“Uncle” John Walker (my new nickname for our show’s co-founder) wore his Detroit Tigers cap Wednesday night in honor of the city that offered a musical education/upbringing to himself and his old pal Derek St. Holmes, the man set to play our penultimate set at the Loveless Barn. It was a young man move bound up with a young man dream of perhaps trading licks with this arena-scale rock star on our stage. And by golly it happened. As Derek St.Holmes started the final song of his ripping and righteous set, he signaled to John to grab his Strat. Cool, except there was no gear in place. A flurry of plugging-in ensued from our crack stage crew, and before we knew it, John was in fact slinging his six-string on stage and playing some fantastic vintage rock and roll with Derek. For a moment there I thought they were going to make guitar god faces and strike the infamous spoon pose, but the moment passed. It really is all about the music at Music City Roots.
It’s hard to unpack how much happened at this season-closing mega-show. We’ve rarely had so many people in the Barn or so much electricity flowing among them. We had quite a few celebrity guests too. I saw a handsomely bearded Tim O’Brien, bluegrass/acoustic starlet Sarah Jarosz, former bandleaders Jere and Sandy Lee Cherryholmes, Della Mae fiddler/founder Kimber Ludiker, MCR Alum rocker Gibb Droll, Charles “Deacon” Esten from the show Nashville and even roots guru T Bone Burnett. So the vibe was crackling and once again, the flow and variety of the night was just ideal.
A show like ours dreams of landing bands like ALTAN, so indisputably on top of their field. As I mentioned in our interview, this ensemble is on a postage stamp in Ireland. They’re national treasures in the country that gave our country some of the core building blocks of country music – especially bluegrass. I don’t know enough about Irish music to precisely tell you how the instrumental medleys flowed from reel to jig or what have you. What I can say is that when fiddle and accordion match up on churning melodies over mandola and the liquid pulse of Celtic rhythm guitar, it’s a powerful force. As the lone woman and key singer in the band, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (roughly mah-RAID knee-WINny as I learned for the chat room) can appear like the front person, but this is ensemble music to be sure, with all parts expertly crafted and braided together like a Celtic knot. And it ain’t precious; it’s party music that set an elevated, excited tone for the rest of the evening.
New Nashville band Great Peacock got the pleasure of following the postage stamp band, and they went full tilt and made it happen. They’ve embroidered their Americana wear with rhinestoney peacock designs which was perfect and matched their sound – solid country folk with touches of color and sparkle here and there. The duo masterminds of the band – Andrew Nelson and Blount Floyd – are voice-throwers who sing close harmony with gusto and open throats. The four-piece band behind them used their tools smartly to get quite an orchestral sound at times, and the arrangements were interesting. It all built up to “Desert Lark” which is no doubt their debut smash hit. What a fantastic and seductive song. Let’s hope we hear this all spring and summer long.
Shannon Whitworth. Ahhhhhh. That is all.
No, that wouldn’t be fair. The North Carolina chanteuse has found a fascinating place all her own in roots pop with the sound on her new High Tide album. Working with an intimately connected band, she made shimmering silver sounds on her gold top Les Paul guitar and sang in her misty, woozy Southern voice. The tunes, starting with the title track, tend to have a quick underlying pulse, topped with slow, cooing lyrics. The song “Henry” had a film noir vibe. Her set closer was a total re-working of “You Are My Sunshine,” which blended very well with her own upbeat, contented songs.
Derek St. Holmes was next. It was at first unclear to me how Ted Nugent’s long-time guitarist and singer found his way to the Roots stage, but John filled in the story. They’re old friends from Detroit. Derek moved to Middle Tennessee about three years ago. Upon John’s specific invitation, St.Holmes put a crack band together and assembled a set of fiery, focused rock and roll that spanned decades. His voice had an oaken grain and solidity, and his guitar playing was fantastic. Also hot were some eye popping keyboard solos from Paul Brown (hope I have that name right). The guitar jam with Walker was just icing on a tasty cake.
It would be hard to follow all that, but the Travelin’ McCourys and Keller Williams are used to huge crowds and festival environments; they needed only to trust in their gifts and their ears. They opened in a moody way with guitar harmonics and drifty mandolin from Ronnie, and when “I Am Elvis” clicked into bluegrass gear, it was fast and twisty in its cool chord changes. “Messed Up Just Right” was a swinger with percussive stops and bluesy lines. Bassist Alan Bartram did a fine job on the vocals here. Hilarious and fun was “Price Tag,” their cover of Jessie J’s big radio hit from last year. By this point, the biggest crowd of happy dancers I’ve seen at Roots had occupied the front of the house. To our seated patrons, we can only say this happens ever-so occasionally, and we hope the energy in the house and the good time feeling outweighed the small burden of standing to see the whole band for this one set. It was too true to the vibe of the music to keep the dancers at bay. An encore was non-optional, and the band kicked into another clever re-make – a fiery bluegrass tear on “Pumped Up Kicks,” that happy sounding, dark-lyric song from Foster The People. An upbeat song about a tortured, violent mind? Sounds like bluegrass tradition to me!
I’ve gone on too long, but as you can tell, it was quite a time. Jim Lauderdale was back for our final show of the season and in fine voice and form on the Loveless Jam “Gonna Travel On.” The huge crowd was with us through the big finish. I was mesmerized from start to finish. Thanks to everyone for such a pumped-up good time and to our whole crew and the Loveless Cafe staff for the hard work on another season. We take a couple of weeks off and will be back for Spring 2013 on April 10.