A mystery: did the McCrary Sisters – Nashville’s legendary vocal family group – head out for a night of ease and camaraderie at Music City Roots, only to be cajoled up on stage three times? Or was it a PLOT to infiltrate our operation and make our show EVEN BETTER than it would otherwise have been? (Ann, Regina and Freda DID look rather put together and stage ready, come to think of it.) I’ll never know, but I love how the plot unfolded. To have artists this gifted and serious who play Roots and who come back to enjoy our community, remain connected and do spontaneous guest sit-ins, well that’s how we feel it should work.
Our crazy eclectic evening began with our host Jim Lauderdale working up a brand new gospel song with the McCrarys backstage just minutes before our 7 pm start. “Climbing Up” had a droning, mantra quality drawn from the blues, foreshadowing some of the music we’d hear later in the show. Our first band of the night was Sol Driven Train from Charleston, SC. They lifted off nicely on the updraft of a two-man horn section and the strong lead vocals of Joel Timmons. The trombonist switched seamlessly to electric guitar and second vocal for some locked in harmony. Their tune “Lighthouse” was full of nautical references that fit their beach-front origins. They sang of dividing property in a breakup song that confronted the grim prospect that they’d have to “cut the cat in half.” And set closer “Watermelon” may be the catchiest homage to fresh southern produce since Guy’s “Home Grown Tomatoes.” All in all, SDT delivered a fine blend of beach pop and country with a touch of New Orleans funk.
Next there came one of the most fascinating and surprising little units we’ve had on Roots in ages. Two very different artists joined forces to make this chamber-ish songwriter-meets-instrumentalist kind of thing, billed as a duo but also including a percussionist. Dave Eggar is a widely traveled, widely respected cellist and pianist who shifted gears hard in his 20s from standard classical to backing rock bands. Amber Rubarth is an elegant young songwriter who’s clearly unafraid of a little sonic adventure. Eggar opened with a cello prelude that veered between the conventional and the far-out. And basically they alternated vocal numbers and his flights of fancy for the set. Rubarth’s “Letter From My Lonesome Self” set a graceful, insightful tone. She sang an exotically rhythmic song called “The Maiden and the Ram” while Eggar knelt down and played his cello like a guitar or uke. Her lyric had a trippy flow. Eggar wowed the crowd with “Hillbillies and Bach” which truly did toggle from hoedown to baroque, showing ridiculous stylistic range. So while he brought the bravura chops, Amber’s jazz-quality phrasing and emotion kept the act organic and Earthy.
The Packway Handle Band of Athens, GA had some challenges and met them head on like brave bluegrassers. They learned Wednesday morning that their lead singer’s wife was heading in to have a baby. But the band-uncles-to-be made the gig and performed without him. Then guitarist and singer Josh Erwin busted a G-string on the opening measure of the first song. But with a loaner of Jim Lauderdale’s axe, they didn’t miss a click. “I’m Glad You Got My Priorities Straight” was thick and funny and bluesy. “Shelva Ann” was dark and speedy, relying on Tom Baker’s expert banjo for propulsion. Fiddler Andrew Heaton had a fine raw and ready attack on the fiddle, which was on full display in set closer “June Apple.”
The title of my sermon this week comes from the scripture of Seth Walker, whose song “More Days Like This “ (and “more nights like that”) has become sort of his greatest hit. Catchy, swingy and engaging, it’s the perfect expression of Seth’s approach to songwriting, which is classic and respectful of the high bar for craft set back in the Tin Pan Alley days. He opened last night with the languid and lonesome “I’m Through With Love.” His duo format, with only drummer Derrek Phillips, left a lot of space for Seth’s silky, enveloping voice and his under-appreciated guitar chops. At one point, he and Phillips got into some fantastic solo trading that made the set as musical as it was lyrical. For closer “More Days Like This,” the McCrary Sisters returned and fleshed out the sound to choral levels.
I think a lot of our large crowd last night came to see Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band. This is one of those cases of true indie organic growth through touring, AND they released a new album just on Tuesday. By last night’s performance it was said to be the top blues album on iTunes. They’re a picture as well as a sound. Rev. Peyton is barrel chested and big of beard, with an intense gaze and pearly white teeth. He looked smart in suspenders a tie and flat cap, not to mention a vintage National guitar, which made an icy, brazen tone. Also key to the band’s feel is Peyton’s wife Breezy, resplendent in a polka dot dress with a red flower in her hair and a washboard snapping and rubbing beneath percussive gloves. Most of the music is driven by the pulse and drone of Mississippi-meets-Piedmont blues guitar, and Rev’s voice above is a deep and husky pile-driver that often doubles the melody being made by his bottle neck slide. I loved “Big Blue Chevy 72” with its shimmying rhythm, and “Brown County Bound” was a more elaborate finger-picked tune on acoustic guitar that rounded out the more plaintive side of the trio (itself rounded out by drummer Aaron Persinger). The country blues is a gift of 20th century American music, and it’s awesome to see a band tap into its legacy with so much gusto and original vision.
The gathered artists welcomed the McCrary Sisters back for a really big and rollicking take on “Glory, Glory,” also known as “Gonna Lay My Burdens Down.” The horns from Sol Driven Train delivered joyful solos, and the singing was strong all around over a gospel boogie beat. And thus unburdened, we all went our way into the night, confident there will be more (Wednesday) nights like that.