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Strings Attached – 9.9.15 Reviewed

I caught the first half of Stephen Colbert’s first Late Show on Tuesday and finished it after arriving home from Roots on Wednesday night. Little did I know that on top of our fine night at The Factory, I was in for one of the most exciting media moments for Americana music since O Brother. Please see my personal blog for extended remarks on this, but let’s say if we feature the Nashville Jam, Late Night’s closing number (“Everyday People”) was a magnificent National Jam and one that foretold a major new platform for roots, jazz, soul and generally excellent American music. By bringing on New Orleans/New York musician Jon Batiste as band leader (and special opening-night guests like Mavis Staples, Brittany Howard, Derek Trucks and Buddy Guy), Colbert is placing trust in the public and bringing intelligent music curation to network television, something that’s been lacking for decades.

Our own show was a wonderful run from deep bluegrass to heady classical crossover with super-solid Americana in between, with even more mandolins and bowed instruments than usual. We opened with a bonus performance by our Tamworth Australia friend and Aboriginal songwriter Warren Williams, who’d made a lifetime dream trip to Nashville to cut an album. He and singing partner Dani Young performed a duet called “Desert Water” with some heart-tweaking harmonies. Then the mandolins took over the world as leaders and campers from the Monroe Mandolin Camp hit the stage. Six mandolins by my count, plus a guitar to keep the groove, picked “Bluegrass Breakdown” with solo turns by each. Mike Compton was the ostensible leader, while Roland White held down senior veteran status. The youth brigade was Casey Campbell and Chris Henry, each of whom brings a personal style to the Monroe canon. Henry’s vocal duet with David Davis on “Live And Let Live” was a pure old-school highlight. And on the ballad “Louisiana Moonlight Waltz” triple mandolins made a harmonious shiver on the beautiful theme.

The harmony action shifted to female voices as the Bay Area’s T Sisters came on, opening with an a cappella cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” the one in which “every little thing gonna be all right.” Their own “Sonnet #4” added two dude musicians on bass and mandolin and conjured a beguiling mood. “Thief” pushed out big dramatic vocal gestures and showed the ladies at peak, soulful power. Then there was a minor-key riff on “This Train” and a fraught love song as set closer called (I think) “Sticks And Stones.” Andy Allen-Fahlander played some smoking mandolin and electric guitar solos. The group is set to play an Americana showcase next week. I’m sure the City Winery audience will find T Sisters as glowing, warm and joyful as we did.

I always remind people that Americana is a framework and a format but not a genre, yet if you forced me to think of a particular sound of Americana as genre, it would be the acoustic/electric jangle country of Steve Earle, Chris Knight, Rod Picott and this week’s guest Stephen Simmons. Robust melodies were answered by silvery electric guitar lines from the trusty instrument of Dave Coleman. Molly Jewel offered delicate harmonies from her keyboard. And Simmons himself is 100% pretention-free and clearly communicative as a singer. Opener “Spark” was tight and tuneful. The narrator lights out for the “West” in the song of that name. The road trip song “The Music Highway” was moody and atmospheric. And I loved the closer, a country tune with 70s soul called “Hard It Goes.” The “it” is love, by the way.

I had a nice chat with Simmons as our stage team displayed Formula One pit crew professionalism, setting up one of the trickiest acts we’ve had in under five minutes. And that got things ready for the eleven-person Annie Moses band. Yet “band” is an understatement I think for this sumptuous string ensemble, complete with two keyboards, drums and harp. Six siblings made the front line, with Annie Wolaver at the center with her voice and violin. The music and arrangements were refined and grownup but also kind of rocking, and the singing, whether Annie alone with her moving soprano or in ensemble mode, was powerful and deeply layered. The orchestrations had Gershwin lushness, and there were strong allusions to Celtic music without lapsing into Riverdance cheese. “Chocktaw Cowboy” was an instrumental evoking newgrass with a hard stomp and lead mandolin from Gretchen Wolaver. Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” started moody and soared to a heady, rapturous ending. Then they offered a ferocious and inspiring take on the Hoe Down section of Aaron Copland’s score for the ballet Rodeo, which premiered in 1942. As I said on stage, we’ve heard it in commercials and movies, but it’s simply a smashing piece of Americana and the Annie Moses Band played it with passion. Wrapping things up overall was a well arranged Nashville Jam on “I Saw The Light.”

The Late Show’s Jon Batiste has conceptualized something he calls “social music” which looks like a portable band popping up in the middle of the city on some random day and time and creating a party and/or parade with a tambourine, a melodica and some horns. It’s something to which more musicians should aspire. We can’t parade around at Roots, being on the radio and all, but our show felt like “social music” and we hope we live up to that every week.

Craig H.

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