Let us now praise good band names. From our Roots faves and friends, I’d give prizes to Humming House (sounds like a place you want to be), The Westbound Rangers (having their own theme song makes it even better), The Vespers (though it sounds quieter than the band itself) and New Country Rehab (perhaps my favorite in contemporary Americana music). Oh, and how can I forget Greyhounds, our recent guest ensemble that feels right without the obligatory “The”? This is a delicate, dicey and difficult task, as I’m sure many of you have experienced. We’ve all seen bands that kicked some ass on stage whose name made us shake our heads. Most of us have sat around, inebriated, combing the dictionary and brainstorming with our mates, wondering if our entire future hinges on getting the right combination of catchy words. It’s like the shortest song you’ll ever write.
So it’s rare that in just one show, we get to see a range of bands with such smart and engaging names as The Hello Strangers, Old Salt Union and The Blackfoot Gypsies. But that’s who came by this week, and having piqued our curiosity with their brands, they proved to be excellent bands as well. Blues man John Nemeth went by his human name, which we think is wise.
A name like Hello Strangers is going to put you in a frame of mind to hear timeless, Appalachia-tinged Americana, and sisters Brechyn and Larissa delivered just that. After Jim Lauderdale (what kind of band name is THAT?) opened the show with “She’s In A Honky Tonk Mood Again,” the duo proved they were by opening with a honky tonk feeling on “Ruined.” Quickly, the chemistry of two soaring, sisterly voices became clear and moving. I mentioned their bewitching, moody cover of Jim’s “What You Don’t Know” in my preview and hallelujah, they performed that song with Jim in one of the set’s highlights. My favorite though I think was “Rattle To Shake,” which had the gorgeous vocal harmonies as well as tight, grooving instrumentation from the three-piece band. Spencer Pheil delivered a stinging electric guitar solo here, one of several. Great to make friends with these strangers.
Five men with five beards wearing five pairs of jeans with five loosely tied ties took the stage next and started shaking it newgrass style with friendly grooves and exuberant vocals. This was Old Salt Union, and no they don’t do sea shanties (at least to my knowledge). The Old might speak to their instrumentations – pure ‘grass with fiddle, mando, banjo, etc. The Salt is for flavor and the Union is for a coherent vision of upbeat, passionate fun. I enjoyed the fast and fiery “Tuscaloosa” with its jumpy desperado tone. Amazingly, bass player and singer Jesse Farrar broke the D string on his bass (this never happens) and kept on pickin through the rest of the set. It showed commitment. Vocals from Dustin Eiskant were intense and spot on in “Carry On,” which shifted time several times for an excellent rock grass experience.
The team was buzzing about John Nemeth and band from sound check onward, both because of his striking songs and voice as well as his positive, can-do attitude. Can you really be this nice and sing the blues? Yeah, it turns out. Opener “Bad Luck Is My Name” surged with John’s singing, his two-row chordal harmonica and a cold funk feel. The full, four-piece band put its voices together on “Sooner Or Later,” giving the music an extra rush. Our friend Tim the vintage vinyl DJ and walking encyclopedia of soulful American music told me post-show how impressed he was with the ballad “If It Ain’t Broke.” And they closed with a winking, sardonic song in which the lead singer struggles with fidelity while the band chants “Do You Really Want That Woman?” John’s vocals are polished and mighty, and his songs showed signs of bright invention inside a tight form. Killer harmonica throughout as well.
Nemeth packed up his harmonica suitcase only to see it replaced on stage by the harp rack of Oliver Horton, better known as Ollie Dogg. This leather-clad dude is one quarter of the blazing rock and roll band the Blackfoot Gypsies. Leader Matthew Paige struck some of us as a young Kenny Vaughan, with his heavy black glasses and lean physique. He moved like a seasoned rock star on stage with his electric guitar, and he sang in a high-register voice that was at once innocent and sleazy. As they cranked into “Under My Skin,” I noted that amid the power triads Paige snuck in one flowery, psychedelic chord that gave the song a nice Brit-pop cast. It was a touch they offered in most of their songs. “Why Should I Try” had a folky melody that rubbed against a fat, electric grind. Meanwhile, Paige’s band founding partner Zack Murphy drummed like the Muppets’ Animal, with hair flying and sticks walloping; at one point he knocked his whole ride cymbal stand over. In his interview, I asked John Nemeth what the blues needed to stay relevant to Americans and he said ‘another British invasion.’ The Gypsies are from Nashville, not Nottingham, but they channeled the Delta in much the same way Zeppelin did lo those many years ago. I could see these guys owning some very large stages.
Paige’s guitar made a great boogie drive underlying “Stay All Night” on the Nashville Jam to close the show. Two great harp players gave the tune a juke joint feel rather than its usual Texas road house sound. But that’s great. The jam is a showcase for creativity and musicianship and there’s no other name for that.