrass ensemble of all time, the Yonder Mountain String Band. He’s stretched a song past the seven-minute mark more than a few times. Meanwhile Jake LaBotz is a quintessential song crafter, with tightly wound verses wrapped in country-rockabilly vestments. The Natchez Tracers makes “cosmic country funk” so you know they’re coming from planet jam. And Roadkill Ghost Choir touch our proceedings with another flavor entirely from an indie folk rock point of view.
Jeff Austin parted ways with the highly successful Yonder Mountain in 2013 to (no, really) spend more time with his young family and pursue solo directions. And he’s found plenty to keep him busy. His Jeff Austin Band has toured steadily, frequently teaming up with the Travelin’ McCourys, with whom they have a brotherly affinity. With his 2015 album The Simple Truth, Austin affirms his own personal balance between the song and the jam. He wrote nearly all the album, and the originals range from conventional Sam Bush sounding power folk to space-reaching progressive. The now familiar “Fiddling Around” keeps the bluegrass feel front and center. I was thrilled to hear the album close with a patient, gorgeous take on Sarah Siskind’s “Falling Stars,” with what is I’m pretty sure is Sarah’s own voice singing harmony. At this stage of the game, the great Danny Barnes was the banjo player in the JAB, lending virtuosity and whimsy to the proceedings. That gives you a sense of who loves to make music with Jeff and of how many folks love to listen to the results.
Jake La Botz could apply for the job of Most Interesting Man In The World. The Chicago native dropped out of high school and set himself up in the academy of the blues, studying the music at the feet of pre-War bluesman and Robert Johnson pal David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Then he got himself clean from the addictions he accumulated hanging out with pre-War blues artists. Then he toured tattoo parlors across the US and landed gigs acting in cool indie movies like “Ghost World.” Thus his celebratory blurb from actor/director Steve Buscemi who calls Jake “a true American classic, a gift, and a musical resource.” Jake’s released seven albums, culminating in the very new and simply outstanding Sunnyside, an album that simply baffles me with its mix of tried-and-true forms and fresh ideas. Think about a cerebral and even more worldly J.D. McPherson and you begin to get it. I can’t get enough of the surreal “Inflatable Duck” which I think would have made 1969 Bob Dylan offer a salute.
Roadkill Ghost Choir has been a nice revelation to me this week. I missed them on their big breakout year of 2014 when they played David Letterman’s show and did Bonnaroo and other big festivals. The Florida based quintet is earthy and spectral, happy to tap your toes with a touch of banjo or rock out with distorted majesty. With their strong sense of melody, they remind me a bit of The Shins or Apache Relay. This description from Relix magazine’s Justin Jacobs rings true to what I’m hearing: “the sweet spot between Mumford & Sons’ power-folk and My Morning Jacket’s passionate post-Southern rock.” The most recent album I can find from these guys is 2014’s In Tongues, and it’s a great discovery – a snappy, inventive pop rock album with smart use of steel guitar. I’m excited to find out what they have in the planning stages.
And from local environs we’ll hear from The Natchez Tracers, which I must say is a great name for a band. It evokes our city’s ancient trail to Southern Mississippi, plied by buffalo, Native Americans, settlers and now drivers on one of America’s prettiest parkways. That gives a band the freedom to go full roots, Delta blues, Muscle Shoals or Nashville twang, and it sounds from my quick investigations that this quartet goes there and there and there.
So come on you, you dancing hippies. You’ll hear some great songs. Come on Bluebird crowd; we let you get up and dance.