Submitted by admin on May 23, 2013 – 21:31

It looked for much of the day that we’d have a stormy night at the Loveless Barn, with all the muck and discouragement that entails, but the afternoon cleared up and by the 6 pm doors opening/chicken dinner it was nothing but golden hour light and birds chirping and breezes blowing through the wide open doors. And of course when you have a night of bluegrass and folk rock ahead of you, this is the kind of mood setter you’re looking for. With a bill heavy on emerging talent, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But as usual, our savvy booking team enlarged my musical universe with some surprising new voices.

New Yorker Sara Syms hit the stage with a crackerjack four-piece Nashville band. Opener “The Devil Came Around” had the form and melody of an old Appalachian ballad, but the electric textures of Buddy Miller-esque Americana country rock. Chris Casello decorated the air with intense colors on his electric guitars. “Dance On My Grave” featured mallets on tom toms for a spectral tone and lyrics that were both a celebration and a lament. Similarly shifting between light and dark was “Fade To Blue,” the title track from Sara’s debut album which had the interesting trick of building its melody off of a single chord that shifted from major to minor. Syms was in touch emotionally and engaging vocally, getting us off to a fine start.

I’ll just go ahead and call Striking Matches the real-life Scarlett and Gunnar, even though I have no idea about the relationship of duo members Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis. It’s just nice to imagine they have some steamy soap opera life story, because they sure have chemistry on stage. They came out with twin acoustic guitars and ripped into an energetic riff that set up “Trouble Is As Trouble Does,” where their vocal union proved crisp and clear and powerful. Then Zimmerman showed the nuance and depth of her voice on the song that got them attached to the TV show Nashville, where characters Scarlett and Gunnar blew us all away with “When The Right One Comes Along.” The Striking Matches interpretation of the song was even more tender and affecting. To make such a well-worn and sentimental subject come to life with such freshness and beauty is a real accomplishment, and their performance will remain a high point of this season for me. To round out the set, Sarah played some power picking electric mandolin and did a nice acoustic slide solo. Never mind all the fire puns we threw around after the set; these guys are genuinely striking.

So was Casey Wasner. So low-key and unassuming in person. I figured he’d be another folky guy with a song in his heart. Instead (and I’m still sort of shaking my head in disbelief over this) we got a blast of expertly crafted, complex pop/R&B with strong influences of Steely Dan and Steve Wonder. A horn section stabbed and swooped with jazz precision. The rhythm section, including stellar keyboard work from David Cohen, forged a deep pocket groove on every tune. And up front, leading this six-piece ensemble with seemingly no effort whatsoever, was young Casey, singing darting, daring melodies over warm, fascinating chords. This was stellar, surprising stuff and I hope his newly energized effort to get out there as an artist after years in support of others pays off.

To bring things home, we were in more familiar territory as friend-of-the-show Frank Solivan and his awesome Dirty Kitchen band returned to the Loveless stage. And they did so with a rush of energy and textbook perfect musicianship. “I Fell Short” from the new On The Edge album is speedy and high and lonesome with densely clustered three-part vocals. The voices soared even higher on “Gone,” with its melancholy tone and memorable melody. And then just when I thought I knew everything FSDK has in its repertoire, they sprung a Pure Prairie League cover of “Country Song” on us. With lead vocals by bassist Danny Booth and a smoking chorus that sounded like the Osborne Brothers in a time machine, the tune also was a perfect vehicle for a jam, and shortly the band was passing two-bar solos around, bringing the energy higher and higher. The instrumental intricacies continued on the final tune of the set, banjoist Mike Munford’s composition “M80,” which is of course named for the biggest firecrackers that can be sold lawfully.

So it was a night of fiery metaphors with hot playing and singing all around. Including a very crafty Loveless Jam on the venerable “Sitting On Top Of The World.” Our own Jim Lauderdale got the assembled throng to kick off with a funky shaky groove, and then after a while it double timed into a kick-ass bluegrass kind of thing. Tight solos. Great singing. On top of the world indeed.

Craig H.

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