Rock and roll is Americana’s dilemma. On one hand, the biggest, baddest rock bands in history – the Stones, Led Zeppelin and others – took their original cues from American roots icons like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Like newgrassers stretching acoustic traditions, they took the folk blues and cranked it to 11, emotionally and sonically. On the other hand, if we declare the legacy of those bands as Americana – alongside its more familiar country/bluegrass/folk/gospel identity, then what DOESN’T it include? Everything comes from the blues right?
Anyway, this is one for historians and musicologists to sort out on another day, but I’ll say this. The Jompson Brothers rock hard and twang hardly at all yet fit Music City Roots like a single black leather glove. Their steady blunderbuss attack was absolute catharsis, and Chris Stapleton’s vocals exceeded even my high expectations. Lead vocals are even more important than guitars in making this kind of music stand or fail, and Stapleton – the rough and soul-saturated voice formerly behind the Steeldrivers – blew our minds like some kind of hillbilly Robert Plant.
The night couldn’t have started on a more different channel, and even though it’s always cool to recall the flow of these shows in their odd naturalness, last night really REALLY evolved nicely. Susan Werner is an artist I’d heard about at the periphery of my world but never really sat down with. Mistake! As has been noted by major leaguers like, oh, Keb Mo (whom she brought along to just hang out back stage – wow – cool), she’s a wildly complete artist who not only sings super-smart songs in a warm and delicious voice, she sets them up with an easy-going storytelling patter that could be its own subtle standup routine. She showed just part of her amazing range last night, moving from a very Appalachian sounding “Why Is Your Heaven So Small” through a cheeky, sardonic “agnostic gospel” song hooked with the line “deliver us from those who think they’re you” (major applause and ah ha looks for that one) into the swoony, visceral piano-backed song “Manhattan Kansas,” which glowed with real life and made me wonder what’s the big deal about a half dozen other piano, guitar or harp stroking folk/pop chanteuses I could name but won’t. Not idly did I tell her in the Q&A that her bright, convivial stage presence and Chicago background reminded me a bit of Steve Goodman, and I could tell that she appreciated that comparison. Get thee to see this artist.
The middle sets balanced two approaches to balancing modernity and tradition. Dana Romanello offered some examples of what country radio might sound like if it had a cerebellum. It was fresh and up to date but with a bluegrass core. She offered big-handled melody in “Old Friend of Mine” and a swift train-song groove on “Long Way For Love.” We loved the large band sound that included our friend Stephanie Taylor on fiddle and a cajon, which is that Cuban box drum you sit on and which makes a wonderful understated back-beat. Following on that was a return visit from Richmond, VA’s Hot Seats, a quintet of super-nice and witty guys who’ve burrowed deep into old time tradition without making it look antique, precious, trapped or snooty. Their song about how hard it is to take a beloved mule out into polite company and keep one’s marriage together proves the point.
So having surfed the waters of Americana from intelligent folk/pop through string band territory, a head-banging session just felt great. Now huge kudos to front-of-house sound guy Danny for this one. He always does a great job, but he made the Jompson Brothers sound LOUD without being LOUD. The twin guitars – one of them a Les Paul a la Jimmy Page of course – had fat, dark crunch. The drums and bass penetrated. But it was not the senior citizen-clearing sonic blast I’d slightly feared. It felt so musical! And as I said, Stapleton is a singer who despite his slouched over hat and reclusive posture simply grabs you and keeps upping the ante. Their encore was well-deserved.
For me it was a super special evening because (on a personal note) it was my last show for a month. My wife and I are about to end a year-plus of waiting and planning by traveling to China to adopt an 11-year-old girl, and so the loving send-off by my cherished colleagues meant the world to me, and I envisioned, as I have so many times, bringing our girl to the show to give her this smothering of musical love from America. It choked me up then as it does now. The message of the big Loveless Jam “Mind Your Own Business” didn’t match my thoughts at all, but it was such a great swinging choice that didn’t matter one bit. Our guest host of last night Phil Lee led the charge right up to the end. He did a great job in Jim’s place, and we hope we can coax him back again. Be nice to our guest interviewer guys Jon Weisberger and Larry Nager over the next few weeks and I’ll be tuning in on Chinese mornings by Livestream if I possibly can.