Rocky Grass

You can’t say you weren’t warned. My preview of our quasi-themed jam-grass/Southern rock Music City Roots predicted more volume and in-yer-face attitude than our typical show. I saw a few folks at the ticket window who looked like they might be expecting mild, so I hope they appreciated the wild. Because the place was jammed with happy, keyed-up people totally attuned to the high-energy coming from the stage. By night’s end, our bands had them standing, hollerin’ and testifyin’. With North Carolina’s great Merlefest getting set to start the net day, I was struck that all our music last night could have should have been on an outdoor stage at a nice eclectic festival like Merlefest or Rockygrass, because Big Daddy Love, the Volunteer String Band, Bloodkin and Leftover Salmon made grassy music that rocked like crazy.

The Big Daddy Love set came with big news. The band announced Tuesday that founding member, lead singer and chief songwriter Daniel Justin Smith is going to depart from the band in the next few weeks to stay closer to his two sons and develop his career as a professional songwriter. The guys kept this amicable split remarkably quiet until they had a replacement to announce, and that’s Scott Moss, whom I’m sure we’ll see eventually. But this night was part of Smith’s swan song tour, and it was great to hear him front BDL for the last time at Roots. Their rippling rockers and psychedelic turns sounded rich and full. A couple of us noted that BDL could play very nicely next to Zac Brown on FM country radio, if FM country radio had room for more than one earthy, acoustic-grounded, soulful, rootsy act at one time. Which apparently it doesn’t.

Our pals from the Volunteer String Band followed up, playing tunes that have become nicely familiar to us at the Roots after-parties at Brewhouse 100, where the VSB performs and hosts every week. Leader Travis Stinson has a really impressive voice – bold and pitch perfect, and it sounded great on opener “Look Me In The Eye.” But he passed vocals around too, with banjo player Marcus Stadler singing the superb grooving “Five Flat Rocks” and guest fiddler Amber Dawn singing Bill Monroe’s “Cry Cry Darlin’”. They wrapped by bringing on two of our musical crew – Gabe and Eric – to perform Eric’s original “Dorthea,” which should have been covered by the Dead.

Then we heard from Bloodkin, a band centered around songwriters and very old friends Daniel Hutchens and Eric Carter. With three electric guitars and sometimes four, they built a wall of volume for sure, one even louder than our crowd (ahem). My favorite was the head-nodding Stonesy force of “Pretty Girls In Summer Dresses,” and “Yeah” had a Dylan’s-gone-electric feel. And they wrapped their set in swaggering style by bringing out guest musician and frequent collaborator Bobby Keys on saxophone. It felt pretty awesome to have a musician who started his touring life with Buddy Holly and was best friends with the Rolling Stones playing on our stage. Keys has been working with Bloodkin on a show they call “Exile on Lumpkin Street.” We’ll call this one Exile in Pasquo, TN.

By comparison, Leftover Salmon sounded positively acoustic, even though they weren’t. Drew Emmitt split his time between mandolin and electric guitar. Vince Hermann conducted the gang from his flat-top. Banjo master Andy Thorn smoked on his solos. The band has a popping rhythm section that can conjure up Louisiana (“Gulf of Mexico”) or Colorado (“Walking Shoes”) or Memphis (“Here Comes The Night) in one set. They earned an encore, and “Blue Kentucky Sky” was a perfect anthem for bluegrass discovery. It was an honor to have this pioneering band, and they delivered for our happy crowd. So did the assembled ensembles on “I Shall Be Released,” a seemingly necessary Loveless Jam.

Next week it’s back to gentler tones and a folkier outlook. But it felt good to take an early summer night and rock the grass a bit.

Craig H.

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