In the 1960s, when folk and roots music had its first big revival in popular culture, much was made of the so-called generation gap. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became some of the dumbest advice ever proffered to young people, and older generations did not react with grace and understanding to young people thinking for themselves. It was chaotic, if you can recall. Well, today’s roots music revolution often feels like the exact opposite. Families pick together and stick together. Songs are passed along in a beautiful age-old oral tradition. Youngsters eagerly seek out the tutelage of older musicians, because, well, they know how it’s done. Our show ended with a shining example of legacy and family ties, and it wasn’t the only one.
We don’t usually open with righteous rock and roll, but David Vandervelde drew the straw, and he filled the barn with some of the prettiest and brashest guitar tone I’ve heard in a long time. Fronting his deep-grooving power trio, David looked the part of the 60s shaggy alienated youth, but his melancholy and cutting voice endeared him to the room. He opened with “Beer,” which is less celebration than cautionary tale. “More Than You Can Feel” offered sweet chords and brilliant use of the guitar’s full voice and a wah-wah pedal. David’s been compared to the Crazy Horse phase of Neil Young, and that works. It’s tuneful and endearing, even as it pummels you with a big pulse. Though it should be said that Mr. V offered his last two songs solo, without rhythm section, and they were gorgeous.
Head-turning surprise of the night came from Austin’s Wheeler Brothers. First surprise: the guys across the front sharing the excellent vocal harmonies are not the brothers. Nolan Wheeler was up front and center for most of the set, but his siblings were back on drums and bass (happiest barefoot bass player ever by the way). Meanwhile, A.J. Molineaux and Danny Matthews played guitars of all kinds and showed great range and musical smarts. Then there’s the sound. This rather new band found its way on to Ray Benson’s Bismeaux Records not with old country/folk familiarity but with inventive, radiant pop-infused something-or-other. “Straight And Steady” had a snappy bounce and a symphonic guitar jam. “Sleep When I’m Dead” suggested the Allman Brothers mashed up with Mumford & Sons. I enjoyed their first album on the way home and I hope we can have these guys back soon. Major fun AND family values.
Up next was returning roots music champion Frank Fairfield, now sporting a fulsome moustache worthy of a Civil War colonel. This fellow is so low-key in conversation that I always marvel at his intensity on stage. Fiddling through his opening medley of old dance tunes, he got to pounding his foot so hard I feared he’d put it through the antique guitar lying on the floor next to him. He showed his intricate virtuosity on banjo flying through “Little Liza Jane.” I was tickled to see a pretty young woman in the audience watching this number with her jaw dropped and her eyes popping. It has that effect. He also offered some delicately picked guitar blues and ballads – all songs dug up from heaven knows where in America’s attics. Just 26 years old, I’ve rarely seen an artist who’s so self-assured and completely unique. But maybe it’s more that he’s just so confident that the songs he’s purveying are great.
The impromptu but superb band from the Pa’s Fiddle Project kept the old-time vibe going with good old good ‘uns like “Polly Put The Kettle On.” All the songs came from the CD series celebrating and explicating the music woven through the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I spoke on stage with the CD’s mastermind, MTSU musicologist Dale Cockrell about the important but previously neglected legacy of fiddler Charles Ingalls. But it was the pickers who brought the tunes to life: fiddler Matt Combs, fiddler and banjo player Shad Cobb, mandolinist Matt Flinner, bass player Dennis Crouch and accordion master Jeff Taylor. The priceless Pat Enright played guitar and offered his great bluesy vocals on “The Girl I Left Behind Me” (also a great showcase for Taylor’s accordion). And the fiddle/frailing banjo of the song “Yellow Heifer” really brought the old-time feel to our barn.
And that all led to our family act extraordinaire, the father and sons McEuen. John of course is the multi-instrumentalist founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. His boys Nathan and Jonathan have each proven themselves as solo artists. Now they’ve consolidated years of playing together – informal and formal – into a true show with an album to back it up. They’re calling it The McEuen Sessions, and it’s some nourishing stuff that ranges from woodsy roots to California folk-pop. The first and maybe most striking thing about this trio is the blended voices of Nathan and Jonathan. Strong and brimming with tonal character and communication, this is just a superior brother harmony band. Then these crafty guitar players tear into the picking side of things, which was especially cool on John’s old favorite “Dismal Swamp,” which he leads on the banjo.
But my favorite performance of the night set the theme for the evening. Jonathan took the vocal on Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band,” and man it was a chill-bumper. A poetic song about music and fatherly legacy, it couldn’t have been more on point. Well, except that nobody would say father John is “tired and his eyes are growing old.” He rocked. But it’s the next line that carried the night: “his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul.” It was so great to have our memories of that song refreshed and see an interpretation that imbued it with truth and meaning.
The jam was a nod to Mother Maybelle Carter and the spirit of the 40-year-old Will The Circle Be Unbroken album, which was McEuen’s brainchild. “Keep On The Sunny Side,” everybody sang. As if we needed to be urged to do so by that point of the evening.