It’s not easy to tell because they’re usually covered by blackout curtains, but Liberty Hall in The Factory has big windows in its sloped roof. The musicians and crew were joking before this week’s Divas of Roots Music show that we’d have to take out extra insurance on the roof because it was likely to get blown off by the accumulated vocal power of our historically talented lineup. It was just as easy to think about how in a week that one famous American woman delivered a solid blow to one of our last glass ceilings in politics, we might be in danger of shattering our glass ceiling. As it happened, the windows and roof held, but not so our hearts. One of the wonders of music is that the right song at the right time and in the right way can leave us emotionally shattered but still whole, changed but even more ourselves. That happened on Wednesday, and I dearly hope you were there to feel it with us.
This extraordinary show began with a brainstorm by our friend and local force of nature Sarah Potenza. The anti-diva was inspired to pitch the idea of a double bill with her friend and mentor Christine Ohlman. And then Christine invited Bonnie Bramlett. And Bonnie requested the McCrary Sisters. And a blockbuster show was born. So appropriately, Potenza opened the show with arguably the finest note-for-note vocal performance of the night. In five full-band songs and a gorgeous acoustic encore, she touched six different styles and feelings and won over anybody who wasn’t already a white-glasses-wearing fan with her uninhibited muse and funny banter. Opener “The Mountain” was patient and slow-stepping like its theme. “Valley Of Tears” was chilling slow soul with great organ from Mike Webb. The gossamer guitar part that signified “Bird” could only have been played so gracefully by Joe McMahan, so it’s a good thing he was in the band to do so. Formal set closer “Monster,” the title track of her upcoming album (produced by McMahan), was genuine rock and roll and candid storytelling. Jim Lauderdale called an encore and she sung solo with her husband Ian Crossman on acoustic guitar. The song “You’re Not Alone” was heartbreakingly beautiful. And she earned the first of the night’s many standing ovations.
The McCrary Sisters sang a nice table-setter, appetizer-size “Mighty Good Time” before segueing into the jazzy and joyful “Brand New Day,” the gospel tune not the Sting tune. I hesitate to say that we’d ever get used to the McCrarys’ Tesla-like power and torque, but it did feel familiar in a way to bask in the fervor of “I Am Free” and “Let It Go,” in which Regina does her blur-fast signature tambourine solo. “Train” had a ton of locomotion. But perhaps most fun was set closer “I’ll Take You There.” What is it about this song? It’s like the national anthem of gospel soul, and Sarah had already evoked Mavis Staples on stage so this felt right at every level. All the night’s ladies helped take us there, but none so far as the four beautiful McCrary Sisters.
We were all extremely curious to see what Christine Ohlman had up in her beehive, with her track record of rocking around the nation and anchoring the vocal role in the Saturday Night Live band. And she came off like a hybrid of Wanda Jackson and the B52s. Opener “There Ain’t No Cure” was hip shaking, fringe-spinning rock and roll. Her rich pillowy alto voice was on nice display in “The Deep End.” Danny Flowers played true blue slide electric guitar throughout but was pronounced on the bumping and grinding “Love Makes You Do Stupid Things.” She evoked her second home in “Alabama and Lonesome” and then cranked it up and took it home with the crazy fervor of “You Took A Razor To My Tender Little Heart.” Not for the weak-hearted is the rollicking Ms. Ohlman, but even as she was tough, she was tender, smiling through the fire.
We’ve been hoping against hope for a Bonnie Bramlett set for a long time, but the thing is these days, those are rare, requiring just the right confluence of events and chemistry. Our alchemists pulled it off and from arrival to shut down she cast a lovely light over the proceedings. Our interview was lively and jumpy and fun. She’s a sparkplug with unbelievable history up there in her head (she’s patiently getting it all out and down for a one-day memoir). But of course the music was what we were all waiting for. She opened with “Only You Know And I Know,” which is no doubt the most familiar Delaney & Bonnie track in my head, from that live album with Eric Clapton. Nice trivia point: the song was also performed on the MCR stage by its author Dave Mason on Sept. 25, 2013. She did a song called “Ghetto” that wasn’t the Mac Davis song so I don’t know its story, but it was smoky in the extreme and she massaged every note without singing too many notes, if you know what I mean. “I Can Laugh About It Now” was a bold swinging R&B feel, glistening with true first-hand stories about doing naughty things with Janis Joplin and so forth. Man we can’t wait to read that book!
But certainly the climax of the night was the widely covered ballad that’s come to be known as “Superstar,” which was written by Bonnie and Leon Russell. Who was in the audience. When Bonnie dedicated the performance to him and threw the song’s magic dust in the air with just a few lines, the room simply transformed. I felt every nerve of everybody there jacked into mine. Ms. Bramlett seemed moved to the brink of tears, with so many memories coursing through her head, and it was as if we could feel them even if we didn’t know the specifics. It was in my reckoning the single most emotional and extraordinary performance to ever grace our stage. It seems a huge act of love that she’d share and bare so much of her soul for us.
Everyone, Bonnie included, wiped away a few tears and re-set our clocks. Bonnie brought Christine back to the stage for a rollicking blues duet to end her set. And when all the gang returned the stage, Bonnie led ‘em all on a gospel rave up called “Saved.” Lots of call and response here, and let’s just say that the assembled ladies know how to pull that off. Jim offered a pretty dang sweet verse of his own, dude diva that he is. So yeah, the roof and windows held, but I’m certain they have a few new cracks in them.