Well, there are good shows and there are great shows and then every now and then there a comes a jaw-on-floor, hair-blown-back, memory-searing super-show that comes with tears, inexplicable brain endorphins, moments of cosmic clarity and a feeling of love and well being that transcends the tribulations of all mankind. That’s basically how I felt about 9:28 pm last night as a stage full of grandmasters led an all-barn Loveless Jam singalong of the old fave “This Little Light Of Mine” (The Sam Cooke version, noted Ms. Laurie, as she had downloaded the lyrics).
I mean how did anyone arrange or conspire to put these people on one stage at one time? Joe Diffie, Jim Lauderdale, Mike Farris, Tim Shelton and others traded verses, while no less than Kenny Vaughan, Viktor Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Guthrie Trapp, Barbara Lamb and many others shredded along on their instruments. All this was undergirded by the swelling, oceanic harmonies of the McCrary Sisters. We’d been pinching ourselves and punching each other’s shoulders all night with those looks of surprise that say silently ‘can you freaking believe this?’ As the night came to its triumphant close, we all I think answered silently to ourselves, “no, but let’s go with it anyway.”
I know, when I gush like this it sounds like “oh aren’t we great” and you might say “well he works for the show; what’s he going to say?” And of course these “reviews” aren’t the work of a dispassionate critic but neither are they propaganda from a company drone. If an act is just not good (I can think of only two such occasions) I’ll blow by it. But when I dance on the rooftops about an act or a show, it’s not because I think we’re so hot for having invited them. It’s about the artistry itself and the elevated grace of that artistry in a setting that was made special by the Loveless Cafe folks and the other musicians who are there watching from the wings with as much appreciation as anyone. It happened just like that yesterday.
Joe Diffie kicked us off, and that voice we all remember from “John Deere Green” and “Ships That Don’t Come In” did indeed sound fantastic on bluegrass material new and old. Backed by the superb Rounder Records group New Found Road, Joe tore into “Somehow Tonight” and then eased us into a vivid deep country time and place with “Route 5 Box 109,” a slice of life song from his new album Homecoming. Their set wrapper was the surprise of the disc, a fast grassified version of “Hard To Handle,” the Otis Redding song remade famously by the Black Crowes. Joe’s one of numerous big time country stars who’s turned to bluegrass in the last decade, pattern that says a lot about bluegrass, commercial country and the integrity of the artists involved.
We loved hearing from the Volunteer String Band in the Vietti emerging artist slot. Leader Travis Stinson and co. are actually seasoned veterans who have played tons of local gigs as well as the magic cave at Bluegrass Underground. Their witty “Gatlinburg” is a travelogue from hell, and they did the absolute best bluegrass cover of “Psycho Killer” I’ve ever heard. I can say that with certainty. The “ay-ay-ays” would have gotten Bill Monroe’s attention.
The heart of the batting order was mighty slugger Jerry Douglas who took the stage with bass master Viktor Krauss (the core of my fantasy band) and launched into “Tended,” a fabulous brooding, moody tune that they did together on Viktor’s first solo album on Nonesuch Records. Then Jerry introduced a singer he’s recently produced, young James DuPre from Louisiana who slayed with “Who’ll Stop The Rain” and an original song called “Memories of Heaven.” I can’t wait to see where James goes in his newly launched Warner Bros. career. Think Randy Travis and Josh Turner but up a bit higher in the register.
And then it was time for church. When we found out the McCrary sisters had finally made an album together, we were excited to bring them on board as a featured act. And oh man. They showed their broad vision by kicking off with an amazing re-working of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind.” They funked it up with a two-man horn section on Gary Nicholson’s “Shine Your Light,” smoldered on “Know My Name” and surprised by ending with a rocking boogie blues that swung the joint. It’s the first time I ever thought sympathetically about Mike Farris having to follow an act. But of course he brought it as he always does. I wasn’t taking notes by this point. I was just kind of gaping with a silly grin and a tear in my eye. We love this stuff. We really do.
So did our distinguished audience. We spotted Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, super-fiddler Michael Cleveland, steel guitar god Bruce Bouton, guitar repairman to the stars Joe Glaser, mandolin slinger Ashby Frank, SiriusXM bluegrass broadcasting maestro Kyle Cantrell and the new country PD John Marks. And in some kind of cool wild coincidence (?), we were visited by Bob Edwards, legend of NPR now a major attraction on SiriusXM, and we sure hope he liked the show and the scene. The community feeling we so badly want to honor and cultivate was all there, and I’m sure it was helped by the liquid joy of our new sponsor friends at Blackstone Brewery. Again, it was amazing. Could I just stop now? Enough already? Yes, but…