Summer is languid in the South, encouraging slower motion and softer sounds. It’s the season of the blues and cold sweet tea and the refuge of air conditioning. And this week’s return to the stage after a two-week break features a bit of all that – while building toward a fourth-quarter climax that might come off like a fever dream. On hand will be the sublime voices of Erin Rae and the Honey Dewdrops, plus the vital country picking and singing of the Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley duo. And we’ll welcome back the maestro of Southern jam band surrealism, Col. Bruce Hampton. I’m as excited about any one as all the others.
I’d almost given up my vigil trying to get the Honey Dewdrops on the show, but here they come, perhaps the most underrated traditional Americana duo on the scene today. They don’t yet enjoy the profile of Gillian and Dave or the Milk Carton Kids, but songwriters Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish produce a sound at least as haunting and lovely. Meanwhile their songs brim with ideas and fresh imagery. I really latched on to their 2010 album These Old Roots with its ancient tones and sweet close harmonies. With the newest project, 2015’s Tangled Country, the duo fleshes out its spare sound with steel guitar and a few other timbral touches. They analyze love gone cold in opener “Same Old” and gently poke fun at modern online life with “Young.” They pursue a familiar country music form but they do so with elegance and originality.
Similarly lovely and lilting is the indie folk of Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles. I saw Erin perform solo a couple years back, I think at a short Americana Fest set, and her song “Soon Enough” hooked in my memory. She worked its minimal waltz time to great emotional effect. And lo and behold that became the title track of a sonically delicious debut album released last year. She’s a native of Jackson, TN where she grew up with active folk music performing parents. Nashville writer Andrew Leahey penned this for her web site about the current project: “The group played live, tracking their parts together to capture the spirit of their concerts. There was no studio wizardry, no click track, no digital enhancement. Instead, the album — which Erin co-produced with Michael Rinne, Rodney Crowell’s touring bassist — serves as a gorgeous, no-frills Polaroid of Erin Rae and Meanwhiles’ sound, a sound they’ve been sharpening ever since the release of the Crazy Talk EP in 2010.” If you’re a fan of the clear-voiced ladies of roots music – Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz for example, you’ll find a lot to fall for here.
We enjoyed a big breakout set by Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley when they rolled out their duo project in 2014. I covered them in detail then because Rob’s an icon on the dobro, the most interesting instrument in the world, and because Trey is a guy that Rob and his former bandmates in Blue Highway spotted early on as a hot newcomer in country music of the triple threat variety: singing, songwriting and guitar picking. From my review of their set: “They brought the blues with a feisty take on Stevie Ray’s “Pride And Joy” and surprised with a superb “Friend of the Devil” with a free and open breakdown that let both instrumentalists show their gifts. This was even more of a picking set than a singing set for me, but Hensley’s voice is definitely something amazing with smoky colors and mature phrasing.” Now they’ve got a new recording called The Country Blues that extends their repertoire and musical relationship. It also has a cow on the cover, which ought to happen more often.
Our closing set presents problems for this predictive prognosticator, because Col. Bruce Hampton has built a career on the unpredictable. One of the true cult heroes of American music and especially Southern jam rock, Col. Bruce has been on the scene since around 1970 when he began fronting oddball bands, collaborating with visionary musicians and mining the avant-garde underground like John Henry in his tunnel. Hampton’s most famous band, arguably, and the one that produced jaw-dropping memories for me, was The Aquarium Rescue Unit, which first rose to prominence on the early 90s H.O.R.D.E. tours. With now famous musicians like guitarist Jimmy Herring and bassist Otiel Burbridge, they took the trickiest and most soulful bits of the Allman Brothers and welded them to psychedelic wonder and pure artistic freedom. He’s funny and whimsical and can be counted on for musical surprise.
So settle in for Summer. We’ve got weeks ahead of tangled musical kudzu and if the year so far is any indicator, we’ll make memories – some sublime, some strange.