Folks, we’ve been schooled. Five artists with ties to Nashville’s Belmont University played the Loveless Barn Wed night and showed our audience how its done, from joyful neo-traditional to barn-burning rock, with stagecraft, songwriting and instrumental chops to spare. Two of the bands already have national buzz and stature. One’s opening doors overseas. Two are on the make with bright prospects. What are they teaching those kids over there?
It’s cool when a theme night can still have so much diversity. And it started with the shaggy, brassy old time of the Westbound Rangers. Their opener “Stonewall” about the venerable Confederate general sounded like an homage to Grandpa Jones, while the really fresh reading of “Gospel Plow” lent new life to that rarely covered gem. They offered up a nice calm country songs, proving they can handle that too, and their “Hesitation Blues” tilted more jug band than jam band with a swinging kazoo solo. To a man the Rangers are excellent, good-humored guys, and it comes shining through their round-one-mike performances.
Newcomer Leah Korbin made a nice impression with folk rock that would sound great on a Lilith Fair bill. Playing with two of our Roots crew fellers on drums and guitars, she was a fresh new voice from the current student body. That paved the way for Shirock, a five-piece whose core husband-and-wife duo showed up as a stripped down three piece. There was no shortage of energy or power however, as he (Chuck) and she (Pap) blasted orchestral power chords on piano and guitar in a manner that evoked the style of Coldplay or U2. Their song “Still Young” is anticipated as an upcoming single in the UK, where they should find a ready audience for their Britishly inspired brand of rock.
All these acts so far were and are super solid, distinctive and moving forward. The final two acts of the night are, in this correspondent’s humble take-it-or-leave-it opinion, as good as any bands in American popular music right now. During both sets I just ached to see them doing their thing on Saturday Night Live, where so many slots are wasted with the fashionable but insubstantial. The Kopecky Family Band and Apache Relay, proudly of Nashville, each blend depth and creativity with the kind of catchy, memorable bites that make for hits. I would dearly love to own an indie label with them as my roster.
Kopecky does their thing with imagination and an appreciation for eclecticism that I first fell for in the music of the Talking Heads and even the B-52s. It’s smart and you can dance to it. The Family kicked off with “Birds” which made good use of the band’s many textures and timbres: whistling, glockenspiel and various electric hums and vibrations. “Heartbeat,” a new one from an upcoming album, was blazingly forceful but still wired taught with snappy time. And then after “Wandering Eye” featured awesome trombone-fueled fullness, most of the band left the stage, leaving leaders Gabe Simon and Kelsey Kopecky to do a simple, elegant song called “Change” that ranks as one of my favorite performances of the past year. It was proof that for all their quirky touches, The KFB is built on songs and musicality.
The same could be said of Apache Relay, but their style is strikingly different. Launched as a rather folky outfit, just these few years later they’ve evolved into a rock band with a fiddle. I hope Robert Plant and John Paul Jones (recent denizens of the Americana universe) know about this band, because they’d see some of their Zeppelin selves in them, including Michael Ford Jr.’s charismatic vocal leadership. They opened with a trippy cover of Springsteen’s “State Trooper” and moved on to a mix of new and familiar material. Even since their last Roots appearance, they have more guys (six on Wed night), more electricity, more tribal rhythm and more stratospheric angst and passion. Early last year I tapped Apache Relay as one of five Americana acts to watch for a Southwest Airlines magazine feature, and I think I got that one right, even if the roots in their sound are more subtle now. And anyway, who can argue with a band that really rocks?
Our curriculum concluded with a Loveless Jam performance of “Don’t Let Me Down” from the Lennon/McCartney catalog, which comes with a perfect sing-along chorus. Thanks so much to the Belmont folks for the work you do in music and music business and especially to our friend Dan Keen for being such a champion of emerging artistry without boundaries. We could all learn from that example.