Col. Bruce Hampton pulled his mind warping feats of time/space distortion Wednesday night for our talent ministress Laurie Dashper. He guessed her birthday (he does this with bizarre ease and regularity) and then read her mind about a series of items and numbers. I didn’t witness this first hand, but Laurie looked a little pale and shaky when she related the encounter backstage during our slightly cosmic episode of Roots. Col. Bruce also committed some alchemy on stage as well of course, alongside his newest young musical discovery, electric steel guitar scion AJ Ghent, whipping the audience into a second set standing ovation. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because in Col. Bruce’s universe, that’s entirely possible.
This joyful night of Southern jam and sacred steel music was more or less the brainchild of Jeff Mosier, long-time friend and former band-mate of Col. Bruce. So Jeff and brother Johnny played two sets, one electrified and one – our show opener – acoustic. “Faces” was a chillsville folk-grass tune with a breezy melody, and a cover of “Gentle On My Mind” went out to its writer John Hartford and its best-known singer Glen Campbell.
Gentle too was the opening of Col. Bruce’s set, but it didn’t stay that way. The song’s called “Arkansas” but you’d guess its title was “It’s About Time,” given the way that refrain repeats over and over against a slow, slippery beat. The groove was deeply satisfying and the Colonel sang like a man possessed by the spirit of Howlin’ Wolf. As usual, he brought a superb rhythm section consisting of Nashville session drummer Nick Buda and keyboardist Jez Graham, who took on the role of bass player with his left hand while jamming away, inside and outside the harmony, with his right. This combo made a lean and nimble backing for AJ Ghent, who truly plays up to his nickname, J Wunder. I can’t explain why he showed up wearing a monk’s robes (“it’s comfortable” was all he could tell me), but around Col. Bruce, eccentricities seem normal. AJ’s crisp execution and butter-rich tone was apparent from the beginning and only got better as the evening evolved. He was truly in his element in the gospel standard “Right Now” and he added gleefully to the moment of sonic chaos in “Susan T.” By the end of the jazz infused closer “Basically Frightened” there were off-kilter ideas and righteous sounds flying everywhere. It was more than a little bit fun.
The Mosier Bros returned in electric mode for set three, adding drummer Will Groth and more guest jamming from AJ Ghent. The lap steel wunderkind got really country behind Jeff Mosier’s inspiring cover of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues.” And tunes like “Man In The Glass” showed the Mosiers’ skill at arranging and conducting the flow of a tune for maximum emotional effect. Jeff’s instrumental “Farewell To Lemmings” came directly from his days in Col. Bruce’s band the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and it swung between swing and hard jazz grass.
So the big energy sets came in the middle, and we eased into the end with a duo of AJ Ghent and his father Aubrey Ghent Sr. Just two guys, who truth be told didn’t look all THAT different in age, with two matching lap steel guitars, playing and singing great gospel songs with fiery leads and solos. Aubrey Sr. took some silken vocals on the good-advice song “Don’t Let The Devil Ride,” and yes, that means don’t even let him in the car. Then AJ showed that he’s got even bigger pipes with the lead on “I’ll Fly Away.” What can’t this guy do?
The minimalism of that set (very well received by the way by a super-tuned audience) was followed by the maximalism of the Loveless Jam, and it’s not often that we set up with so many musicians whose stock in trade is the jam. They bands picked Cream’s version of “I’m So Glad,” and Jim Lauderdale kicked it off with some gigantic vocals before handing off to our stage full of great singers and pickers. The solos, from the keys of Jez to the fiddle of Edward Hunter (Mosier Brothers band) were magnificent. The chorus was a full-throated anthem to how we all felt. Glad. Glad. Glad.