If we’d only known the secret to getting half of East Nashville to travel down to Liberty Hall to hang out was to book the other half of East Nashville to play on stage we’d have done it a long time ago. I’m exaggerating of course, but what a wonderful scene took shape at Roots on Wednesday night, with old friends of the show and assorted music mavens on hand, mingling while truly listening, the way a good Nashvillian does. But this was a night with abundant local talent, a veritable showcase of the new acoustic and bluegrass master pickers who’ve moved to Music City where, as Kyle Tuttle said in the interview, they find enough work to put a living together and deep support for their ambitions. We surely were glad to play our part in supporting our city’s awesome bluegrass situation (to borrow a phrase) and we were delighted to see so many turn out to support the show.
It began with a thoroughly charming and smart duo of twin brothers who truly could fool you if they set out to. Superficially similar Adam and David Moss are based in Brooklyn, but they slipped right into the Nashville mode with their varied instrumentation and pristine vocal harmonies. Tones of the Everly Brothers, Delmore Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel infused their uptown old-time sound. “Bird In A Tree” married a quick tempo with liquid vocals and old time fiddle. “Notary Public” injected humor into the set. If you love the Milk Carton Kids you’ll really enjoy this perhaps more down-home take on the same brotherly vibe.
Then came a two-act bluegrass/newgrass virtuoso showcase as Kyle Tuttle and friends took the stage. Music like this is about two things – the compositions that give the improvisers structure and the improvisers themselves. In this case we were pleased to welcome John Mailander on fiddle (returning just a week after playing with Joe K. Walsh), Frank Rische on guitar, Dominick Leslie on mandolin and Royal Masat on bass. The individual impulses of each expert picker are subsumed into a thoughtful whole, but not without some banging energy. Opener “Bobcat on the Banjo” and closer “Telluride Tapwater” both brought that roaring, rippling speed that Bela Fleck tapped on his famous “Whitewater.” “Green Room” had more David Grisman jazz touches. And while it was mostly an instrumental set, Kyle sang lead on a super old school bluegrass tune that led to a dreamy extended band jam. Tuttle is a confident and daring banjo player who gets in great exchanges with his collaborators. I’m also a fan of his lanky posture; He looks like a tall letter S playing a five-string.
Jordan Tice tapped Dominick to be his mandolin player too, while bringing out Brittany Haas on fiddle, Mike Witcher on dobro (a truly remarkable musician who’d never played MCR before) and the epically talented Paul Kowert on bass. Opener “Chicken Dog” had a decidedly John Hartford lope with cute lyrics. The other dog song was the instrumental “A Cool Dog” which featured sparkling soloing all around, especially Brittany’s fiddle. Our audience really hushed up for Tice’s solo moment, the original “Horse County Rag” on fingerstyle guitar. An homage to the likes of Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Blake, it mingled ragtime bounce with a rumba feel and featured daring chord changes and super fluid licks. Just amazing. And then the full band finished out with a sweeping, rippling bluegrass vocal number called “Poor Me.” But there was no pity in sight as they left to a standing ovation.
I was glad for the contrast then as The Band of Heathens took the stage with their organ, electric guitars and vintage drums. This is a band whose sound justifies the old worn-out word “organic” because it is indeed earthy and natural. Tones are full and real. The lead voices of Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist are powerful and complimentary of one another. They opened with a greasy, funky approach on “Sugar Queen” and they proceeded to prove that they’re great songwriters who also happen to be a superb band. I just loved “Green Grass of California” which is set to be the closing song of the new Duende album coming in January. “Deep Is Love” had a great melodic (and whistled) theme to set it off, and closer “Trouble Came Early” built to a big orchestrally full finish.
Jim Lauderdale and the assembled artists paid roundabout tribute to the late Leon Russell by performing a Dylan song he was fond of. I don’t want to think about it but “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” has a ring of truth these days anyway. Thanks, big young crowd. Thanks, super pickers. Next week, I’ll be handing the interview guy role over to bluegrass expert Jon Weisberger as I travel this year for Thanksgiving. We have another stellar holiday lineup in store for you. See you in two weeks.