Is there a finer virtue than optimism? On its own it’s a life force, but it also tends to drag a lot of other qualities along with it, from integrity to perseverance. If you ever met our company honchos Todd and John, you’d realize quickly that their optimism – a rare, distilled strain of the stuff – is the reason Music City Roots exists. They’ve bet on the growth of good music, the intelligence of the public and the support of a community. This is seemingly for no other reason than that’s how things ought to be, and unless somebody stands up for that, well, we’ll all become Taco Bell worker drones with implanted biometric consumer survey chips tracking us as we drive home to watch The Bachelorette on our DVRs.
Sorry, I digress. Optimism is on my mind because we’ve got a lot of good news to savor as we prepare around here for our TV series premiere slated for Friday in Nashville. Various other projects feel like they have momentum too. But more than any of that, optimism emerged as a theme of Wednesday night’s Roots. In many ways it began days before the show when we asked our friend Tom Mason, a musician and actor who’s graced our stage as a sideman and a Pirate band-leader if he’d be up for subbing for a traveling Keith Bilbrey. Tom said yes, fueled by faith that he could adapt to any role. And he did a great job.
Then on stage, our friend Col. Littleton came out at the top of the show for his seasonal story time. It’s like having our own Mark Twain. I couldn’t match his set up and punch line if I tried, but he made a solid point about the rewards of a good attitude with a story about a pessimist brother, an optimist brother and fun with horse poo. Let’s see Garrison Keillor do THAT.
Peter Cooper was first on our musical slate with a set anchored around the ennobling and salutary spirit of baseball. The title track of his very new and excellent album studies the particular, April-tinged optimism of “Opening Day.” Implicated here is the hope of the fan before the losses mount, the hope of the team as they point to a pennant and the dream of the minor leaguer who simply has to believe as they toil and travel for a few thousand bucks a year. They’re trying to get to their own version of the show, just like every interesting, life-affirming person I’ve ever met. Peter offered more somber thoughts (wrapped in some sparkling music) on “Jenny Died At 25” and “Quiet Little War.” The former seemed to say that people can baffle you, and the latter that reality can get twisted beyond recognition. Then when you add his set opener “Better Now” (about things having gotten better) and closer “Great Today” (about not letting bad news break your spirit), and you’ve got a college-level clinic in optimism. The remarkable band, including Sierra Hull, Thomm Jutz, Mark Fain and Justin Moses, made it all the more life-affirming.
Asheville’s fascinating quartet River Whyless wasn’t as explicit in its aspirations. Their songs were poetic and abstract lyrically, but it was their music and ensemble arrangement that bolstered my faith in a better tomorrow. They opened with “Pigeon Feathers,” which I discovered through a very smart and stylish video the band posted recently. I just love this song, built around a looping fiddle arpeggio, tight bass playing, brilliant use of percussion and drums and lofty vocals from Ryan O’Keefe and Halli Anderson. The rest of the set sort of elaborated on those strengths, embracing orchestral noise, droning fiddle and fascinating rhythmic shifts. I loved seeing the crowd respond so well to the out-of-the-box intensity and borderline chaos of “Widow’s Walk.” We do have a music-loving audience.
The power of positive thinking seems to be part of what keeps Korby Lenker upright and sentient. His disposition is as cheerful as his name. He stood out in a red velvet tux jacket and bow tie. And his set sparkled with good vibrations and quirky musical ideas. For one thing, nobody’s ever brought a concert harpist to our stage, but he did. Paula Bressman and her six foot gold harp really beautied up the stage, and her duo fingerpicking with Korby on opener “If I Prove False” created an irresistible timbre. “Hurts Me So” was sunny and bouncy with harp glissandos, which is a word I never thought I’d get to use that word in a Roots blog. Lenker took a jazzier turn on “Papercuts” and then a plaintive, punchy pop direction on “Lovers Are Fools,” which revved up to a rocking climax that earned big applause. He saved his optimal dose of optimism for the final tune however. “My Little Life” is a small bright song about a big subject that’s earned him so many accolades this year. With only a ukulele cradled up near his chin, he sang of taking delight and sustenance in tiny gifts. And it’s not as cute as it sounds on the surface. It’s like the Tao of Pooh – serious wisdom in a simple melody.
I wrote a lot about Donna The Buffalo in my preview column so I’ll not re-hash the zydeco-meets-jam band musicology that would illustrate their set. It was every bit the rush of fun and energy I’d hoped for. Dancers emerged at the first call of Tara Nevin’s gorgeous and tonally perfect old-time fiddling, and the music flowed like a river through I think five songs, though they mesh together in a hazy trance of good vibes. Tara did sing the new band anthem “I Love My Tribe,” which is certainly something we relate to. And DTB kind of took the lead on the Loveless Jam too, working with Jim Lauderdale to shape a reggae-infused and groovy version of that most ennobling of 60s folk songs, “If I Had A Hammer.” It’s about life’s many IFs and what you plan to do about them. A good attitude helps.