Hey MCR Audience, you absolutely astound me and make us all proud. You impressed Chester Thompson too. After his set, the drummer seemed really wide-eyed and fulfilled and he told me he was knocked out by how responsive the crowd was to his contemporary jazz trio. And I agree, you were. Show me another show where this is possible – attracting a crowd with the name of a very hot rock and roll band and then placing before them a spread of wildly different music, including vintage East Tennessee country crooning, deep honky tonk and a piano trio, and having it all work. You guys applauded at all the right moments and whooped and shouted support during Chester’s drum solos. Through time, so-called opening acts that were a bit different or a bit unknown have endured indifference and even hostility. You, dear music-loving audience, deserve a place in music history. You are magnanimous mavens of masterful musicianship.
The packed five-star, five-artist bill started with Brian Whelan, whose style as a bandleader and singer and writer is little like the neo-Bakersfield twang he helps make as a veteran of Dwight Yoakam’s band. This was twin Telecaster, fuzztoning, downstroking rock and roll that might remind a Roots fan of Tim Carroll. Whelan cast a somewhat jaundiced eye on our favorite radio format in opening song “Americana” and brought a romantic pop shimmer with “Go Dancing.” Whelan and his lead guitarist Harrison Whitford (son of Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford) traded solos nicely on “Number One Fan.” It was power that let beauty shine through.
The parlor formality of Johnson City band Bill & The Belles helped set the throwback, timewarp tone of their set, but not half as much as the crooning tenor of their voices and the gentle, immaculate swing of their old acoustic instruments. It was a 78 RPM shellac record come to life. What a wonderful and authentically American sound they made, kicking off with “I Told Them All About You,” which I knew from a Doc Watson/David Grisman recording. This take, with a glimmering trio of voices – Mr. Kris Truelson, Ms. Kalia Yeagle and Ms. Grace Vant Hof – was light and effervescent. The ladies conspired on the duet “The Lonesome Blues,” which came off as wry and funny and heart stirring. Then Yeagle led the way on her fiddle for the dance number “Magnolia One Step,” played with immaculate old-time timing. This is why we cherish the artists who are keeping old songs and old ways of singing alive, because they create unmatchable flavors of delight.
Just after interviewing Brian Whelan in part about his experience working for Dwight Yoakam, out came Girls Guns and Glory with lead singer Ward Hayden sounding a bit like Dwight with a yodel crack in his crooning voice and edgy honky tonk surging forth from the band. They offered a vintage rock and roll go-go twister on the whimsical “Shake Like Jello” and told the mournful story of “Centralia, PA” (the abandoned town with the four-decade coal mine fire beneath it). Throughout, the Boston quartet showed country and western panache and great spirits, which they took to the stage of our after-party at Kimbro’s for a rousing Hank Williams sing-along.
Special medal of merit this week goes to our team’s video crew chief Eric Martin, a veteran of Roots and a man with a deep and idiosyncratic love of music. He shaped this week’s show in two ways. First, he recommended Nashville singer/songwriter Darrin Bradbury to work with Aly Sutton on a new Vietti Chili song. What he came up with was a dry talking blues that cast Vietti in every chapter of American history, like some kind of Zelig foodstuff. It was hilarious, especially with Aly adding dramatic but deadpan Vietti choruses. But even more consequentially, Eric lobbied for about two years to get drummer Chester Thompson on our lineup. For Eric, it was about Chester’s history with Frank Zappa, about whom Eric is as close to an expert as I’ve ever met. For me, the thrill was hearing quality jazz performed on our stage. The tunes, written in all cases I think by band pianist Joe Davidian, had a sweet balance of complexity and accessibility. “Elation” had Latin syncopation and chewy harmonies. The tunes got more involved until the closer, “Simpler Times” stood out as easily my favorite, with a carefully composed theme and a funky fusion feeling that could have easily come from Chester’s former employer Weather Report. Forecast: sunny audience with a 100% chance of standing ovation.
The smokin’ section of the evening continued when Blackberry Smoke hit the stage with an all acoustic front line and a drummer settled in behind a slimmed down, suitcase kit. This spare instrumentation, blended with Brandon Still’s gorgeous Hammond organ, really put the focus on the strongest of this Southern rock band’s strong suits, its songwriting. Charlie Starr doesn’t just retread the old genre tires. His songs have Music Row craftsmanship and musical twists and turns. He finds non-obvious ways to get to a timeless American feeling. “Swallow your pride just to make your family proud,” he sang in his nice leathery voice on “One Horse Town.” He played tasty country fingerstyle guitar on “Ain’t Got The Blues,” while half the audience sang along. “Lay It All On Me” felt like vintage Randy Newman at a folk hootenanny, with great chord changes. And while they earned an encore of “Pretty Little Lies,” it was the official set closer that really took me back to my own rock and roll awakenings. “Ain’t Much Left Of Me” is pretty simple but its hearty music, lonesome country lyrics and tinges of psychedelic jam just hit all my buttons. Paul Jackson sang spot on harmonies. The band swayed on bright sky chords. And I slipped into some kind of Appalachian Cheerwine Richard Petty reverie. For all its paradoxes and contradictions, I do love the South.
Jim Lauderdale led the Nashville Jam on the old classic “Sitting On Top Of The World,” featuring more fingerstyle precision from Charlie Starr. After a lineup like that, with its variety and intensity, that’s the only place one could be.