What do we mean when we say music has meaning? A song tells a story and makes us think and relate as a fellow human. Hymns uplift us and turbocharge our feelings of transcendence. Jam bands make musical space and time where we can share glances and high fives with total strangers and make connections while dancing to our own whims. Instrumental music is hardest to pin down; it evokes and suggests but never dictates. This is its greatest and most overlooked virtue. Listen to this week’s artists on Roots for a bit of all of this wide range of musical meaning. We’ve got a venerated folk singer, a soulful, improv-heavy folk rock band, a writer of sacred songs that speak to everyone and an instrumental duo built on guitar standard and steel. I’m personally looking forward to this one as one of our most beguiling blends of the year.
Phil Madeira embraces “hymns for the rest of us” as he put it on his signature project Mercyland, a various-artists project released in 2012 that led to the greatest roots gospel music gathering I’ve ever experienced, a show at the Downtown First Presbyterian Church during the Americana Music Festival. Madeira, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer and author, made an unlikely journey from the Christian music industry to Americana music through his friends Buddy and Julie Miller. He’s worked with them extensively as well as a long stint backing Emmylou Harris on keys. He’s had his songs recorded by Garth Brooks, Keb Mo and Bruce Hornsby among many others. But he’s so much more than a resume. He’s a philosopher and a humanitarian who pursued the Mercyland project as a balm to what he saw as industrialized, politicized and exclusionary modern Christianity. He proposed that his guest artists – The North Mississippi All-Stars, Sean Mullins, Buddy, Emmylou and more, sing and write about God as love and nothing but love. He’s a guy with a special aura that I know will translate into something sublime and moving on our stage.
Instrumental music is a pet cause of mine as you may know, and Nashville is fortunate to have a group bringing back the spirit of the great lyric-free hits of the 60s like “Green Onions” and “Telstar.” They are Steelism, led by duo Jeremy Fetzer on electric guitar and Spencer Cullum on pedal steel. They’ve been sidemen for some killer Music City artists like Caitlin Rose (and they recently backed up Reno Bo at our place) but banded together with smoking drummers (often two) and vintage sounding keys, they’ve blazed a trail for trippy, enthralling, danceable and soulful tunes that are just that – tunes. Cullum, a Brit, and Fetzer, a Yank, both believe in writing concise, memorable melodies and getting them well established before the jam takes place, but the jam does take place. In a Rolling Stone piece tagging them as a band to watch, Cullum said “With lyrics, you’re kind of being told how to think, or how to feel. With instrumental music you can just have your own interpretation of a feeling.” That’s how it’s supposed to be with music. You, dear listener, are supposed to do some of the work.
Of course we couldn’t live without songs either, and indeed our world is built mostly on songcraft and the artists who write, sing and interpret them. The art form will be well represented this week by the gentle and very well established Ellis Paul. He’s a product and icon of the Boston folk music scene and he has a tattoo of Woody Guthrie on his arm. And he’s kept things interesting and thought provoking over nearly 20 albums. The most recent, Chasing Beauty, has a Nashville connection in that it was produced by Sugarland’s Kritstian Bush.
The show will built to a rocking, danceable blast of happy with the Allen Thompson Band. Though this isn’t as upbeat a time for the gang as their past Roots visits. You may have seen that Allen himself spent weeks in the hospital with some broken vertebrae after a swimming hole accident. He got out in time to attend the Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago of his beloved Grateful Dead, and he’s performing again, from a seated position. But then just this week more strife and more broken back bones as guitarist Clint Maine fell doing some tree work. Like his band brother, Clint has some real recovering to do. He has a beautiful family and many friends who’ve already raised $6,000 on his GoFundMe page. Please consider helping. Allen tells me there will be a local standout as a guest guitarist. I don’t wish to dwell on the wounds because this is one of my favorite bands in town – a crafty country rock band with the spirit and soul of Laurel Canyon and Woodstock. I’m sure playing will ease their minds. I want us to show them a lot of love and support.
If music means anything at all, it’s about human connections. Sometimes that means coming to the rescue. Sometimes it’s just clapping together. But the point is in the together.