It’s one thing (and not an easy thing) to write a good song and perform it for a room full of strangers, just you and your guitar. But it’s quite another to take said guitar to a stage and become something larger – to cultivate an environment and draw everyone together into a state of empathy and belief. And to do that night after night, year after year… Well, that’s just crazy, but we know it’s possible, because last night at Music City Roots, Vance Gilbert and David Wilcox conjured something before our very eyes and ears. Both sets transcended performances of songs and became human experiences, full of wit, poignancy and insight. We were very sad to lose Nanci Griffith, also capable of such special shows, to illness. But we did not lack for special. All our artists brought it on a delightful autumn evening.
Barefoot got us off on the right, um, foot with punchy, driving, whimsical, rustic and soulful country/bluegrass. I had a lot to say about them in the preview blog, and they delivered on the promise of their fine American Story CD with songs from same, none of which sounded like the others. “Mr. Moonshine” sounded like a Norman Blake tune, with Todd Grebe laying down a great flattop riff and singing with laid-back timing. “Billy” was a pure a cappella number that really warmed up the room. The lush and gentle “Dust” glowed with the twinned voices of Angela Oudean and Nora Jane Struthers. And “Kill The Rooster” was a whole new kind of cheerful bluegrass murder song, one that promised a good fried chicken dinner.
Last night as well I at last had my knock-out experience with Brigitte DeMeyer. She’s been making the scene for a few years now with a lush voice and strong support from the musical community. I think her new album Rose of Jericho with its subtle but unmistakable allusions to the gospel, layered in rich organic musical textures, is where she’s found her groove. With a nice minimalist backing of bass and one extra guitar slung by the great Joe McMahan, Brigitte let her rich and slightly raspy voice fill the barn to great effect. Her bluesy, well-constructed “Say Big Papa” had a timeless feel, and by the time she dug into her set-closing “When I’m Gone,” she was channeling Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. DeMeyer, a Bay Area-to-Nashville transplant and an artist who pursued full-time music in mid-life after a significant career, is zeroing in on the sounds in her head, and they’re clearly worth sharing.
So that set up Vance Gilbert, who’s clearly well-known on the folk circuit, but dang if I had any impression before my stunning first impression last night. What a glowing personality. What a bold and funny embrace of his place as a black singer in a very white folk world. He introduced himself with wistful wit in the song “Goodbye Pluto,” which seems designed to tickle romantics and nerds in equal measure. It is literally about Pluto’s loss of planetary status, and if you can write compellingly about such esoterica, send me a CD. It even ended in a trance-like blend of guitar riff and vocal drone (circular breathing perhaps?) that amazed the crowd. But that was nothing. He earned a lightning quick standing ovation for his soaring “Unfamiliar Moon,” and then he had us in stitches with his monologue about who should cover the song, complete with Aaron Neville impression. And then, Gilbert, a former jazz singer apparently, did another impression – an original song imagining if Billie Holiday came back and recorded some really hip, up to date lyrics. In perhaps the funniest song ever performed at Roots, Gilbert made “My Bad” a gut-busting tour of current day songwriting clichés and youth-speak, voiced by the great Lady Day. I’m a Vance fan for life.
And for that matter I have been a fan much of my life of David Wilcox, though I’ve only experienced his recording. David in person is a striking, calming and almost spiritual figure. He has the magic ability to talk over a cycling guitar riff without sounding cheesy. He draws you in and seeks connection. He also has a mighty fan base who’s been in on the secret for 20+ years. And from backstage I could hear voices in the crowd singing along with the verses of “Eye Of The Hurricane,” a tale of a bold life and violent passing, that was one of my entrees to Wilcox world back in 1989 when it first came out. He also did “Rusty Old American Dream,” perhaps the catchiest song from that How Did You Find Me Hear album from back then. More recent stuff included “Winter By The Shore” with its grey-sky tone, exquisite inner rhymes and pictures of a shuttered amusement park. “Start With The Ending” was a good-advice love song that began with a great first-date story about his wife of many years. He ended with “Guitar Shopping,” which beautifully twisted awareness about the value of old instruments around the realizations of adulthood and middle age.
So if you’re looking for a clinic in stagecraft, fire up the Livestream archive of this show. It’s a complex thing to be simply compelling.