The downside of working in and around music (besides the increased likelihood of non-yacht-ownership) is that when you’re exposed to loads of music, new and old, year in year out, you can find yourself getting harder to please. Sometimes I fear I’ll never be really zapped by something new again they way I was as a teenager. The feeling of discovery and connection is so palpable then, and then as we get older we can get to feeling like we’ve seen it all, heard it all. I don’t want to be Jaded Guy, but every now and then my aging self starts to feel like that.
And then I go to a night like last night at Music City Roots. There was the usual good-time air and even more of a cool cocktail party atmosphere than usual. But on the musical front, I discovered two new bands that are sure to be part of my world going forward. They came in the latter half of the show, so let me catch you up.
The tall and talented Peter Cooper hosted the show, subbing for and doing his signature impression of Jim Lauderdale, who is on the road with Elvis Costello’s all-star band. Peter knocked out a great song he co-wrote with the great Don Schlitz about Nashville venue doorman Steve that was really an ode to the live music culture around these parts. And then it was on with our lineup, starting with a band I knew well already, Missy Raines and the New Hip.
Hip they are, with funky, snaky instrumentals that let Missy show her command as band leader and bass mistress. The group’s tunes are full of funky riffs, snaky chord changes and space for ample improvisation. They dance through what Bela Fleck has called the “in-between” notes that shake off the doldrums of basic major and minor scales. Dominic Leslie has been one of the buzzed about mandolin kids for years, and he’s found one of his core projects in the New Hip. I was also impressed with guitarist Ethan Ballinger, especially his long, free solo on the Weather Report-like “Stop, Drop and Wiggle.”
Up next in the Vietti slot was the Howling Brothers, a trio that makes fired-up old-time and bluegrass infused with the energy of the city. They blazed through “Katie Klein” and two other hillbilly nuggets with drive and flair. Ian Craft showed off fine chops as a banjo player AND a fiddler, something not often seen in the same guy.
And then it was on to new territory, although I could have heard both of our last two bands at this year’s Americana conference. First it was Stonehoney, a quartet that formed in LA and has found love and success working out of Austin Texas. It’s a configuration we haven’t really seen since the 1970s, with four equally prominent, equally strong-voiced singer/songwriters in a row across the stage. Each becomes a front man for his songs, but mostly all four voices are working together to make a wall of soulful vocal magic that reminded me by turns of the Byrds, the Beatles, the Eagles, CSNY and Alabama, insofar as I said to myself, “Gee, why wasn’t Alabama ever this good?” And special kudos to lead guitarist Phil Hurley who blazed away like a trained Texas twang assassin.
With all of Stonehoney’s honky tonk fire, I wondered if we’d set the right order to have them followed by Frontier Ruckus, because from their music online, I got the sense that this Michigan ensemble was more Frontier than Ruckus. But there was no shortage of energy, even if that energy was more about language and texture than outright rocking. How do I put this? I love this band. In a world so full of new groups with beards and banjos, FR is a stunning standout. Musically, I love the warm and worn feeling of David Jones’s banjo against the horn parts or bowed saw of Zachary Nichols. Ryan Etzcorn is an excellent drummer who sustained the energy without calling undue attention to the beat.
But no doubt the ultimate hook is the songwriting of lead singer and guitarist Matthew Milia. Young and blazingly gifted, his songs are dense with words, dense with their meaning and musicality. At times his folk song/poems reminded me of the way rappers bob and weave with quirky rhythms and stabbing repeated rhymes. He casts spells and paints pictures that feel vividly drawn from life. And when he matches his voice with his old friend Jones, they achieve an elevated beauty. The guys were wonderful to meet, and they let me have their new CD Deadmalls and Nightfalls which I eagerly popped in for the long drive home. There were songs on there that bested even what they played on stage and moved me to my core. Bravo dudes. More of this please.
After Milia’s mouths-full of sometimes surreal language, it felt right to wrap the night with Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Ride me high indeed.