I write this from Northern Ireland, the morning after our second MCR at the Empire Music Hall and the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival. I can’t even begin to tell you dear friends how special it was. Though the word, worn out from overuse, falls short. So let’s also say awe inspiring, tear-jerking, heart-lifting, world-embracing. I’ll have much more to say about the show and our trip soon. But I think the reason I’m thinking “special” thoughts is that this coming Wednesday, upon our return to the Factory, we’ll be welcoming back decades-spanning Chicago bluegrass band Special Consensus to our stage, along with the beautiful-in-every-way Lera Lynn, North Carolina acoustic quartet Mipso and songwriter Chris Porter. So while we always shoot for special, this one has a better than even chance of achieving said benchmark.
I’ve been eagerly anticipating the return visit of Lera Lynn because she was so bewitching when she played Roots in 2011. At the time I said: “With a literally lyrical name and a cool retro nonchalance, she (came) with built in stage presence. And then the songs. My word. It was all nerve exposing candor and delicious melodies, built into arrangements that really go somewhere.” In the meantime, she’s achieved some of the star potential we saw that summer evening. I saw her in feisty rocker mode at SXSW a bit after her Loveless performance. She played Letterman, Prairie Home Companion and other high profile appearances. Recently she released The Avenues, an album that made a bunch of best-of-2014 lists (mine included, if I’d done one) and when her single for the project came out, I played “Out To Sea” over and over, dreaming of waves, which is what the record sounds like.
We’ve not had much bluegrass of late on the old Factory stage, but we’ll fix that but good with a double dose of banjo bandos. There’s a consensus that Special Consensus is a giant of Midwestern bluegrass, with a history that stretches back more than 35 years. I’ve compared the band in the past to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and not only because they’ve been known to break into a little jazz. In this case Art is Greg Cahill, a banjo player and educator so good he taught the Punch Brothers phenom Noam Pikelny how to play. Cahill has been the leader and constant star as generations of young players joined, played and improved in a sort of academy-in-action. Special C has toured internationally, recorded widely, most recently for Compass Records, and in the fall of 2014 they took two IBMA Awards for tracks on a CD concept album covering songs by John Denver. I see from their Facebook page that the quartet recently visited the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, which makes one more thing we have in common with them, besides love of good music.
Mipso is interesting, and not just because of its Middle Earthy name. They’re further proof that college campuses, in this case the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, can be great breeding grounds for emerging bluegrass believers and bands. In that respect they follow in the footsteps of the Steep Canyon Rangers, who are mates of theirs. But they’re even a bit more edgy in their vocal arrangements and songwriting. They claim the mantle of “renegade traditionalists” who “take three-part harmony and Appalachian influences into new territory.” When I first discovered the guys through a Bluegrass Situation video session, they were a trio of dudes. But in the past year or two they added fair fiddler Libby Rodenbaugh who seems to be taking a major role in the vocal profile of the outfit. How lovely that we could welcome this former Music City Roots super-intern back to the show as an artist. That’s a rare and in some ways unprecedented situation.
I’ll be hearing Chris Porter for the first time, but he’s been making “handmade American music” for some time with Alabama-based bands the Back Row Baptists and more recently Some Dark Holler. He’s recently moved to Austin and seems to be rolling out the Chris Porter solo show, which he says features, at least in part, ”dark and desperate stories of real American life.” Keep it real, we’ve been known to say.
So wish us luck as we trundle our selves and gear back to Dublin and then on the plane back to Nashville. We’re missing home, but we sure love sharing the Roots vibe, story and sound with audiences and communities around the world. Google Translate tells me the Irish word is speisialta. Like all Irish, I can’t pronounce it. But I feel it.