My heart was still heavy from learning of the death of my musical hero Doc Watson when I arrived at the Loveless Barn on Wednesday night. He was my spark and guide into the world of Americana / folk / roots music (my thoughts at length are posted here), and his festival MerleFest (a tribute following the untimely death of his son) was and remains an inspiring, educational destination where one can hear who’s great and who’s next. Music City Roots aspires to a similar philosophy of booking, which is to say fresh and eclectic takes on tradition. I’m happy to say last night measured up to that in every way, from the pure folk of Josh Oliver to the guitar virtuosity of Trace Bundy to our show-capper, Alejandro Escovedo, playing unabashed roots rock and roll. It was the best kind of therapy.
Openers came courtesy of Scott Simontacchi, a Nashville guy whose company I’ve enjoyed for years, all the while being aware that he was an artist and band-member as well, largely in Nashville’s acoustic and bluegrass community. Last night’s set steered more toward the gently electric, with the best imaginable band. Guthrie Trapp joined Scott on electric guitar, sounding all Knopflerish on a Strat, locked in with the syncopated brush beats of Larry Atamanuik on drums and Mike Bub on Bass. So it was half of 18 South is what we’re saying, along with Matt Combs, last seen on Roots leading the Pa’s Fiddle Band just a couple of weeks ago. Scott’s songs rippled along with great mood and melody. There is some nice John Hartford influence in there I’m sure. He’s a very pure singer, and his tune “Barfly” made the most of his jazz sensibility. Dude’s got phrase.
To Josh Oliver, I’m sorry for being a knucklehead. When I met him, I confused him with Trace Bundy and had to backtrack into realizing he was our solo Vietti artist, the former everybodyfield and current Knoxville renderer of certified folk songs. But I shall not mistake him now. His first song put me in mind of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and then he spoke of Jack as the source for his second song “Diamond Joe.” I LOVE “Diamond Joe,” and he did it great service, as some chatter on Twitter and our Livestream validated. What a pure way with a song. Ending a set like that with a walk-on by Jill Andrews (former band-mate and new East Nashvillian) is a good way to win us over too.
Listening to Trace Bundy, it was remarkable to realize we’ve never had a pure fingerpicker instrumentalist on the show, though I’ve loved many of them. Trace works in Hedges, Ackerman, Kottke kind of terrain, but he said his key influence was David Wilcox (who HAS played the show). The music cascaded out of not one but two guitars, which he mixed up during songs. He made tasteful use of loops and delays to flesh out his sound. He showed us his difficult arrangement of a famous Canon and on “Joy And Sorrow” he switched guitars a dozen times, shifting from major to minor moods. Finally came “Hot Capo Stew” in which the guitar tool Doc called (jokingly) a “cheater” was used to almost absurd lengths with at least five partial capos on the guitar neck at once.
Up next, the bewitching Tristen. She’s one of Nashville’s most noticed and successful new rock artists of the past couple years, but she somehow keeps her pop shine a little rusted over with country and roots. Certainly her newest song “No One’s Gonna Know,” where she put down the guitar and pumped the air working only a microphone, is a pure pop play, but what a rocket melody and infectious beat. She’s made a video of this that we can’t wait to see. Besides that, she led her crack three-piece power pop band through its paces on song from the debut LP and a new album in the works for Fall. Her concluding tune, solo with electric guitar, affirmed her songwriter credentials.
I’ve been surprised all week at my awe over the arrival of, meeting and hearing Alejandro Escovedo. The Scene called it a “coup” that we got him and his sizzling band The Sensitive Boys here on the eve of a big tour and album release. And that’s how I felt. He was both larger than life and totally genuine. He offered a terrific interview early in the show, talking about how for years record stores slotted his albums in Latin music bins without ever listening to the heartland rock and artful country therein. Escovedo was wonderfully excited about having recorded that afternoon with Bobby Bare Sr. And then he sure sang for us. “Man Of The World” opened his set as it opens the new album Big Station, with a jungle beat, loud and low-slung guitars and shouts of “Oh Yeah” that would have made Buddy Holly proud. The tone eased into considered melancholy with “San Antonio Rain.” And the masterpiece of the night and the album from my pass through it was “Sally Was A Cop,” inspired by the vile drug wars in Mexico. The empathy of the song swelled into a steady beat and a sing-along chorus that sounded like a U2 show.
Then Alejandro, in his plaintive and compelling voice, sang “Sabor A Mi,” in an homage to his father, family and everyone who’s ever sung that immortal song. And they blew the roof off with a latter-day rocker “Tender Heart.” It was range and style and power and heart, and it came blazing out of songwriter and bandleader who’s sixty one years old. Anyone looking for a role model?
Other highlights of the night included Chuck Mead’s turn as guest host, opening the show with “She Got The Ring; I Got The Finger” and a first-time hang by veteran singer/songwriter/musician Billy Burnette (don’t be a stranger!). I inserted myself in the Loveless Jam, because I wanted a proper tribute to Doc. So we did “Shady Grove” even though we didn’t have the benefit of a clawhammer banjo. Farewell Doc. We’ll try to keep the flame lit.