Next week, Roots features two powerhouse female vocalists, but last night at the Loveless Barn it was raining men – men who can sing so powerfully they’d have all four judges’ chairs spinning around on The Voice (only to discover that our guys want no part of their industrial pop makeover). On a night that seemed destined to be knee-deep in bluegrass, the guys who took charge in the final two sets of the night loaded on sacks of Memphis soul and smoke-cured blues in a tour de force of no-barriers music. Glad I had such a good seat.
It was also a 100% Nashville night, which was cool. And cool also describes The Troubadour Kings, a collaboration of Music City pros whose various backgrounds include writing songs for Dwight Yoakam, Martina McBride and Kid Rock, producing big rock tracks and playing guitar for Brooks & Dunn. None of that would help you anticipate the sound of the TKs, however, which was pulsing blues rock with a songwriter’s heart, tinged with country. On “Getaway Car,” lead singer James House punched the air with his vocals and the band emitted coiled energy. On the moodier “Water For The Dancers,” House reminded me of Hal Ketchum’s best, while Michael Bradford offered finessed bass and harmony vocals on a truly lovely song. They revved it back up to end the set, giving Lou Toomey room to rip on lead guitar. You kids at home, pay attention to bands like this – the guitar gear, fancy as it was, was there in service of impeccable tone and all used with amazing control.
In the too-short second set, we got a return visit from Taylor Brashears, emerging artist and protégé of SteelDrivers founder Tammy Rogers. Taylor has an edge of angst in her sweet country timbre, along with a tweedling yodel that puts her in the overlap of old-time country, bluegrass and cowboy songs. “Tennessee Honey” is as sweet and swingy as its name. A cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “Louise” was pitched higher and more plaintively than its original. And “Won’t Be Found” had a bit of a gypsy swing feel. Taylor’s debut album is moving toward completion.
With decades of playing, chronicling and writing bluegrass music, Jon Weisberger has quite a few friends in the music, so “Jon Weisberger & Friends” was brimming with strong guest musicians. The core group featured Jon’s regular band-mates Chris Jones on guitar and vox and Ned Luberecki on banjo, plus Infamous Stringdusters fiddler/singer Jeremy Garrett. I loved the Jon/Jeremy co-write “Come Back To Me,” which started the set with a patient tempo and a somber tone. “Love The Way I Do” with two members of New Town had more drive. Jon brought on the awesome Vida Wakeman to sing their co-written “We’ll Put Out The Fire,” which coasted on a fiddle/banjo mountain feeling. And they wrapped with a natural choice, the Chris Jones vocal on “Final Farewell,” which topped the bluegrass charts in 2012.
Now there was nothing to sneeze at in any of the voices to this point (to use a completely bizarre and hackneyed expression). But there is a realm of singing that we who love to emit words and music from our lungs can only admire from a distance. It’s a vocal Valhalla where the likes of Otis Redding, Delbert McClinton and John Cowan reside. And the final two bands of the night were flush with guys who might be getting their invitations soon to that heady club. Randy Kohrs, leader of our fourth act, besides being a brazenly great singer, is one secure dude. Because instead of fleshing out his electric blues band with competent instrumentalists who’d merely support his musicianship, he invited on at least two guys who could battle him all night in a sing-off. Josh Shilling we know from Mountain Heart, and this guy is ridiculous – one of the most gifted and self-aware singers of his generation. Over on stage left was a fabulous guitar player Trevor Finlay who also had power, gravity and rasp to spare. Sheez. And of course Randy’s there in the middle, either supporting them with icy cool, clear and yearning lines on his electric lap steel guitars or singing lead with tornadic force. I hope this combination, making its performance debut last night, can someday play some shows with the Derek Trucks Band or the Allman Brothers, because that’s where they belong.
Finally, the bluegrass band with the ringer singer. The SteelDrivers (who were celebrating release week of their third album, Hammer Down) were one very compelling thing when born with lead singer Chris Stapleton and mandolinist Mike Henderson. Now they’re a not-entirely-different-and-somehow-even-more-cohesive-thing with lead singer Gary Nichols and mandolinist Brent Truitt. They opened with a restrained version of their standard “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” where Gary gets to uncork. The new ballad “I’ll Be There” blooms with three-part harmony. On “Ghosts Of Mississippi,” it was dark-grass with old world tonalities and menacing lyrics, as well as a virtually a cappella triple vox chorus. Tammy Rogers is a great show-person besides being such a great fiddler and singer; she’s really become the band’s spirited center on stage. Mike Fleming’s bass playing more than fills in the bottom; it conducts the band and establishes its rhythmic core. There just aren’t enough words for how The SteelDrivers fuse all that’s great about bluegrass with Southern Soul. It’s accessible and excellent stuff.
Jim Lauderdale was the man with the plan for the jam, and I enjoyed it as much as any Loveless Jam in months: “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” by Bill Monroe. There were more great solo turns, acoustic and electric, than you could count. And the slow-melt groove and cut-time drumming really made it sink into the bones. Oh man, was it a good night.