Talking at length with Phil Madeira before this Wednesday’s show was gratifying at many levels, but one theme of our interview (posting soon to our Soundcloud) was the dignity and worth of the journeyman musician. As I investigated that old world carefully the next day I see the metaphor only goes so far in musical terms, but the dictionary says it’s a craftsman who’s been through apprenticeships and training but who is not yet a master. So for some journeyman is a stage on the way to legendary status. And for many it’s the steady state of being good, reliable and committed to the work, regardless of fame or gain. When MCR Alum Chuck Mead released his Journeyman’s Wager album he embraced the term as an emblem of his own adaptability and tenacity. So that’s how I tend to think of it. To be Americana pretty much means joining a journeyman’s guild, and this week’s superb, original sets at Roots resonated with that spirit.
Ellis Paul has more than 20 albums under his belt, so you know he’s worked the fields in seasons of plenty and otherwise. Much depth and poise have accumulated during all that experience. He opened by singing about a singular miracle – that of falling in love and being fallen in love with. “Rose Tattoo” showed off that graceful percussive touch on the acoustic guitar that helps a troubadour be his own drummer. Ellis is a storyteller as much as anything, and his evocation of the great American road trip in his setup to “Chasing Beauty” over gentle guitar riffs was totally engaging. He wrapped by really drawing in the audience (hard in Nashville) on a sing-along celebrating Johnny Cash and the night he kicked out the lights at the Grand Ole Opry. We’re glad Ellis left our footlights out of it.
The aforementioned Phil Madeira brought exactly the slow Southern vibe I expected (pretty good for a Yankee!), his four piece band using the beautiful basics of skin, wood, wire and fingers to produce acres of tone. “When The Rain Comes Down” grooved on a minor seventh chord vamp, while “Mercyland” offered nice bluesy changes and a song of solace. I only just discovered Phil’s lovely album PM from 2013 and from that he did the reassuring “An Old Song,” which affirms the value of age, time and tempering. The full band joined voices on a swoony opening to “Sitting On Top Of The World,” which then snapped into a smart little groove and a great rendition of the classic, where Lillie Mae Rische offered one of her fine, sensitive fiddle solos and Phil played some tasty guitar.
I’m what you might call Steelism’s core demo, what with my love of instrumental music generally, a soft spot for film scores with psychedelic ambience and a raging passion for the textures and timbres of Telecasters and pedal steel guitars. I’ve loved the band in several settings, including a short set on Roots a while back. But here they were – Spencer Cullum Jr. on steel and Jeremy Fetzer on twangy guitar – with the stellar John Bradford on drums and the surprise (to me) addition of James Westfall (a new Nashvillian) on vibes. VIBES! The mingled and overlapping colors of the core instruments was a heady thing that could either pulse subtly or explode in rock and roll fireworks. I especially loved “The Informant” which the guys said evoked Steve McQueen in an automobile (check) and set closer “Marfa Lights” with its crisp rock steady beat and sweet nocturnal melody. Cullum’s Theremin-like solo way up the neck in spooky space territory was fantastic.
I can only imagine what it’s like to play rock and roll with a back brace on and two months of tender recovery behind you – on stage at last but not 100% able to dive into the music and move. That’s where our buddy Allen Thompson was for his show closing set, but he and the band handled it all the way. Opener “Long Time Thinking” had breezy jazz chords to go with its easy beat as Allen sang of a relationship to nowhere. The rock and roll got rolling in “Think Twice” with the first big solo by the night’s guest guitarist Rich Mahan. The lyrics in “Need A Friend” are so clear and polished, and the band had all the clockwork synch of The Band – a sound that’s punchy but slick at the same time. Set closer “Last Passenger” rides like a convertible in the night through L.A. on a spooky minor riff and Allen took his one big guitar solo of the night on the tune. We’re all looking forward to the day when he and fellow guitarist Clint Maine are fully recovered and rocking like their backs ain’t got no bone, as somebody once said.
The jam on “Hard To Handle” was a blast of tone and force with fantastic vocals from everyone and some tasty soloing from Cullum and others. John Bradford kept everything utterly locked even through the tricky pause in the chorus. Those journeymen musicians man. You can’t earn the title without being a total pro.