Our show this week takes place on Halloween eve, but please don’t ask me to wear a costume. I don’t know why the idea is so foreign to my personality, and I have no trouble whatsoever with all y’all getting your Lady Gaga on and dressing up like pop culture characters and catch-phrases. It’s just not my thing. No, I’m more old school about Halloween – lighting bonfires and setting places at the table for the dead – that kind of thing. That gets me ready for All Saints’ Day when I watch a re-play of the 2009 Super Bowl and All Souls’ Day, when I listen to Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin records.
Our lineup this week isn’t scary, just scary good. It’s certainly soulful and a bit mysterious in its diversity. With jazz fusion on steel drums, mystical Texas songwriting, neo-classic country and free-wheeling jamgrass, it’s less a witches brew and more a warm autumnal stew of textures and personalities.
We’ll get the night going with fusion so energetic and visionary you’d think it could generate clean electricity. The artist and bandleader Jonathan Scales knocked us out when he visited Roots a couple of years ago with his ideas and indeed his courage. I mean who takes up the Caribbean steel drums (or steel pan as it’s more formally called) at college age and launches a career as a jazz/jam bandleader inspired by Béla Fleck, Igor Stravinsky and Kanye West? The mastermind in question is based in the fusion-friendly town of Asheville, NC and he’s making exciting strides, getting noticed by a wider array of music press and earning the respect of and collaboration with some killer musicians, including sax master Jeff Coffin and fiddle innovator Casey Driessen. Scales even got a recent righteous Twitter shout-out from Béla himself, an artist Scales says is a major reason he’s trying to carve out new ground on an under-explored instrument.
Amanda Shires has taken quite a journey from her home turf as a country and swing fiddler from Lubbock, TX. Just as some of the early alt-country bands have evolved into something modern and abstract, Shires’s solo recordings have grown increasingly imaginative and open to interpretation. Her new album Down Fell The Doves marries her tremulous voice and quirky melodies with misty, sometimes menacing atmosphere, and it’s going over even better than her breakout Carrying Lighting of two years ago. Texas Monthly called Doves a “radical break” from her origins and a work from an artist who has set herself free from category and genre. She’s been in the spotlight as well for her recent marriage to Americana star Jason Isbell and it’s exciting to see them contribute to each other’s music. They are quite the match.
Now as for country music unadulterated, we’ll enjoy a double dose from two of the most exciting neo-classicists in the business right now. Following in the footsteps of Hank Snow, Daniel Romano hails from Canada, specifically Niagara border town Welland, Ontario. Canada’s National Post wrote about his new-this-year album Come Cry With Me: “Picking up the thread of Workin’ for the Music Man (2010) and the Polaris Prize-nominated Sleep Beneath the Willow (2011), the new tunes are chock full of slide guitar and enough tales of womanizing, empty bottles and broken relationships to keep the spirit of Hank Williams alive.” In this recent video, Romano bears a spooky resemblance to the Alabama icon in figure, fashion and voice. Meanwhile, fellow traditionalist Sturgill Simpson can claim the same Kentucky roots as Dwight Yoakam, and his Bakersfield-meets-Appalachia country music will remind you of Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and other assorted outlaws. He walks the walk too. Just last week, in a Q&A for CMA Closeup, the magazine of the industrial strength country music biz, he was asked: What can you tell us about yourself that we’d never guess about you? The reply wasn’t ‘I’m a licensed landscape architect’ or ‘I raise pigeons.’ It was: “I’m plotting your destruction.”
When last we saw Leftover Salmon in April 2012, they had recently relit their torch after a hiatus and released the wonderful Aquatic Hitchhiker album, produced by Los Lobos collaborator Steve Berlin. It was a treat to be a small part of this great band’s revival and feel the longstanding partnership of founders Drew Emmitt (mandolin) and Vince Herman (guitar) mesh with their young banjo hotshot Andy Thorn. The fact that Thorn had been inspired years before by Leftover’s late great Mark Vann and his successor Noam Pikelny made some poetic sense and spoke to the impact that this great Boulder, CO band had since its founding in 1989. I’ve described before my jaw-drop upon seeing them for the first time at Merlefest, and since then they’ve made great albums, hosted epic shows and generally set the bar high for execution and exuberance.
So come join our jam, costumed if you like. I’ll be the one dressed as the interview guy.