If music washes off the dust of everyday life, as the great jazz drummer Art Blakey was fond of saying, then bluegrass music is a power washer for the soul. Something about a great bluegrass show, with its earthy roots and sacred overtones, leaves one feeling purified and refreshed. And buddy, a great bluegrass show happened at the Loveless Cafe Barn last night. The four bands that played Roots, all freshly nominated for 2011 IBMA Award nominations, could have been a headlining roster for a night at any festival in the nation. All were on fire with a mystical combination of passion and precision that is almost impossible to find elsewhere in popular music. For lovers of American roots, this scene is where it truly all comes together – the virtuosity of classical, the interlocked swing of jazz, epic songwriting and voices that’ll wire you right into the cosmic network of truth and wisdom. At least that’s how Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver made me feel last night. More on that in a moment.
Our evening got going early with a 5 pm press conference that told the world about this year’s nominees for the top awards in the music given by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out offered up a couple of songs before legend Sam Bush announced this year’s IBMA Hall of Fame inductees, guitarist George Shuffler and band-leading patriarch Del McCoury. A huge part of the bluegrass community (from in and out of town) were on hand to hear this happy news, and Del’s son Ronnie almost dropped his Flip Camera for smiling when they announced Del (I suspect he knew, but I’m not sure). Then our night’s stellar roster of Doyle Lawson, Sierra Hull, Josh Williams and Russell Moore took turns announcing the nominees. That long list of distinguished musicians got everyone in the mood for a show.
Our own Jim Lauderdale got just that going with a bluegrass song of his own (it’s deep in his blood as we know) off that current Reason & Rhyme album (a nominee next year, I’m confident). Then it was off to the races with IIIrd Tyme Out. Now, Russell Moore is the reigning IBMA male vocalist of the year, and yet it is still always a little surprising to experience the clarity and punch of his comfortable tenor. The band also has a particular sense of groove and pulse that was highly effective on “Little John I Am.” The trio and quartet harmony vocals were locked-in perfect, elevating the slow and tender “Erase The Miles” into the stratosphere. “John and Mary” is a gorgeous, spacious song built around the timeless feeling of a fiddle and banjo duet. They’re masters of pacing and variety too. A IIIrd Tyme Out set is always a journey.
Josh Williams made his second visit to Roots, and this time as a new nominee for Male Vocalist of the Year. The world had long acknowledged his prodigious picking (he’s the long-time reigning Guitarist of the Year) and it’s so cool to see him evolve into a complete band leader and artist. He offered a great set that was capped off with a ripping, solo-heavy take on “Freeborn Man.” Josh’s version shows a happy marriage of influences of the two most famous purveyors of that song, Jimmy Martin and Tony Rice.
The other relative youngster on stage last night was Sierra Hull, freshly out of the Berklee College of Music but also seasoned by years of touring and picking with the best in the business. She brought lightness and air to the show, with the nice drifty “Easy Come Easy Go” and the title-track ballad “Daybreak.” But she also shredded on her mandolin on “Bombshell” and a set closing, super-fast instrumental. I don’t know when it will happen, but I predict she’ll be the first woman to win IBMA Mando Player of the Year. She’s nominated again…
There was no question who was going to close the show. Doyle Lawson is one of the music’s lions at this point, and when he came out in perhaps the most beautiful western jacket I’ve ever seen – black with gold and platinum colored flowers and dark rhinestones, he was a holy vision. They set an exciting tone with a train beat and a cool call-and-response chorus in “Love on Arrival” and they painted a vivid picture and set a hot groove on “Country Store.” This is where I began to really key in on the lead vocals of Quicksilver guitarist Mike Rogers. Even on a night of superior singing, he really reached me. When he rolled into the anguished lines of “Leavin’ and Lovin’ You” it was an overwhelming feeling. When the band’s voices pulled together in the chorus, it tore a hole in the space-time fabric. When the group, in quartet mode, nailed the final chorus of the a cappella gospel song “Made It All Right,” I swear we were mainlining the holy spirit. You know how the word awesome gets overused and misused? Here’s where it applies.
So all that remained was the Loveless Jam, and with this kind of talent they were able to take on “Sunny Side of the Mountain” (another Jimmy Martin moment, because one can’t have too many) and these infernally perfect musicians played it like they’d rehearsed it. I will never tire of great bluegrass because it’s the very opposite of tired.