Keyed Up

When I get to heaven (I’ve made arrangements) there will a funky drummer, vintage guitars (of course), organs and melodicas. Lots of melodicas. Why I love this obscure little instrument (the mini-keyboard that you blow into) is a mystery to me. It just has a reedy timbre I find beguiling. You remember that Gorillaz song “Clint Eastwood”? It totally seduced me with its melodica part. Jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood breaks out the melodica sometimes, and I come unglued. So when this week’s badass band Greyhounds wrapped their set up with a three-part melodica serenade (not to mention a funky drummer) I decided they’d been reading my mail and I changed all my passwords. They jacked into my neural network. And this was after a set of magnificent, grooving songs, not to mention a dancing space man (more on that later). It was a highlight of a superb night at Roots that tickled all our keys.

Eliot Bronson was up first with a set that called to mind some of the top tier Americana masters – Tim Easton or Steve Earle or Greg Trooper – with crisp, clean sounds and melodies that felt inevitable. Eliot, a charming guy with enviably vertical hair, wielded a small body acoustic guitar and led a band featuring electric guitar (mostly played in sleek slide style by Bret Hartley), acoustic bass and drums. “River Runs Dry” was gentle but soulful and nourishing. Bronson showed nice strong fingerstyle guitar chops on “New Pain” over a chugga-chugga beat. My favorite of the night was the song I noted in the preview, “I Just Came Back To Tell You I’m Leaving.” Its Celtic-inspired melodic figure and dark smoldering groove was all held in perfect balance with its biting lyrics. Plus Eliot was a fun interview to boot. I should have asked him about hair product, but we ran out of time.

The M sisters in Michaelis (Meagan, Mallory and Madeline) were certainly more steeped in contemporary country than most of our Roots fare, but it’s good to tap in now and then to that side of Nashville’s multi-faceted scene. They offered boppy fun songs of girls and good times (“High Heels and Hangovers” “She Likes Champagne”) and one really lovely mid-tempo classically-shaped song called “Around The World.” That’s where their three-part sibling harmony glowed with the most luster. But the no-band, two-guitars-plus-percussionist format kept the spotlight on the voices all set, and impressive voices they were.

I’ve already given away some of the best bits about Greyhounds of Austin TX, but they’re worth going on about. Anthony Ferrell manned a trio of well-used keyboards, including the iconic Fender Rhodes electric piano that is the stuff of my psychedelic jazz dreams. Andrew Trube, dressed like a secret agent man with an LBJ hat, played with bare fingers on antique electric guitars, achieving not just twang but Tarantino twang (sort of the black belt level of this American martial art). In the middle sat Anthony Cole who brought his own incredibly compact drum set. That’s all one should need y’all, and he proved it with beats as slippery and fat as a side of bacon. Ferrell takes most of the lead vocals with a fine, rangy voice that calls to mind Sam Cooke and Al Green. The falsetto bits made opener “What’s On Your Mind” utterly hooky. Trube took over singing on “Amazing” and “Yours To Steal” which had tons of atmosphere and gothic reverb. I couldn’t see the fully clad spaceman emerge at first from where I was sitting, but I could feel the energy in the hall rise up in a mix of awe and WTF (aspiring performers, this is a good thing to aim for). He was a perfect surreal touch, slow dancing as if floating in the void. Drummer Cole ended “B-Sizzle” with not so much a drum solo as just a long passage of elegant, enthralling solo drumming. Like getting my back scratched. And then the melodica finale on closer “Soul Navigator.” Hell, I’d follow these cats anywhere they navigated.

I’d have worried about some artists following that, but not Chuck Mead. Cool as a rhinestone yet enthusiastic as a kid, he’s a magnificent ambassador for the very heart and soul of Americana music. It’s country but it’s inventive and with these new songs from the album Free State Serenade, he elevates his game to his highest level ever. They’re rich with place and delicious place names, like the Wakarusa River and Neosho Valley. And Mead isn’t just rattling them off for the wordplay; every place is a story. “The Devil By Their Side” told of a Civil War catastrophe in Lawrence, KS (Chuck’s home town) to a boogie beat (driven in expert fashion by Chuck’s old hands Mark Miller on bass and Martin Lynds on drums). “Evil Wind” got in the head of one of the murderers from In Cold Blood. Meanwhile, legal killer Carco Clave played the best steel I’ve ever heard him play, grabbing gorgeous jazz chords and offering searing solos. My favorite song of the set I think was “Slow Train Through Arkansas,” because of its vivid pictures and its utterly soothing and seductive tempo.

With Chuck and Jim Lauderdale conspiring, it’s no surprise they looked to Hank Williams for the Nashville Jam. “Mind Your Own Business” proved to be one of our best ensemble pieces ever, with strong vocals all around and studio-ready solos, including one by Farrell on melodica. Thanks to all for an evening with chemistry and character. Oh, and to Monell’s our new catering partner who brought great eats for cast, crew and fans. Fine food and music. The keys to a great time.

Craig H.

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