As big a nerd as I am for instrumental music, I acknowledge that the human voice is the “instrument” that moves most of the people most of the time. A great singer gets inside the blood stream, the nervous system and the memory. Sometimes it’s a deeply familiar voice, tweaking our craving for comfort and affirmation. Sometimes it’s a novel sound, snapping you to attention and taking you on a ride. We were privileged to enjoy both experiences on Wednesday night at Roots, with a show that was kissed at the beginning and end by beautiful women with voices that lifted off like silver wings. They caught the light and carried us away.
Maybe she was born with it and likely she picked up some of it at music college, but Liz Longley has control. Her purity of tone and pitch is buffed with a touch of velvet. She can climb and dive and sparkle. I had listened to her recorded work in the weeks running up to the show and I was expecting a serene tone. Shame on me for assuming. Liz and her sharp quartet brought exciting grooves to match the quality of the songwriting, as on syncopated opener “Skin And Bones.” She indicted a former, unfaithful boyfriend in “Bad Habit” and cooled everybody down with the gorgeous ballad “When You’ve Got Trouble.” The songs are coming up on the Nashville songwriter’s latest indie album, which is set for full release this summer. I think we all felt like we were witnessing the beginning of a big breakthrough.
Young Amythyst Kiah is staking out her own look, sound and dialogue with the history of American folk music. When I visited East Tennessee State University to interview students in the bluegrass program for a school video a few years ago, she was (I believe) the only black student in the program and she spoke with wisdom and optimism about reconciling race and folk music. Now she’s walking the walk, with original songs and classic covers that evoke spirituals, blues and Appalachian ballads – a braid of traditions from the complex American South. Her voice showed its mournful cry on opener “Myth.” She frailed the old-time banjo on a dark take on “Darling Cory.” Her own closer “Magnolia” had a pregnant pulse. She has a long journey ahead and she seems committed to it.
I couldn’t find Angie Aparo backstage for the longest time. It turns out I was looking for Angie Aparo of 2001, he of the steely, made-up eyes, soul patch and leather outfit. Instead I found a smiling bearded monk-like cat dressed for Burning Man. He proved to be a lovely person, as was his musical partner McKenzie Eddy. They brought the musical ambition to Roots this week, signified by a 10-piece mini-orchestra that took the stage before they did. A string quartet, two horns and assorted rhythm section folks played an overture. Then the artists came out to launch what turns out to be the beginnings of a folk opera, with joyful, triumphal singing and uplifting sentiments. This was the second performance of a complex ensemble, and I’m sure even the artists would say tightening and refinement remains, but it was excellent to be a witness to the creative journey of a couple of songwriters striving to do something bold, as Aparo said, “for God.”
The state of country music is never far from my mind and heart. ‘Who’s gonna fill their shoes?’ and all that. And while Sam Outlaw isn’t going to get a listen at today’s country radio, barring events as unlikely as a Middle East peace accord, he left us country music lovers reassured about the future and purring after a five-song set. From drifting honky-tonk to a steel-soaked ballad, he pushed all the buttons and delivered smart songs. Vocal partner Molly Jenson crystalized the duet lines, of which there were many. She made the journey from L.A. along with Sam and steel man Jeremy Long, and it was so great to see them lay down country more authentic and soul satisfying than any of the FM wannabes on Lower Broadway. The final song “Keep It Interesting” did just that, blowing me away in fact with a rocking minor groove and subtle ideas.
And that led to a finale that was perhaps more predictable in its tone and flow but no less enjoyable. Hell, Keith Bilbrey pulled up his new Kirkland’s chair right by his podium for a fronter-than-front-row view of Suzy Bogguss and her crack band. Sam Outlaw had already shared his happy awe that he was setting up an artist he called one of the finest country singers of all time. So even after quite a lot of cool music, the large crowd (which had braved wind and stormy rain to make it) sat transfixed as Suzy lent her silver voice to “Silver Wings,” “The Running Kind” and other indelible Merle Haggard songs. Chris Scruggs kept things twangy on Telecaster or stand-up electric steel. Pat Bergeson took expert guitar and harmonica solos. Charlie Chadwick (bass) and Pete Abbott (drums) locked in the swing. Suzy always was a master of choosing great material, and after the superbly matched Hag songs, she closed out with her beloved version of John Hiatt’s “Drive South.” And that’s how we roll, with the ones we love.
Jim Lauderdale led the troops through a wonderful version of “Wildwood Flower” with its old world lyrics and ageless melody. That’s definitely taking it back to the roots. Thanks to everyone, and their voices, for wing-ding of a show.