To be a fan of Roots, you’d best be a musical all-terrain vehicle. That doesn’t mean you should plan on loving every artist. But in general, you’ll want to be ready and excited to see what’s over that hill or down that rutted road. And you know how those Range Rover ads always make that particular vehicle look totally at home in some lost back-country but inside it feels kind of posh and civilized? Our season-opening night at the barn this week felt like that to me, especially since it began and ended with Rangers.
“We’re The Westbound Rangers!” sang the first of them, at the top of their lungs, proclaiming their band-of-brotherhood and filling up the radio waves with a band theme song that fits our old-time barn dance vibe. The Nashville quartet just continues to grow together, working that single microphone with fire and grace. They opened with “Stonewall” with its rebel yells and Bull Run fervor (best not to tell ‘em how the war came out). Their take on John Hartford’s “Tall Buildings” was heartfelt and much appreciated; we understand how they feel. And they’ve worked up a completely original, hard-swinging version of “Hesitation Blues” with a perky kazoo and a highly illustrative hesitation….wait for it…in the chorus. Kudos to Read, Mike, Graham and Wes for their stage presence, great humor and all around development.
I love it how if I’m patient enough, just about every band I want to see live will eventually swing through our stage. And I had wanted to see Joy Kills Sorrow for years before they hit the Loveless for only their second-ever Nashville gig. This is my kind of thing, with expert acoustic musicianship, rhythmic complexity and absorbing arrangements. The band tends toward stacked, pulsing grooves over steady whole notes, something evident from opener “Was It You.” Emma Beaton’s voice is expressive, rich and unique, throaty and gospel-tinged here, sweet and pure there. Bass player Zoe Guigueno carries most of the glowing harmonies and maintains the metronomic steadiness. The banjo, mando, guitar trio of Wes Corbett, Jake Jolliff and Matt Arcara is one of the most under-rated string teams in the country. Everyone that ever liked Alison Krauss needs to hear this band.
If JKS felt urbane, Ashley Monroe brought the country – country as we crave it, with twang, swing and blues, presided over by a clearly modern woman with something to say and a pristine East Tennessee voice with which to say it. Our favorite guitar guru Guthrie Trapp set the tone for most of the tunes with his tangy Telecaster, with keys, drums and bass (MVP Mike Bub) in support. Striking Matches singer Sarah Zimmerman provided harmony vocals. Opener “You Got Me” featured a climbing melody over melancholy minor chord changes. “Two Weeks Late” is a gutsy shuffle about a woman with the blues. My favorite tune was her set closing co-write with Vince Gill called “Monroe Suede,” with its snap and jiggle groove, its bluegrass overtones and its story of a small-time outlaw.
Ben Sollee delivered a typically tour de force performance with an efficient trio. His drummer Jordon Ellis, a guy who sees rhythm in three or four dimensions, kept a complex clock. Alana Rocklin played spidery electric bass – including some fine solos – which were sometimes doubled with a tastefully crafted synthesizer tone, giving the set a jazz/folk fusion kind of feel. Ben’s voice was clear and tender and illuminating on “Unfinished,” a song about staying aware of one’s own journey and inherent incompleteness. I was so pleased he did “DIY” from his rich and exciting Half-Made Man album, because I relate to its embrace of being a full, autonomous person in a modern world that has more ways than ever to get you in its clutches. Both on cello and octave mandolin he was totally in charge and totally at ease. He’s just an amazingly natural performer.
And then the Range Rover arrived with the Steep Canyon Rangers, dressed in a hybrid of their formal and informal modes, with suit jackets over jeans and boots, perfect for Loveless Barn ambience. The music has that quality too – a solid core with frayed edges. Their bluegrass has grown over the years from student to master level and now it’s pushing beyond into their own accessible and substantive offshoot. Opener “Stand And Deliver” was smooth and disciplined with a bit of a Celtic melodic figure. “Graveyard Fields” was a speedy instrumental led by mandolinist Mike Guggino. “Camelia” had a touch of tasty pop and featured a typically daring fiddle solo by Nicky Sanders. Woody Platt (guitar) and Graham Sharp (banjo) take most of the lead vocal duties, each with his own distinct personality. The title track of the newest album “Tell The Ones I Love” offers a really fresh take on the train song form, accelerating as if under steam. So all around we got to hear a band that’s on top of the bluegrass and Americana world at the top of its game.
We packed up after Wednesday’s show and headed to Chattanooga for a superb Scenic City Roots where Ben Sollee and Ashley Monroe performed again. Then your correspondent and some of the Roots crew continued East to Shelby NC where we’re helping with the ceremonies for the Earl Scruggs Center, a gem of a museum and cultural center near the home town of the greatest banjo player of all time. A special note about this ranging and roving soon.