I was never more proud to be from North Carolina than when mourning the passing of Doc Watson. And only a month or so after fellow native son Earl Scruggs. If you care about progressive folk music as much as I do, there are no greater icons than Doc and Earl. They helped craft the sound of our nation, and they were from my state. Musical connections to home are what made last night at Roots such a sweet experience for me. Three artists on a four-act night were from NC – one familiar and two completely new and amazing. Then we capped off the night as a founding band of the country rock fusion revolution played to an adoring crowd. I have a lot to tell you.
It was another spectacular evening. We’ve been lucky this spring with balmy, sunny weather. The crew and artists spent the last hour before the show lolling in golden light outside the Loveless barn, between the work of getting everything staged and the intensity of the show itself. Keith Bilbrey asked Jim Lauderdale if he’d sing “If I Were You,” and I was more than glad to hear that again as we kicked off the show.
Holy Ghost Tent Revival was the first band on stage, and they’ve changed a bit since their last visit. Bass player Patrick Leslie departed last fall, and Kevin Williams moved from keys to bass. Leslie was a striking figure, so his departure left some space for the other guys to grow. And the shuffle shifted the musical tone and repertoire a bit as well. “Telephone Wire” was a roaring, funky thing with stops and fanfares from a two-man horn section. “John Adams Family Hour” seems to have been about our second president, set to an Otis Redding-style punchy beat. Only the plaintive, banjo-driven “Regrets For The Waltz” was strikingly like the HGTR I knew, with soaring vocal harmonies in the fore. The evolution of this fine band seems on track. A new album with some of this material is coming very soon.
I had a long interview with the delightful Kellin Watson before the show, and on stage she was shockingly good. Not the singer you might imagine from Asheville central casting, she took on the soul chanteuse role with force and tone. She IS a cousin of the aforementioned Doc Watson, on her mother’s side she said, and she grew up surrounded by traditional music, even if it’s not what she does. But what came through from the old-time influence is an organic sense of a band/voice mix and musical feel that is just transfixing. Her voice is calm and expressive, with room to emote, like Norah Jones with a 4th and 5th gear. She added it to silky perfect background singers on “Rise” which floated like its name. With “Control” and “Swagger” she and her crack Nashville band went full shivering funk, and Kellin remained a step ahead in energy and leadership. Listen to our stage interview for a full accounting of the band, but it included the remarkable siblings Dugas, new Music City arrivals from Montreal, and Joe McMahan, who was making funky guitar-player faces, so it’s clear this was truly working.
Third up was a last-minute sub by the agile and aware AJ in the booking department. Matthew Mayfield reported vocal health issues, so we snagged the trio Now You See Them, who’s been on our radar for a while. They met in New York, launched their band in Australia and consolidated the concept and sound in Asheville. Their many days as street performers came through because they’re such fantastic communicators; they totally grab your attention. Dulci Ellenberger sang brightly from a stand-up keyboard and played melodica (one of the most under-rated instruments) really well. Shane Conerty played powerful, percussive, idea-filled guitar and sang with huge passion. The voices together were something else. And Jason Mencer played a highly portable percussion/drum rig with just the right touch ups. Songs like “The iPod Shuffle” and “No Such Thing” showed huge arranging chops. The songs turned and shifted and stopped on a dime. They closed with Shane singing the heart-wrought “Dogwood,” which he dedicated to a girl over the radio, and we’re guessing from the angst in the song, not in the nicest possible way. You must see Now You See Them.
It was clear at least half our audience last night came chiefly to cheer on Goose Creek Symphony. They’re quirky icons and cult favorites with roots that stretch back to the origins of the country/rock/jam movement. Guitarist Paul Spradlin spoke with me on stage and said that in the early 70s, they played the Atlanta Pop Festival to 140,000 people, and other friends told me about them sharing bills with Springsteen and other greats. They’ve been around the block, but they’re not over any hills. They boogied and rocked southern style, propelled by fiddle and guitars. The tunes had striking arrangements with mood and tempo shifts. It was a little Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a little Allman Brothers. There was even a bit of a drum solo, proving the band’s 1970s cred. Their encore had the crowd on its feet early on, even before the fiddle segued into “Orange Blossom Special”. The final reception was as loud as any I’ve heard at the Loveless. The momentum continued to roll through the nicely slow take on “Lonesome Road,” and I’m pretty sure nobody felt bad or lonesome as the song says. I for one felt loved and fulfilled.