Is it rebellious to be rootsy? Well, kinda. Less so than a few years ago perhaps, before the internet truly blew up the major label system and Americana started finding new paths to success. Now the revolution is well under way, taking music back to its pre-industrialized state, and it’s nice to know we have a Nashville reggae band beside us. Roots Of A Rebellion, who played Roots Wednesday night alongside four fellow Belmont University-related bands/artists, didn’t preach for anything but love and brotherhood in their songs. But we know how radical their agenda really is. Because it’s ours as well: great music that turns a profit, not music as profit-center. ROAR’s performance was just one part of a fantastic night of music that flowed from pop to roots to indie with a kind of inevitability and logic. In fact it felt like one of the most telling cross sections of today’s Music City we’ve ever had. So on with it.
When I say ‘pop’ I mean country, because as we know, country has been transformed by forces beyond our control from a genre to a radio format that is aiming for the biggest possible audience. That’s not our core sound at Roots as you know, BUT here’s what I learned from Two Story Road on Wednesday night. When all the parts are clicking together – the writing, the performance, the voices and the harmony – and one can be as close as we were to front duo Jamie and Brandon Fraley singing with no pretention and no auto-tune, the results can be irresistible. Opener “Great Big Love” was all sunshine and flowers, with a climbing melody that sounded like an aspiration to a long life together. “Living With A Ghost” was minor-key lovely with a tasty guitar motif and a swelling chorus. Kudos to a superb band, anchored on bass by the incredible Tommy Sims (a supporter and production partner). Yes it was slick, but it was also smart. As I told them last night, I wish them well at country radio, because they’d make it better.
Josh Mirenda also has commercial aspirations with a sound that might land on modern rock stations in the world of Maroon 5 or Coldplay. (Feel free to disagree with me; it’s not my terrain of expertise.) It was aggressive but tuneful, full-bodied but with breaks and breath that gave life to the loud parts. I understand Josh felt horrible when he went on and sought medical attention when he finished. It did not show. Again, the professionalism among these artists was just astounding. We wish you a speedy recovery Josh.
With that we were back into comfy rootsy territory with Vickie Vaughn’s bluegrass band. I’ve needed a new bluegrass discovery and this delivered it. They launched with the instrumental “Congaree” as if to introduce the band on even footing, even though bass player Vickie’s name is on the project. Song two featured vocals by guitarist Zach White on a tune that suggested Gordon Lightfoot as interpreted by The Seldom Scene. Really lovely stuff. At last, Vaughn sang a gorgeous lead on the standard “Working On A Building,” but it wasn’t in standard form. A creeping groove and jazzy chord substitutions further revealed the instrumental skills of this superb young band. Maggie Estes played a fiery, inventive fiddle. Justin Hiltner’s banjo solos were full of ideas and crafty techniques. It is SO hard to develop a novel bluegrass sound and cohere a band together into a unit, and the VVB has made enormous progress in a short time. I can’t wait to hear what they sound like next month and the next.
Roots Of A Rebellion didn’t launch right away into classic reggae territory. Instead the opening of “Charleston” had a singer/songwriter touch, as Austin Smith sang and played nylon string guitar with restraint. When the beat kicked in for real, it felt like a blend of Jamaica and Mexico – a pan-tropical stew. Smith told us this was a stripped-down and acoustic version of ROAR’s usual configuration, but whatever the case, there was no end to the intrigue of their chemistry. Alec Newman played acoustic bass and even took a great solo – hardly stock for a reggae/dub band. Justin Smith shifted effortlessly from percussion to trumpet to melodion (the little keyboard mouth organ that happens to be one of my very favorite sounds in the world), while Journi Cook offered sweet support vocals. Then there was the staggering echo effect on the snare drum, that signature of reggae. And an overall ensemble voice that is unique in Nashville and very much welcome on our roots scene.
Closing out the show was Elenowen, the married duo of Josh and Nicole Johnson. This was indie-folk, AAA radio nectar, with streaks of dark and light, plus a lot of power in the voices and the overall drive. Opener “The Storm” was as forbidding as the title suggests. “Warm Up My Soul” featured a persistent beat and a sing-along vocal refrain. More than once I thought about the Civil Wars, only here in electrified mode. Set closer “Dead & Gone” was paradoxically the cheeriest and brightest sounding tune. There’s a lot running beneath the surface with Josh and Nicole and they seem on their way (with this self-described new material) to a complex and luxurious new full-length album on their new Dualtone Records home.
I finally made a Loveless Jam suggestion that stuck! Inspired by ROAR, it occurred to me that we’d never had a Bob Marley song to close the show, and my idea of “One Love” suited them and Jim Lauderdale. So on it went, and joyful voices were raised in a sentiment impossible to disagree with. To close, let me address the elephant in the barn. It was too cold in there last night. There have been much colder Roots nights, but the wind banging against (and flooding in) the stage right side of the house just killed us, and the heaters got overwhelmed. Our apologies. We always want you to feel warmed and warm at Roots. But sometimes ya gotta suffer for the revolution.