Who needs amplifiers? When the Nashville Jam got underway on Wednesday night after a fine show with an ode to that steel drivin’ man John Henry, there were, by my count, four acoustic guitars, three fiddles, two mandolins, one each of a banjo, bass and cello – and quite possibly a partridge in a pear tree on Keith Bilbrey’s side of the stage. On the show itself , we had a steel driving band, an impactful songwriter and a couple of strong string bands. Powerful stuff it was, but like my favorite kind of diplomacy, we export soft power.
We’ve become fond of earthy, eclectic bands such as the Ragbirds and Elephant Revival, and Taarka fits right in to that school of worldly newgrass. Their grooves and backbeats were delightfully layered and syncopated and their instrumental prowess proved top notch throughout an absorbing set. Lead vocals toggled between husband and wife David and Enion Pelta-Tiller. His songs, including the wistful “Pollyann” waxed a bit nostalgic. Hers, like “Heart and Song” were full of encouragement and spirit. They showed real chamber group connection on a Celtic tinged instrumental (including stellar guitar picking from Mike Robinson) and closed the set at a speedy clip. They showed a lot of range, but hey they live in a Colorado mountain range.
Superficially similar in instrumentation but very different in style was the Ransom Notes, comprised of three siblings who’ve been making traditional music together for a long time; it showed in their glances and familial connections. With two fiddles and a cello in between, they came out of the gate at a swift pace on “Cherokee Shuffle” and largely kept up the quick tempos in a bluegrass vein. The exceptions were a stylish “House of the Rising Sun” and a Civil Wars cover of “Devil’s Backbone” with a nice steady drone behind an Appalachian melody. The trio said they always end their shows with an original called “Catharsis” and its blazing speed and virtuoso fiddling earned a standing ovation.
There were no overlapping songs from Parker Millsap’s first set at Roots a couple years ago and this week’s, because he’s all about showcasing his new material from the upcoming album The Very Last Day. It appears I didn’t take a lot of notes because I was kind of transfixed. He has such a striking voice with both a powerful low end and a Hank Williams-ish crack and cry. His lyrics are drum tight as is his longstanding supporting group of Daniel Foulks on fiddle and Michael Rose on bass. The stunner of the set was “Heaven Sent,” sung from the point of view of a gay son unburdening himself to his fundamentalist preacher father. Melancholy and uncomprehending of the gulf that separates them, it’s just a masterpiece of humanity. We’re all looking forward to his new release a lot.
And that brought us to the hammers and steel of the SteelDrivers, a band of effortless mastery and locked in synergy. They sort of warmed up their strings and Gary Nichols’s voice for a few moments of meditative sound before punching into “Long Way Down” with its crisp fiddle/banjo theme and its wolf cry of a lyric. “Day Before Temptation” is a ‘what if’ song with a dark edge. Then the band continued its terrific string of Civil War (the event not the band) songs with the stunningly beautiful “River Runs Red.” War’s an ugly subject, but they redeem it with a lush and lovely chorus. All along the way, the SteelDrivers seduce with their attention to detail and their consummate musicality. Every note starts at the right instant and grows or dies with dynamism. The background vocal cooing and ooing is spot on, and even it swings. Tammy Rogers is just a wonder with her vigorous, bluesy fiddle. The overall sound is just as integral and tight as a well built guitar. Our very full house was clearly anticipating this set and they rewarded it amply.
The “John Henry” was a nice throwback nightcap that gave a lot of musicians and singers time in the spotlight. Turns out we didn’t need drums to have a bang up start to 2016. We look forward to a fun year ahead.