I predicted that last night’s Roots would be one of our least rootsy Roots, and it WAS light on twang (at least until Jedd Hughes’s guitar-driven rave-up at the end). But if roots means organic, hand-made and grounded, then our special Ten Out Of Tenn (TOT) edition, featuring five of the artists who have made that collective so successful and enduring, fit right into our scene. For another year, we went up against the CMA Awards, and as I watched the tweets come in about THAT show, with its gimmicks and artifice, its millions in technology and hair/makeup, I felt better than any millionaire, better than any radio-friendly Entertainer of the Year watching our friends, old and new, make beautiful, sophisticated music for our discerning, passionate audience.
It began with Trent Dabbs, one of the founders of TOT, fronting a cracking four-piece band. Countering one easy-to-form impression of Trent’s music as moody and serene, he came out popping with “Don’t Blame Love,” an energetic tune with a shaggy train beat and chiming hollow-body electric guitar. “Confetti Girl” hewed more to ambient ease, with a slinky beat and heavenly glow. His final song was a nice nod to an influential musician and the dream of achieving similar influence, built over the refrain “I want to be somebody’s Neil Young.” The music itself was its own tribute to the namesake, with its memorable melody and acoustic/electric power jam.
Matthew Perryman Jones has simply a dreamy voice, clear and secure and not unlike his doppelganger Bono, though way more understated (not hard). An invitation to Trent Dabbs to come up for the blues-structured “Rain Or Shine” which they co-wrote evoked the spirit of TOT, even without the all-hands-on-deck collective at the usual tour shows. MPH then debuted a new song, the sincere and hyper-melodic “Won’t Let You Down Again.” And his “Oh Theo,” inspired by his long-time fascination with Vincent VanGogh was a few minutes of pure serenity. Special props to MPJ’s guitarist Chris Donegan who added color and wiry energy to the whole set.
A show by K.S. Rhoads is always a surprise, and his approach yesterday was to go one-man band on us. He sidled up to one of the biggest pedal/effects boards I’ve seen, which turned out to have a looping pedal at its core. He set up a beat box rhythm and set that on endless repeat. Then he added vocal lines with layered harmonies. After a few minutes he had what sounded like a giant African chorus backing his soaring vocal lead on “Invisible Fortress.” “Where I Come From” was also set to loops, but with natural sounding acoustic guitar and a bold folky melody out front. Rhoads is a walking tour de force, part Paul Simon and part Beck. I would love to see him better known nationally.
We hit the home stretch with Amy Stroup, whose solo music couldn’t sound more different than her Trent Dabbs duo, Sugar & The High Lows, a Music City Roots alum. “Quiet Hearts” was glimmering and chamber-like with subtle drums and a nice violin part. Amy did duet with Trent on “Just You,” a soft and lovely number. Other songs were orchestral and sweeping. It’s no wonder she and Dabbs have a serious track record placing songs in contemporary television dramas. They have a feel for the zeitgeist.
The final set of the night really did shift gears. Jedd Hughes has a background much more centered in country and bluegrass than the others, and it showed. He’s a guitar slinger/singer in the Vince Gill or Keith Urban mode. His songs have a refreshing originality, exemplified by his buzzy, rippling opener “Scatterbrain.” He offered “Hollywood,” a dark song about misplaced infatuations co-written with the legendary Guy Clark. He pulled off one of the few Dylan covers we’ve ever had, outside of Loveless Jam territory, giving us “Lay Lady Lay.” And “Kill My Blues” was dirty country rock that let him jam and trade crack licks with pedal steel player Justin Schipper. Jedd and Justin also took command of “The Last Time,” our Stonesy jam and show closer.
So we didn’t get to hear a full slate of ten from Tenn, but we got fuller sets from each as solo artists than we’d have experienced in a tour show. Both get perfect scores from me.