In a large room with an attentive audience, it takes a special kind of assurance and purpose to stand alone on stage and make music, even with six strings and a voice. But how about four strings and a bow? The violin/fiddle has been renowned for centuries as a vocal, emotional instrument. But that doesn’t make it easy. So we were all struck this Wednesday when Michael Cleveland’s ensemble retreated from the stage at the mid point of the set and left the fiddler/bandleader by himself to play the traditional tune “Jack O’ Diamonds.”
It’s not a blazing show-off piece like the popular “Orange Blossom Special,” which Cleveland can smoke by the way. Instead the tune has a mineral simple melody in three quarter time. With flowing double notes, Cleveland defined the theme. Then he launched into an array of spontaneous variations, each one more complex and daring than the last. He stretched the harmonies and teased new ideas out of the tune. We rarely get to see a solo instrumentalist throw down on Roots. This was one special part of a classic MCR episode. One week after our marathon soul extravaganza, this was a tighter braid of our familiar country, folk and bluegrass fare.
There’s never a doubt that Susan Werner will impress. It’s more a question of waiting to see how – the choice and flow of songs and the conversational humor in between them. She opened with several songs from her Hayseed album, starting with the crisp grooving “Back To The Land” and the truly funny “City Kids,” in which the second-class farm children grow up to turn the farm-to-tables on their urban hipster peers. Susan brought along our pal Adam Chaffins to play upright bass, and when the lyrics stopped and it was just the two stringed instruments, it was a rocking experience. Susan offered some great flatpicking and the two have tons of musical groove empathy going on. Werner absolutely inhabited the dramatic “Egg Money,” (another tale of revenge). Then she closed with two “gospel songs for agnostics” that left us with thoughts to go with our laughter. Some very astute folk music fan friends of mine approached me after the show to thank us for exposing them to Susan “where she been all our lives” Werner. That’s a great feeling.
The climate turned country as new Nashvillian Michaela Anne took the stage. Petit and stylish in a western vest and boots, her voice more than matched in its clarity and confidence. Most of us were hearing her songs for the very first time, and they were catching, absorbing and streaked with country blues. Philip Sterk contributed amber waves of pedal steel guitar as Michaela sang the aptly titled “Lift Me Up” and the title track to her current recording Ease My Mind. The closing pair of songs were dichotomous, spotlighting true love in the melodic “Is That What Mama Meant” and stillborn love in the slightly edgy and angry “I Ain’t For You.” Watch for Michaela to emerge among the cool new female voices in traditional country, along with Kelsey Waldon, Angaleena Pressley and Ashley Monroe. It’s a good time for the soul-children of Loretta and Tammy.
David Olney couldn’t have been a more striking contrast, with his bucket-of-nails voice and cranking old school rock an roll energy. Well at least that was the mood that bookened the set with “When The Deal Goes Down” opening and “Roll This Stone” as the fiery closer. In between things got moodier and sneakier with “Something In Blue” and the Latin-grooved “No Trace.” Along the way, Sergio Webb, unmistakable in his suit, beard and wide brimmed hat, played string-stretching electric guitar and a bit of banjo too. I think my favorite song was “Big Blue Hole,” which is rocking and insistent full of historic name checks from Genghis Kahn to Amy Winehouse. Death is the great equalizer, and in Olney’s theosophy, we’re all bound for the same Big Blue Hole.
Those cheery thoughts paved the way for a bluegrass finale, presented by Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper. They launched with speed and drive on “Johnny Thompson” and then brought it back to a high stepping bounce in “Fiddlin’ Joe” with fiddlin’ Michael illustrating the savvy bowcraft of the song’s namesake. The room-silencing solo on “Jack O’ Diamonds” was the highlight of the whole show for me, because we could really hear the finesse and tone and inventiveness of our guest artist utterly exposed. It showed off our great sound system as well. That tour de force set up the fast and fervent gospel song “On The Other Side” to close out the set. Then it didn’t take much effort for the other artists to gather on stage and make a fine batch of Nashville Jam out of the old standby “Long Journey Home.” Here again Michael transcended the simplicity of the tune for a stunning solo. Just goes to show that if you play the lonesome fiddle that well, you’re likely to never be lonesome.