Forgive us, but if truth be told, our team arrived at the Barn on Wednesday feeling a bit pleased with ourselves. We’d just gone public with the news that MCR is going to be on national television as a 13-episode series starting in September, and we were fielding nice messages of support from our friends and true believers. Thank you to all, by the way. We were also excited to see a robust crowd fill the Loveless on a stormy night. And it turned into a celebration held at high levels of energy, volume and physical conditioning. I say that because we’ve never had a band do pushups on stage as part of their set, but as Jim says, “you never know what might happen…” And what happened, more than almost any night I can remember, was a night at Roots built on a foundation of classic rock and roll.
It began with the Honey Island Swamp Band, a five piece from New Orleans that soared right away into a bluesy Allman Brothers kind of space. Not only did Chris Mulé stand out on electric slide guitar, the band in general paid attention to its instrumental side. Trevor Brooks leaned forward on keyboards and traded solos with Mulé. “Prodigal Son” laid down a comfortable railroad beat that really let the boys jam. Brooks offered an extended and mellow piano intro to “Cane Sugar,” the title track of the new HISB album and then a fantastic organ solo through his whirling Leslie cabinet, which came resplendent with a New Orleans Saints fleur-de-lis logo. Set closer “Never Saw It Coming” had the most explicitly Crescent City funky butt syncopation. Singer Aaron Wilkinson played mando on this one, while Mulé redoubled his attack on the Stratocaster. It was a display of versatility and joie de vivre that I expected and craved from one of the more celebrated contemporary New Orleans bands.
There was no preparing for the Kansas Bible Company, an 11-piece that’s off on a trip of its own. The four-man horn section was joyful and barefoot, besides being rhythmically tight and harmonically locked. A phalanx of three electric guitarists made a wall of sound that surged and zig-zagged from funk to punk, often several times in the space of a single song. I mean look no further than the song titles as harbingers of KBC’s zany imagination: “Jesus, The Horse Thief” and “Tension With Kansas” and “How To Build A Planet.” On opener “Hang Niner” the band offered some entertaining stagecraft; the music pulsed and stopped and the band assumed freeze frame postures like some wild photo shoot. Psychedelic sounds invaded after a while, and on the set closer, the horn section completed its charm offensive with group pushups, somewhat like cheerleaders after a touchdown. And cheers did follow. These guys were loud, intense, modern and a load of fun.
John and Jacob are a duo but they came with a strong band of bass, drums and crossover guy Austin Smith, who played guitar and keys. So when the high school friends attacked the microphones with their striking voices, the effect was robust and bold (wait, it sounds like I’m describing coffee). The guys’ stacked harmonies were at the core, but the thoughtful musical and textural touches made a timeless whole that evoked the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys, among other classic references. Best of all, the songs were sharp, smart and compact. I especially loved “The Weekend” with its celebratory punch and rhythmic shifts. Jacob surprised by picking up a trumpet later in the set, which lent still more texture. This made for a full house standing ovation and a harbinger of great things to come for this pair of Js.
Closing the show, the Pine Hill Haints starts from a core of old time country, blues and jug band, but they certainly had the fire of vintage rock and roll wired in their circuits. Its six pieces included the most accurate washtub bass I’ve ever heard, a mandolin played by the lead singer’s wife and a big delicious accordion, the instrument that can make any band better. Opener “Tennessee River Ramble” had a Celtic sounding theme and a punky energy, conjuring overtones of The Pogues. Will Barrier’s guitar has the worn quality of a workman’s tool and a couple of feathers dangling from the headstock. The tone he gets out of its electrified hollow body is a perfect fusion of acoustic space and pre War distortion. His singing is straightforward and serious, but then his topics are rarely cheery in songs like “How Much Poison Does It Take” and “They Tried To Kill My Momma’s Son.” As if needing a break from the dark confessional, Barrier stepped aside from the mic and handed it over to Matt Bakula, who donned a banjo and sang “The Low” about the lowest a man can go. Somehow, all this hillbilly film noir didn’t translate into dreary music. The Haints are a hoot.
Jim Lauderdale came up with a J.J. Cale tribute on the fly, and the assembled did “They Call Me The Breeze” for the Loveless Jam, complete with a rocking, on-the-spot horn section. Not surprisingly, it rocked. It seemed like the only way to go.