With more than 85 Top 10 singles to his credit, 60+ million spins of his songs and a spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Jeffrey Steele can do whatever he wants. He could ride a personal hovercraft to every Kenny Chesney beach party or throw models-only soirees in the owner’s suite at every Taylor Swift stadium concert. But what does he do? He writes clever, bone-hard country songs that would have been smash hits in decades past and gathers together nine of his top drawer musician friends to breathe life into them. And then, to our immeasurable pleasure and honor, he brings said ensemble to a little stage like ours in Nashville’s backyard. And I could say a similar thing about Robben Ford. He’s not a household name, but in the world of classy theaters, performing arts center and blues/jazz venues, he’s the man. Neither of these gifted guys needed to do it, but they did. They bookended this week’s Music City Roots, making a journey from steel guitar to real deal guitar that left me and our team and our audience swooning.
Keith Bilbrey and Jim Lauderdale returned on this snowy, bitter February night after lighting out for a couple of different music festival Caribbean cruises (a business we’re still wondering why we didn’t get into). Jim sang his fabulous and restful “Whisper” to get the show underway, surrounded by the many instruments and amps that would convey the Sons of the Palomino’s magic. When that band took the stage, with Steele up front in a blue rhinestone Nudie-style jacket, they fired up that polished but loose perfection that’s made Nashville studios the envy of the world. It sounded like a great record. Opener “Authentic” was a boot scooting grinder that lived up to its title. The two harmony vocalists, almost invisible behind all those guitarists, piped up strong on a two-stepping song about runnin’ round and comin’ back. Jeffrey really showed his vocal versatility on a power ballad called “When Lonely Calls,” cha-chinging the big money note in the chorus a half dozen times. And there was a diesel-powered trucker song too. It was all spectacular, but I want to tip the MCR cap especially to Paul Franklin, arguably the greatest steel guitar player alive. I was right near him as he played with his usual lyrical delicacy and surging power, and it was like seeing a magician make doves appear from a matchbox.
Stomping, hollering electrified folk music has its own niche in today’s Americana, and the Underhill Family Orchestra of Mobile, AL brought that feeling this week. Streaked in Apache war paint, they didn’t come off as ferocious so much as celebratory and lusty as they coaxed everyone to join in on the refrain “Come on, let’s go!” Then they painted pretty sunset colors with mandolin tremolo on “Tumbleweeds and Kale.” They got more tender on the guitar arpeggio driven “Hackamack” and they sang rave up gospel with a take on “Down By The Riverside.” With up to five voices at once, they orchestrated a fine set.
We went from full stages with lots of gear to one guy seated center stage with lots of gear. I mean GEAR. More pedals and pads and keyboards and loopers and sound generators than maybe have ever surrounded any one musician on MCR. In the hands of some, this conglomeration of toys could become a giant self-indulgent mess. But this was Zach Deputy and he’s a name you need to remember. He made loops with his breath and his guitar. He programmed drum and percussion beats on the fly. And he played his six-string through gear that made it sound like a bass or an electric jazz fusion axe or and even a whole horn section. It had stunning groove but what it really had was the soul and fluidity and rhythmic energy of Zach’s voice. The guy’s a bear-like, always smiling bearded guru who’s honed not just his musicianship and his facility with all those buttons, he’s a commanding, enthralling performer who’s layering folk rock over his first love, Calypso and Soca music. He was like Taj Mahal with a big computer. That’s not something I knew we needed but yes we did, according to the rousing standing ovation.
Robben Ford did a wonderful job describing his approach to his music in our chat room prior to his set, calling it a blues foundation blended with self-taught harmonic depth. He sure put that to the test in the final set of the night, with a guitar attack that rocked hard while striking unexpected color tones and beautiful dissonances. In another sign of his sophistication, his songs had a plan. “Midnight Comes Too Soon” traveled from a greasy blues riff to a patient, quiet conclusion that pulled us to the edges of our seats to hear the details. Ford has a splendid, companionable voice that feels somewhere between Sonny Landreth and Oliver Wood. He sang in funkier vein on a visually funny song “High Heels and Throwing Things” and then came my favorite of the set and his new album, the sparkling, moody “Rose of Sharon” that brings new harmonic tensions to an old form. Ford did all this by the way in the efficient format of a power trio, with Brian Allen laying down perfect electric bass and the wonderful Wes Little on drums. Both those guys got expansive solo time during the set, further lending to the jazz-wise vibe.
Ford wrapped with an original instrumental shuffle that paid homage to the great Texan Freddie King. Then Lauderdale returned with the night’s musicians for a Nashville Jam on Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” That consummate professionalism was on display again. All in synch. All the parts and solos immaculate. These people amaze us. They can do whatever they want, and we’re beyond glad that they share it with us