Music grabs us when we’re young, and decisions (if they can be called that) to pursue it as a career are often made in the lusty heat of pre-adult enthusiasm. So I’ve long been deeply impressed by the mid-life, mid-career gamers working in their third or fourth decade of this capricious, crazy, dreamy field – the ones with a great attitude and a large reserve of that same lusty heat that propelled them. Neither old nor young, neither famous nor obscure, neither rich nor struggling, they validate everything that’s noble and important about songwriting, composing, performing and expressing one’s self in public. They’ve seen epochal shifts in their business and seen every style and sound and obscure artist splayed across YouTube in an all-you-can eat cultural buffet, and still they create. Gas has skyrocketed in price, their vans never became busses, and still they drive, set up and give their audiences – sometimes large and sometimes small – the full measure of their attention, respect and skill.
I’m in this frame of mind after enjoying wonderful performances Wednesday night by Kristi Rose & Fats Kaplin, Susan Werner and Randall Bramblett. Gamers and lifers all. During the show, it was crackling electricity and passion. This next morning, as I reflect on the show (a great privilege by the way) the music still reverberates in my brain, but I’m overwhelmed by something else. I’m in awe of the commitment.
Kristi and Fats – great friends and supporters of our show – are veterans of the biz but their music on the show sounded farmer’s market fresh. But then the couple has been out at Kristi’s family farm in Illinois composing and dreaming. They came up with set opener “What To Do,” which I could listen to on auto-repeat. So different from the torchy approach I associate with Ms. Rose. It had touches of Latin groove, R.E.M. Southern psychedelia and a twisty, rapid-fire chorus. Nothing in music works like surprise, and this one lit me up. Another fine new song was followed by the old favorite “Beautiful World” with its barn-rousing “hey hey” call and response sing along. Then Kristi stepped away so Fats could fiddle his way through a couple of instrumentals that have just come out on a reissue of his solo albums. He set up “Ghost Waltz” as something macabre, but I thought it was as pretty as morning light. Then “Little Egypt” got all Eastern gypsy, with a stripped down sound that paired the fiddle with only Justin Amaral’s muted hand drumming and claps, which was pretty riveting. Kristi returned to serenade us with some Sam Cooke music and her signature torchy touches.
Now bring on the belly dancer! Wait, I’m being told I need to tell you about the first half of the set by Chattanooga’s Strung Like A Horse, which did not include the belly dancer. But there WAS a mustachioed man in silver tails with a mandolin, a man named Spooky Chicklets in shades, black cutoff shorts and cowboy boots playing diabolic fiddle and a fur-lined amplifier with a gramophone horn sticking out the top. There was some head-banging and some swing, some brave, excellent singing and some throaty scat by a drummer named Sloth. This was the kind of thing one rarely sees from anybody but those in that flush of lusty youth I mentioned before. It was semi-hinged but always under control. And Lacy Jo, the slinky seductress who joins the band on stage for the epic, multi-mood song “Horizontal” completed the act. Thanks for being the first ever belly dancer on Music City Roots.
I gushed about Susan Werner in my preview, so I’ll try to keep it under control here. But dang she commands a stage in the most unassuming, inviting way. With a tidy little backup band of bass (Adam Chaffins) and guitar (Adam Davis) she became a radiant vessel of insight, humor and great tunes. Opener “Back To The Land” was a minor blues with a clickety-click forward motion. “City Kids” was full of wonderful wordplay, cheerful scorn and details that would only be known to a farmer’s kid. See, all these songs came from Susan’s new Hayseed album, a celebration of the farming life that studiously avoids farm song clichés. I learned, for example, about the concept of “Egg Money” in the song of that name, in which one of the sacred rules of farm couples is violated with mortal consequences. And then the hilarious “Herbicides” threw more scorn at agro-chemicals than a truck full of Greenpeace activists ever could. Such is the power of satire. And she wrapped with “Plant The Stars,” which is just pure poetry of sky and land.
As for James Wallace and the Naked Light, you’ll have to give me more time, because it’s complicated. His lyrics are complicated. His arrangements are complicated. His ideas and album titles are complicated. And I like complicated. It just takes some soak-in time. “To The River” opened the set with solemnity and beauty, which was interrupted by slamming intensity, followed by a bookend of solemnity and beauty. “Worse Things Have Happened” featured a big crushing rock chorus of keys and sax. It was a post-modern update of The Band in some ways. And the six-piece then set off into a ten-minute epic called “Saved At The Bottom” with a multitude of verses and tricky instrumental passages. Mr. Wallace has a vision, that’s for sure. We will perhaps always be trying to catch up with him.
There’s nothing tricky or abstract about Randall Bramblett. When you’ve been washed in the blood of blues, Southern soul and rock and roll, what you can bring is knowledge of yourself, a sharp voice and original songs. And Randall is a master of all the above. As a singer, he’s an understated Delbert McClinton, with a luxurious mix of the mellow and the rugged. He’s a musical magician who can get up from his keyboard and blow a hot sax solo as he did on his set opener “John The Baptist.” His gifts of melody were manifest on “Every Saint,” which was built on a hypnotic glowing riff laid down by guitarist Nick Johnson. This one was stunning. “Til The Party’s All Gone” mingled natural and programmed drums in a seductive groove and while the song stuck to its easy premise, it partied without entering knucklehead territory as “party” songs so often do. And then came more sharp, harmonically interesting guitar and keyboard interplay backed Randall’s rippling vocal on “Roll,” which brought the set home with old time funky goodness.
But that was just regulation. Overtime took us to a Loveless Jam performance (“What’d I Say”) for the ages. Jim Lauderdale hit his soul stride for the opening verse, and everyone offered great vocals and Randall Bramblett kept that signature left hand bass line rolling along. The call and response with the audience on those famous Ray Charles groans we all politely pretend aren’t orgasmic, were insanely fun. That’s the feeling you get when everybody is committed.