A country song in 5/4 time. A quote from a founding father. And a ten-person band of teenagers fronted by a young lady who looks and sings like Esperanza Spalding. Every show has its surprises and first-time-evers but this was a particularly wild Wednesday at Liberty Hall. Every artist brought something utterly different and refreshing. And while our special Tuesday Chet Atkins tribute night was a tough act to follow, this week’s season premiere roster – one loaded with youth – succeeded in every sense of the word.
With Caroline Spence, the surprise was range. The Nashville songwriter hit the stage with a four piece electrified band for some straight up, highway-worthy Americana country rock. Before long though she was serenading us with the cooing loveliness of “Trains Don’t Cry” and the spare Southern swing of “Seeing Other People.” Spence has a kind but complex alto and when she matched her voice with the band in three part harmony, it was shiver time. Stellar musicianship all around.
Matthew Fowler drove a looong way from Orlando to be on Roots, and we appreciate that and his kind words about the show. Just 21 years old as of June, he showed poise and command way beyond his years. He delivered his lines over muted, minimal acoustic guitar and then answer those words with explosive chordal bursts, like punctuation. The words themselves felt inspired by the folk poetry of the 60s, when the likes Paul Simon and Van Morrison could be specifically vivid but cosmic at the same time. In setting up one song, Fowler shared this cool quote: “I am a soldier so my son can be a merchant so his son can be a poet.” It was a wonderful appreciation for the luxury of being able to pursue art. Fowler attributed the words to Thomas Jefferson, though there’s some evidence it actually came from John Adams. But hey, it was heady stuff and the artist transfixed the audience.
Now how to describe The Broomestix? Their own blurb, “a 10 piece, funk and soul jam band from Hendersonville, Tennessee” doesn’t come close to doing them justice. I was ready for something in the mode of St. Paul’s retro Stax feeling with heavy reliance on the rhythm section. Instead, these KIDS in black sport coats arrayed themselves across the stage and blasted out a roar of fat jazz fusion and complex early 70s pop – an old school that deserves a comeback. They conjured Earth, Wind & Fire and Philly Soul and Chaka Khan. The arrangements could only be thought of or executed by schooled, skilled musicians. The horn section was spot on. The drummer and percussionist did their thing with brotherly synchronicity and big smiles. But the nine dudes on the instrumental side of the band are going to have to get used to one fact. Lead singer Briana Middleton could be a star, and it’s up to them to help her. Her silky, unforced vocals with great control and a natural ease behind the mic all point nowhere but up. I hope the party and wedding clients hiring the Broomstix these days recognize and remember her (and hopefully all of them) when she’s singing on the Grammy Awards in 2022. We will.
Pam Tillis proved her star power some time ago, and she’s never lost her charm and inner glow. She told us she’s in a phase of trying a lot of new musical ideas and combing for songs in new places and writing songs with an open mind. And while the traditional entertainment business would say ‘come back when you’ve figured it out’ our ethos is about celebrating the seasons of reinvention and the process of discovery. And there was nothing at all unfinished about her six song set of all new material. “Wish I Didn’t Know What I Was Missing” was about the everlasting lure and integrity of traditional country music. The message was made even more convincing by the all acoustic band with Justin Moses on dobro and banjo and Jon Weisberger on upright bass. “Last Summer’s Wine” had a gorgeous melody and such emotional pull that it got an ovation mid song. The tricky, almost unheard of 5/4 time signature in “Leaning Toward The Sun,” got us music geeks all giddy, and then fiddler Jenee Fleenor quoted the head of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” in her out solo to make us even happier. More universal in its delight was the twin fiddle and boogie beat of closer “I’m Lettin’ My Roots Show.” Following as it did Pam’s very kind words about our program, the multiple entendres were funny and endearing.
Jim Lauderdale led the gang (so many musicians!) in a show-closing Nashville Jam of Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin” (which has kooky timing of its own). Good things happen when you let your roots show on a roots show.