Leather, Lace and Steel

Submitted by Craig Havighurst on November 1, 2013 – 15:14

We got the sad news this week that Lou Reed had died at age 71, but I’m sure not many people imagined that had much to do with bluegrass and Americana. After all it wasn’t Lou Reid of The Seldom Scene but Lou Reed the black leather knight of New York art punk. But inspired by the cathartic and anthemic version of “Sweet Jane” during the Loveless Jam at this week’s show, I did a little Googling and it turns out there’s a tiny slice of overlapping Venn diagram between the Velvet Underground and the bluegrass world. Ralph Stanley apparently covered “White Light, White Heat” for a Nick Cave project last year (old man gets around doesn’t he?). Greensky Bluegrass took on “Walk & Talk” at a New York City show recently. And there must be a good string band cover of “Pale Blue Eyes” out there. Anyway, we got a rocking two-chords-and-the-truth capper to an excellent show.

Most of our guest artists were boundary pushers and visionaries reaching beyond familiar forms, none more so than opener Jonathan Scales and his Fourchestra. The Asheville, NC-based steel pan player returned to Roots with new tunes and a pile of critical acclaim that’s accumulated since his last appearance. “Lurkin’,” his composed homage to idol Bela Fleck, sounded like a forward banjo roll with a wild card dissonant note in the flowing arpeggios that gave the tune character and tension. It started fast then downshifted to a mellower passage that then ramped up gradually to a climactic bass solo by dazzling Cody Wright. All set Wright was either flatpicking his electric bass as if he was John McLaughlin on guitar or tapping amazing chordal sequences, as in the tune “Life After D.” On that one, Scales conceived a fluid and sophisticated melody for the true jazz lovers among us. Modern and challenging though it was, our great crowd was riveted and gave the band a bunch of love.

Then it was back to back country, where by definition innovation takes subtler forms. Canadian Daniel Romano and his band The Trilliums took to the stage wearing a warm twist on western wear – thick wool Pendleton coats with Navajo designs and cowboy hats. The five piece band expertly played sad and lonesome music capped by Romano’s sharp songwriting and satisfyingly reedy and emotional voice. The hook of opener “Hard On You” was tough as nails, while “If You See Alice” evoked wry smiles with its Viagra-tastic subject matter and cheeky lines like “there ain’t no blood left in my brain.” “Lines On My Face” was deeply cool with a low-register melody and tons of pedal steel from Aaron Goldstein.

Then Sturgill Simpson brought his heavy Waylon-ish baritone to the stage for a set of crackling train beats and hearty twang. His stuff sounds like bluegrass arranged for a honky-tonk band, save for “Water In A Well,” which is a pure heart-melting country ballad. Kudos to Laur Joamets, Simpson’s guitarist, who must have a great story because he’s definitely the hottest Tele picker ever from Tartu, Eastonia. Both Simpson and Romano wrapped their sets with classic country covers. Romano did a wonderfully pathos-laden “Wreck On The Highway” and Simpson turned in a rippling, contrast-rich edition of “Listening To The Rain.”

Best dressed band of the night prize easily goes to Amanda Shires and her spiffy trio. The songwriter, a vision in white lace over black, was flanked by elegantly-in-black Stephanie Dickinson on bass and her handsome new husband Jason Isbell on her right on acoustic guitar. For all the studio atmospherics on her new Down Fell The Doves album, the songs tracked beautifully with simple, well-played arrangements on stage. Amanda said in our interview that she’s studying poetry at Sewanee and that she’s truly a lover of words. That showed in songs like “Devastate” where a lover’s thoughts of another read to the jealous narrator like a hurricane: “Your eyes are storms/I can see the spirals forming/It’s her.” Amanda’s unique shivering, silvery voice leaves things turned over in its wake too. Her work is not meant to be entirely soothing, but it is always striking.

With Leftover Salmon, it’s less about the words than the groove and the Colorado atmosphere. With nimble new drummer Alwyn Robinson and former Punch Brother Greg Garrison on bass preparing the rhythmic ground, the front line of Drew Emmitt on guitar and mandolin, Vince Herman on guitar and Andy Thorn on banjo could keep it fluid and free as they propel each song to new places. As Vince said, they’ve been traveling and playing their patented slamgrass for nearly 25 years, so there’s plenty of incentive to keep it fresh. “Two Highways” soared to a happy chorus and a hot electric guitar solo by Drew. “High Country” had a pronounced bluegrass beat with spicy banjo from Thorn and lush three part harmony vocals. This was the cue that ignited the dancers – first a small clutch from a local country dance group who buck-danced like crazy, and before we knew it there were cloggers, little kids and hippies all rollicking together. Andy’s banjo into Drew’s mandolin set a great pace on the instrumental “Bird Call” which then cooled out to a slippery hip-hoppy groove before roaring back to Hendrixian blur.

All that earned a fast-paced encore and the segue into “Sweet Jane” felt effortless. All the artists brought their best to that song’s simple but passionate vocals. Deep down, we’re all punk rockers, are we not?

Craig H.

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