I love an epic. My favorite movies are Lawrence of Arabia and Lord of the Rings, clocking in a 3.5 hours and 10 hours respectively. I love it when a good ballgame goes into extra innings. And I’ve always admired Bruce Springsteen for his luxuriously long shows.
All that came to mind last night at Music City Roots as we blew past hour three with a full head of steam and several top notch performances still to come. It’s got to be the longest show we’ve ever had, and some fans I talked to put it among their all-time favorites. Because it was quality as well as quantity that shaped the night. Not to mention variety; we had sounds and sensibilities from just about every part of the Americana spectrum.
Newgrass trail-blazer John Cowan got us started with a set that reached from funk to jazz to the American songbook. The Wes Montgomery-inspired “East Meets Wes” by guitarist Jeff Autry let him and fiddler Shadd Cobb trade complex licks. “On Your Way Down” opened with some virtuoso bass playing and a huge, barn filling opening vocal line that went on forever. He saved his best surprise for last when special guest Oteil Burbridge came out to play bass behind Cow’s homage to his dad’s old record collection with “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Didn’t see that coming. It was a show-closing set for a show-opener.
That segued into a different kind of newgrass – the punky hard-rocking kind – from North Carolina’s Carolina Still. The song “Sweet Southern Belle” marked a slowed down break from the speed metal acoustic music, but only a brief one. It was intense and fun, and when we learned later that the boys were old running buddies with the Avett Brothers, some things clicked into place. Then it was on to the really wonderful Ragbirds, a band that oozes charisma, rhythm and sheer fun. I thought their opening tune was percussive, but then for their re-make of “I’ll Fly Away,” the whole band picked up drums or shakers for a slamming, driving performance like we’ve never seen on Roots. And then they turn to Cajun music and then to Afro-pop to round out an amazing set.
By comparison, we sort of knew what to expect from the Black Lillies, which is just consistently excellent indie folk and country. Leader Cruz Contreras was looking good in a black beard and sounding good with vocal partner Trisha Jean Brady. We did hear some songs that were new to the Roots stage, but the same comfortable vibe, and last night the addition of Contreras brother Billy on fiddle. If anything, I heard a more insistent and rocking punch on tunes like “Ruby,” while “Goodbye Charlie” told a mournful tale of the Vietnam era.
And that set the stage for two final sets that saw enough special guests to fill up MCR on any other night. The leader and organizer was Southern jam grass pioneer Barry Waldrep. The complete lineup is sort of too much to recap blow-by-blow, but we heard super performances from youthful bluegrass band Flatt Lonesome, edgy duo Sol Junky, smoky-voiced Sarah Peacock, good old traditional sound from the Steed Brothers and pure country from Kurt Thomas. Some of my very faves included bass playing jam band legend Oteil Burbridge coming on to do a stellar “Big Mon” and the young Church Sisters nailed soaring harmonies on “The Angeles Rejoiced” with their mentor bluegrass producing/songwriting legend Carl Jackson.
With all these musicians, there was barely room for them all on stage for the Loveless Jam, led by the fearless guest host Peter Cooper. They chose a classic from The Band, and happily the stage held up under “The Weight” of all those folks.