To prepare for this week’s prospectus, I put Amy Speace’s most recent album How To Sleep In A Stormy Boat on through my best pair of headphones and tried my best not to multi-task while enjoying it again. Enjoying is a wimpy little word for it actually. The effect is more like a therapeutic conversation with a wise friend while reclining in a hot spring. Speace has one of the richest and loveliest voices in the singer/songwriter genre (partly explaining her discovery by and collaboration with the silken-voiced Judy Collins), and her songs are luxuriously smart. Amy Speace will be performing at Roots this week, and on a night of relatively new bands and artists, I have a feeling she’ll provide the veteran’s gravitas and emotional anchor.
Our friend David Macias, founder of Thirty Tigers and a longtime champion of the artist, wrote this upon its release in April: “In the past year, Amy Speace had more than her share of living with grief, as well as health challenges that temporarily robbed her of the golden voice that provides her livelihood. As the storms of life raged, songwriting was her ballast and salvation, and the songs she wrote comprise this document to living gracefully with grief.”
The singer’s strange case of sudden laryngitis is harrowing and worth reading in full. There were other personal trials at play, but it would be a mistake to call this a somber album. If I may pile on the nautical metaphors, it’s like a still ocean that nevertheless can’t help but sparkle with light. Speace’s songs often employ insistent, accumulating lines that embellish on those that came before, fleshing out pictures that are both crystal clear and crystalline in their ability to refract a lot of meanings. She’s profoundly personal yet also a bit mythic. The remarkable song “The Sea & The Shore” is an allegory of dying love sung in dialogue between the stable, conservative land (her voice) and the inconstant, ebbing-and-flowing ocean (the voice of her songwriting friend John Fullbright). The imagery and the careful use of language is stunning and more evocative of classical poetry like that of John Donne than most contemporary Americana peers.
But then Speace knows her poetry. The Baltimore native made her early professional life in Manhattan as a director and actor of serious drama, most notably the National Shakespeare Company. Deep familiarity with Shakespeare is a boon for any artist, and Speace embraces both his thematic and linguistic daring with a seasoned sense of story and dramatic arc. It’s a wonder more songwriters don’t avail themselves of the lessons of the theater.
All the world may be a stage, but on Wednesday you should make a point to be in view of our stage at the Loveless because Speace is but one of five dramatis personae who’ll have their exits and their entrances.
Opening the night will be Hannah Aldridge, one of several artists visiting us of late (and this week) with ties to Muscle Shoals, AL, the unlikely focal point for two decades of epic record making in the heart of the humid South. Hanna’s dad Walt is a super-successful songwriter, and she’s embraced his roots in country and soul, while keeping her radar tweaked for new ideas to blend in to her polychromatic style. She’s earned nice attention regionally and in the UK, so we’ll be pleased to hear her Roots debut.
Our closers Iron Horse Bluegrass are from around Muscle Shoals as well. This quartet presents a fascinating paradox in that their original music would get any old-time, tradition stickler crowd up our of their festival chairs for rousing ovations. And at the same time, their alter egos have a side gig making covers albums for scrappy CMH Records that would turn the blue hairs’ blue hair purple. Check out their anthology-length bluegrass tributes to Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osborne, and Metallica, among others. Their take on “Enter Sandman” is up on their website, and it makes for a truly interesting and surprising arrangement of banjo, bass, mando and high lonesome voices.
Rounding out the night will be two bands that look like a lot of fun. Lulu Mae features spouses, siblings and friends in a contemporary family band from Nashville that can swing it folky or rock it righteously. And if they’re a bit urbane, then Midday Farm Report is a rural counterweight. The quartet pledges allegiance to cornbread, hot skillets and rusted roofs. So with guys like that on hand, it shouldn’t be hard to follow The Bard’s advice to “o’erstep not the modesty of nature.”