What’s the first song you ever performed in public? I can ask that semi-rhetorically, knowing that a good number among you in the Roots nation have taken a stage or two, whether at the open mic level or as a full blown career. It’s a real memory-buster because it feels like something one ought to remember – a threshold moment of bravery and personal expression. I think mine was “New River Train,” the bluegrass standard that I’d learned off of a Tony Rice/Norman Blake album. Now Amos Lee does remember the first song he performed for people, and let’s just say it was somewhat more ambitious, magisterial and profound than my nice little five-note folk song. And we know this because Mr. Lee chose that song – Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” – as his encore to close a stunning Music City Roots this week. That he would attempt that American anthem as such a new performer back in the day suggests nerve and ambition, and in rendering it so beautifully for us, he showed why he’s gone on to international success. Dude can sing.
But hey, this was true of our full compliment of artists this week, and the voices ranged from the urbane cool of Angel Snow to the keening country of Bradford Lee Folk to Sam Lewis, whose serene soul comes from a similar place as Amos Lee. But I think all of us will acknowledge that if we’re talking about true vocal masters from Music City and the roots traditions, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott are at the top. They asked to open the night’s bill, and we thought that would be a perfect way to snap everyone to attention. Tim began on clawhammer banjo, and despite a big, brash rhythm attack on acoustic guitar by Darrell, Tim’s clean, pinging melody lept right out on “Time To Talk To Joseph.” The title track of their new album Memories & Moments was like a mountain updraft with exquisite close harmony vocals. They addressed their shared coal-stage heritage (KY for Darrell and WV for Tim) in the acerbic “Keep Your Dirty Lights On” and dove deep into classic country with a liquored-up George Jones song and a solemn Hank Williams gospel number. They went strictly a cappella on “House of Gold” and brought the barn down. Several pickers backstage waiting to play later – those of the mandolin and fiddle ilk – more or less went bananas. They know where the bar for their art is set and who set it there.
Then on came Brad Folk (how could he not become a roots musician?) and The Bluegrass Playboys, a limber and fun-loving quartet, plus Mr. Folk wearing a guitar and a well worn cowboy hat. His voice is high with a cry and break in it, evoking classic honky tonkers of the 60s, while the rhythm section leans to bluegrass and swing. I loved “Denver” with its Western wind quality. Instrumental contributions from Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), David Goldenberg (mandolin) and Robert Trapp (banjo) were superb.
That led into Angel Snow’s set, and of all the wonderful eye-openers on this show, I think the rich sonic experience her band provided was my favorite. Jason Goforth created slow moving washes of lap steel that blended with Jessica Nunn’s violin and sparkly guitar from Todd Lombardo. And on top of all that was Snow’s complex voice and shiver-inducing songs. The new “Holding On” was glorious, with kilowatts of restrained energy. The Darrell Scott co-write “In My Head” had jagged chord changes and let Angel really sing with scope and range. The set closer “The Only Road I Know” was folkier. In every way, the already fascinating Angel has upped her game and stage presence. I’ve really enjoyed her last CD and this made me even more ready for an anticipated 2014 project.
And then we turned the corner and headed down the soul highway, a two-laner through cotton fields that heads toward Memphis. Sam Lewis hit the stage with guitarist Kenny Vaughan and Micah Hulscher on a big, badass vintage Rhodes electric piano among his band. And with the opener “Reinventing The Blues,” I was reminded that Lewis’s greatest virtue is his restraint. His tunes could have been released by Stax records, but they have the light touch that distinguished the Staple Singers, with plenty of spaces and silences between the notes that set up a seductive groove. “Some People” was luxuriously slow and decorated with Kenny Vaughn’s crisp, snaky guitar riffs. “Waiting On You” sounded like early 70s Joe Tex or something, while closer “Down To The Wire” dialed up the funky a bit more. It all worked on the crowd, which leapt to its collective feet when the final song was over.
Amos Lee had to follow that with no backing band, but with a jumbo Gibson acoustic guitar in his hands and the adoration of the standing-room throng on his side, he took command right away. It’s that voice. Comfortable and conversational at times, he can rough it up with a rasp or push it with a hidden reserve of strength. He flows effortlessly into falsetto, and that really gets folks wound up. When he sang “Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight,” I thought that a perfect description of the style – laid back but metronomically precise. He sang the beautiful title track from “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song,” which he explained had been written in tribute to Levon Helm. I truly appreciated Lee then covering John Prine, one of his central heroes. I don’t imagine “Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone” gets performed much, but that’s what Amos Lee did, with class and respect. There was one more rather folky song inspired by his mother. The encore decision was easy. The place erupted. Lee’s Sam Cooke cover, which took us to so many origins including his own as an artist, was enthralling.
Jim, who’d opened the night with another new Robert Hunter co-write let, Tim and Darrell kick off a Loveless Jam on one we’d never done. “Lonesome Day” can be found in the repertoires of the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie, and yes it’s miserable, downcast and woeful. But traditional music embraces the paradox that singing sad can make you happy, and that’s what it did, with the band setting the tempo super slow. It let us hear the many superb voices that made this such a great night, with more than a few unforgettable memories and moments.