There are little signs we’re getting deep into a season. For example, I feel myself running out of musical adjectives. (I have a new supply delivered during every break.) And while I seriously adore the Loveless Cafe’s fried chicken and biscuits, this week I needed a change of pace. So about 5:00 I SNUCK off to the Mexican restaurant down the road thinking no one will ever miss me for 30 minutes. And I walk in and there’s our entire video and stage crew about to dig into tacos and enchiladas. Hah!
It was a night of laughter and twists all around. I didn’t know what to expect from three of our artists, and even the ones I was already fans of showed me something new. I got fired up for the show with a fun half-hour interview with guest artist Nora Jane Struthers that I’ll post as a Connect podcast before long. And all night I had that complete, invigorated Roots feeling that whatever strife was out there and whatever government official was tracking my phone calls, all was right in our musical bubble.
We launched with a set that must have made them happy back at Hippie. Gary Talley was the guitarist in the Box Tops, putting him at the center of late 60s Memphis rock and soul. A Nashville area resident since 1981, he’s been a sideman and writer to the stars. But for the first time in his life he’s stepped up front of a full band to make music – oldies and newies. He opened with “Cry Like A Baby,” (a great refresher for a great tune) and moved through a tidy set of three-minute pop/soul songs that had locomotion and punch. The three-man horn section, polished to a sheen, made the set sound like a session at Stax Records. And of course they closed with “The Letter,” because it was a huge record and it’s an epic song. Gary was fascinating in the chat room too; I had many more questions about being a teenage rock and roll hero in late 60s Memphis, and we hit a few of those back stage.
We didn’t make a fuss on stage about the Chapin Sisters lineage, but they’re very Chapin. Grammy-winning songwriter and humanitarian Tom Chapin is their dad; famous Harry “Cat’s In The Cradle” Chapin was their uncle. And boy did the family gene pool treat them well. Abigail and Lily made the boldest possible move, coming on second and opening with a slow a cappella number. Crazy you say? Well in two notes they had the crowd SILENT and transfixed by their old world, almost medieval harmonies in the song “Sweet Light.” Next was a song from their new Everly Brothers covers album, and man did they ever refresh “Crying In The Rain.” The empathy between these women is stunning, as is their tone and phrasing. They struck notes some of us could never find with total authority and precision, yet it was full of emotion too. Just wildly great stuff here.
That paved the way for a very different artist. Kenny Roby sported a black on black three piece suit and tie, with a band dressed in similar somberness. And the music was stately and a bit dark as well. In a crooning voice, Roby sang original songs that are dense with words and moods. “Memories & Birds,” the title track to his new album has definitely worked itself under my skin with its haunting beauty. Roby’s final song “The Monster” had more spark and bite; it was minimalist rock and roll.
Then, to my surprise, came maximalist country rock from Nora Jane Struthers and The Party Line. I’ve known NJS as an easy, breezy Americana singer. But it seems she and her band have warmed up to the jam. The song “Party Line” got them going with rhythm and flow, plus solos from clawhammer banjo, fiddle and even the drummer. She pledged allegiance to her adopted home city in “Nashville” and offered the infectious, trance-like “Bike Ride” with its magical little sound effects by adventuresome fiddler Aaron Lewis. And then Lewis got positively wild and fiery and weird as the band cranked it on “Mountain Girl.” And in a groovy touch, bassist P.J. George joined drummer Drew Lawhorn in some on-mic hambone rhythm-making and beat-boxing as Struthers opened the epic “Travelin’ On.” This finale, grand and amphitheater powerful, brought the crowd to its feet. Nora Jane is no lead guitarist – she sets the tone with her spirit and rhythm – and she has led her band to a place where it makes the most of each musician’s gifts.
And that cleared the decks for our closer, the much anticipated (by me anyway) Sons of Fathers. I certainly hope some of you who were there or listening in share my opinion that Paul Cauthen and David Beck have developed something unique, powerful and epic in their four years together. They opened with their new album’s title track “Burning Days” with its popping organ-meets-guitar riff and its soaring chorus. Then on to probably my favorite new tune, “Roots & Vine” in which the chorus drops beats to keep the ear hooked and surprised, no matter how many times one listens. Throughout this set, Sons of Fathers projected an operatic quality on to Texas country rock, with complex harmonic ideas, dramatic dynamics and emotive singing. And the finale, the name-checking song “Sons of Fathers” showed off the instrumental side of the group, including bracing solos by David on acoustic bass and Paul on acoustic guitar. It was a ride and a jam and I hung on every note and texture. I don’t know what we’re going to call the SOF fan club (The Fatherhood?) but count me in for a lifetime membership.
And speaking of jam, Jim set the perfect frame for the big show closer “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” by Sir Bob. Funny thing to sing to a bunch of people who are about to get up and go home, but never mind. It was joyful, open-hearted and scintillating. Hmm. Maybe I have a few more adjectives in me yet. See you next week for our season closer.