I think we’re all glad the big election is over so We The People can get back to the important stuff, by which I mean of course using Facebook to post pics of our pets and checking out new bands and artists. Wednesday, with the cheers and tears of Nov. 6 still fresh in our minds, we at Roots set out to forge a more perfect union – of tunes. Neither red American nor blue America, but the purple, rhinestoned Americana embodied in Billy Burnette’s Manuel blazer. It was a night of discovery, great songs, soul and vintage rock and roll.
When I read about St. Paul & The Broken Bones, I imagined its lead singer as somebody with some wrinkles around the eyes and a lot of stories to tell. Instead he’s an undergraduate accounting major from the University of Alabama at Birmingham who looks even younger than his years. Paul Janeway neutralizes the youth factor with a total lack of inhibition as a showman. From the opening pulses of the first set, he owned the room. I was reminded of that great movie The Commitments about the rag-tag band of Dubliners who unexpectedly excel at classic Memphis soul. The Broken Bones had two horns, a sharp rhythm section and some fine guitar from Browan Lollar. But the whole thing depends of course on Saint Paul, in his bow-tie and sportcoat, shuddering and juking and singing with power and Otis-at-Monterey abandon. It’ll be great to see what stage time and experience can do for this exciting young frontman.
Gwyneth & Monko took the stage with simple tools – voices and stringed instruments. And what a charming, soothing duo they are. She reminded me of Suzy Bogguss with her lovely clarity and smart phrasing. “Pine Box Sailor” was pure folk balladry in silvery 6/8 time. Monko’s mandolin picking on the front-porch country of “Can’t Stay Long” had the control and timing of my heroes Norman and Nancy Blake. Loved em. Next came two composed, commanding singer songwriters. Erick Baker was earnest but dynamic, with big plunges and pushes in volume and intensity. Major heartbreak songs? You bet. Like “In Love With A Lie” with its mournful mantra: “the truth shall set me free.” Reed Foehl from the Front Range in Colorado had an Earthy vibe and some groove in his tunes. He offered “Fly” a lullaby in waltz time that he said has been cut by Lee Ann Womack for an upcoming album. So yeah, it was good. And it had the first-ever Roots group whistling section. I think maybe the producer will ask us to try that bit again before we mix and master.
Then matters sort of circled back to Memphis, this time in rockabilly mode. Rock and roll veteran Billy Burnette assembled as cool a band as one could in Nashville for this sound, with guitar slinger Kenny Vaughan, doghouse bass man Mark Winchester and drummer Jimmy Lester. They were a smooth four-cylinder engine, ripping through the instructive title track of Billy’s current album “Rock And Roll With It.” And yes, they did. Billy tipped his hat to his years in Fleetwood Mac with a crunchy “Oh Well.” And in performing “My Love Will Not Change,” which he co-wrote with our regular Shawn Camp, we heard yet another version of a tune that stands up great to different interpretations. Billy’s version smoldered, with sizzles from Kenny’s Celtic-sounding guitar. Shades of Richard Thompson. They closed things out by tearing it up on the tune “Tear It Up.” Billy has performed and written a lot of styles in his career, but classic rock and roll is virtually in his DNA, and it was on impressive display.
To tie a bow on the thing, Jim Lauderdale and Billy conspired to choose “That’s All Right” for the Loveless Jam. You know, the Arthur Crudup/Elvis number. It rocked with solos from two fine guitar players and the Broken Bones horn guys. It was all right indeed. More than all right.