With a lineup that flowed as naturally as a mountain creek, bountiful and beautiful voices, two full horn sections, tons of new music from new albums and a tent revival climax, I’ll nominate last night’s Roots for best in show. Quintessentially eclectic, we touched the bases of traditional blues, bluegrass, modern folk/country, soul/R&B and holy roller gospel. We were serenaded by lovers and by sisters. Our cup overflowethed. Before I pack the car to leave for tonight’s launch of our new sister show Scenic City Roots in Chattanooga, here’s what went down.
Charlie Parr. When I first saw the name it tickled some memory. He’s been a spirit floating around roots music for a decade. But I couldn’t place him. Maybe because he lives in Duluth. Can the blues endure in Duluth? Yes, it turns out. I was instantly warmed by Mr. Parr. He emanates kindness and empathy. On stage, he sat like a blues man should, cradling a National resonator guitar in his lap, bottleneck slide in his left hand and the spirit of Mance Lipscomb not far away. Out came a rolling, banjo like storm of notes that supported the fine number “Jubilee,” sung in a real and reedy voice. His song “Jesus Is A Hobo” was more lyrical and airy over an open-tuned fingerpicking pattern; it was clearly influenced by his previous line of work – homeless outreach. (It would take a special person to work with the homeless in northern Minnesota.) He wrapped by incanting the lyric “true friends are hard to find,” which I feel may be less true for Charlie Parr than for others.
I was smitten with The Danberrys before their set and I’m more smitten now. There’s a flavor of bluegrass that’s always worked on me, characterized by old world tonalities, polished, modern drive and jazz-smart instrumental work. Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder covering Bill Monroe’s “Walls of Time” is one great example of what I’m talking about. I could tell from just a few songs online that the Danberrys are good at this. And their new music -– all from a 24-hour old self-titled album — sealed the deal. Dorothy Daniel, the lady half of the married couple whose conjoined names spell Danberry, sang with lush and velvety beauty. Ben DeBerry plays some spiffy lead guitar and the hubby/wifey voices click together admirably. Special props to my pal Christian Sedelmyer for his otherworldly fiddle. He goes to some daring places, and the whole band is better for it.
Up next, another couple that’s joined lives and talents. JOHNNYSWIM is a sort of urban/global Civil Wars, with emotional vocals, pop-aware hooks over a folky base. Opener “Heartbeats” became a fugue of words and guitar riffs, with the couple singing back and forth to one another. That song and the joyful “Home,” the title track of their current recording, both took a fun twist by segueing into deeply different takes on country or folk classics, including “Jolene” and “Jackson” and “Don’t Think Twice.” Their warmth and their model good looks would be a good draw for an audience, but this playful quality with their favorite music really made them magnetic. And when their voices really launched high and strong together, it was shiver-making. Abner and Amanda are following us to Chattanooga and then to Bluegrass Underground this weekend, and they’ll make all those shows better.
I wrote a lot about Alanna Royale in the preview and the experience was as great as I’d hoped. Super sharp arrangements and funky rhythm made the foundation. Alanna in all her brash, confident showgirl glory raised the roof. While they are a soul band (three horns working in perfect synch i.e.) there were no clearly dated references in the sound –more a blend of some Memphis, some Detroit, some Philly and some New Orleans, filtered through a Nashville song smart sensibility. “Listen To Your Momma” had a head snapping bounce and Alanna sold the song with body language and a voice that blends the creamy and the edgy. “Animal” had the most dirty drive. “Rock And Stone” featured the refrain “You know I’ll never stop singing,” and that certainly had the ring of truth.
And how better to close any show than the McCrary Sisters? Not only were they in fine voice as always, they had stories of working with Dr. John and all new songs. With a record coming out in a month or so, they were able to refresh their set list and feature some new textures. Opener “Come On” was pure James Brown, with its machine gun guitar (courtesy of Bob Britt), horn stabs and crackerjack drumming (courtesy of Derek Phillips). The chord progression kept modulating upwards like a stairway to heaven. Especially moving and enthralling was “Let It Go” written by sister Deborah as a healing mantra as she recovered from her stroke last year. We join the family in praying for her full recovery; she sure sounded awesome. Star songwriter Danny Flowers joined them on stage for closer “Train,” which built and built over a cycle of minor chords, rocking like The Stones.
Apologies to Jim Lauderdale and Keith Bilbrey for jumping off stage when they needed some time filler before the Loveless Jam. (We could have talked about Scenic City Roots!) I was too late in thinking of that, but the final song of the night came off great, with Jim kicking into soul singer mode (how does he do that?) for Delbert McClinton’s “Standing On Shaky Ground.” Vocals by Dorothy, Abner and Alanna also smoked. Nothing shaky about that close-out or the show. More earthquakes to come.