Jim Hoke, Aqua Man – 9.2.15

Music City Roots has something in common with what I love about baseball, in that even though the big picture stays constant, every episode brings something new and surprising. Take this week. It’s Friday morning and I’m on the phone with master musician Jim Hoke, getting some background on his vintage suave band Aqua Velvet, our show-opening artist this Wednesday at Liberty Hall. Hoke created this small orchestra a decade ago with multi-instrumentalist Randy Leago to re-imagine standards and important tunes in fun, filmic ways. I’m especially interested in the wild harmonies Hoke discovers and adds to familiar songs, so that’s what I’m asking him about, on the phone.

Aqua Velvet “gives me a chance to stretch my chord muscles and put in chords that are associated with other kinds of music,” he says. So far so normal as these things go. “Like in ‘Jolene’ I use poly-chords.” And suddenly he’s playing these thick rich tone clusters on a piano over the phone! I had no idea he was near a piano, so the music hits me from left field and felt that much better because of it.

He cites 1970s Todd Rundgren and Laura Nyro as some inspirations for the tonalities he’s showing me, and there’s also touches of Steely Dan and Bill Evans and Ennio Morricone, the film composer. “The trick is to leave the melody alone,” he says. Then, “you can go hog wild with (harmonization) and get as lush as you want or simple as you want. In this case we went with the lush.”

“This case” is the new Aqua Velvet recording and show concept called Exotic Sounds In Country Music. With friend of the show Kristi Rose singing the commanding, brassy vocals (staying true to the original melody), the band swells and swirls with flutes, vibes, strings and percussion on songs like “Oh Lonesome Me” and “Back In Baby’s Arms.” Tempos are changed, sometimes radically. This is what arrangers do, and Hoke, who has played more instruments for more artists and more styles of music in Music City’s live and studio settings than perhaps anyone (no exaggerating), is among the best.

“Jim and I are simpatico in a lot of ways,” says the band’s dramatic vocalist Kristi Rose. “I don’t think there’s been an arrangement he’s ever brought I didn’t get. This is SO focused and SO good and the elements that he’s bringing in are so right. They’re smart and they’re effective and they cause a lot of the songs to be heard in a very different way.”

This is the kind of innovative cool we seek out at Roots, but I want to point out that this kind of project – the innovative and conceptually daring – used to have a better chance at success in Nashville than it does today. Aqua Velvet would have caught the ear of Owen Bradley and/or Chet Atkins. They’d have been on WSM live in prime time to the entire Eastern US. They’d probably have been given recording contracts or sought after as a backing band for country stars. The rules have changed, folks, and only in the ways that help radio sell commercial time not in ways that help the music.

“Yeah, it’s sort of a curveball,” says Hoke about the gulf between the Nashville and music biz he was inspired by growing up and the one he works around in his years of maximum expertise and experience. “The Chet Atkins people who had the clout and the foresight and musicianship to go for stuff like that (are gone). So we’ve had to adapt to an ever changing world. It has been disappointing. But all that inspiration is there an it’s not going to go away and it’s going to drive us on to do the things we have a knack for and a talent for. We’re going to keep doing it and finding a way.”

The rest of our bill of courageous strivers this week features visiting artists from Chicago, New England and New Orleans. Out of the former comes blues with the authentic stamp of that city’s history.The Nick Moss Band is a favorite of Buddy Guy and his namesake blues club. Moss has also earned huge accolades as a guitarist and performer and songwriter from greats like Ronnie Earl and Jimmy Thackery. That’s all I need to be on the edge of my seat.

Returning to Roots for a third visit will be songwriter and storyteller Vance Gilbert. Perhaps no artist has ever made us laugh as hard as this gentlemanly, colorful New Englander. Since opening a tour for Shawn Colvin in the early 90s, Vance has been a stalwart of the Boston area folk scene, releasing a string of moving albums. He touches on life, politics and culture, and he sings like a jazz man in a folk singer’s body. Will be good to see him again.

And lastly, by a bit of coincidence, we invited a couple of New Orleans bands on the show in as many weeks and this feels right as it coincides with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Of course it’s always righteous to hear from the Crescent City, and this week’s treat is a show-closing blast from the Dirty Bourbon River Show. Self described as “Big Brass Circus Rock,” the sextet leaves butts shaking and jaws on floor. I know because they played our show at the Loveless and I wrote then that the DBRS stole the show – “as in packing it up, removing the furniture, absconding with the lights and sound gear, etc. I mean give other bands a chance! These guys RAVED and charmed with brazen vocals, slippery sweet drumming and a horn attack like we’ve never seen. . . .Please come back boys. Please come back.” And now they have! Or will. And they do so peddling their ninth album with the magnificent title Important Things Humans Should Know.

Me, I’m here to tell you about an Important Place Humans Should Be, and that’s MCR on Sept. 2 at Liberty Hall. There will be exotic sounds galore.

Craig H.

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