Once frumpy and once sketchy, East Nashville has evolved into a twilight sort of place, with its bars and clubs and food trucks. Rock and rollers and country punkers come out at night, imbibing at joints high-life and low on Gallatin Pike. Bluegrass and old-time pickers congregate at the Five Spot. Nevertheless, a traditional emblem of the East, the rising sun, is an apt symbol of my long-time neighborhood’s cultural trajectory. Even a cursory glance at today’s 37206 music scene will tell you it’s worthy of global attention. It has been for quite a few years now. Wednesday night’s parade of the area’s finest songwriters and artists on our Loveless Barn stage proved it with skill and diversity.
Jon Byrd offered the bedrock sort of start you’d want for a variety Americana night like this one, opening with “Jack Knife” – a song of memorable and valuable fatherly advice. With its easy, breezy tempo and twinkling steel, it harbingered a set of true country music without filigree or flash-pots. Byrd’s voice is a slow molasses thing of beauty, and he put it to great use on “Down At The Well of Wishes,” his new album’s title cut and “Silent Night,” his elegantly spare and moving quasi-Christmas song. The closer “Alabama Asphalt” was the only tune to even hint at uptempo sparkle, but it too came out like a lazy summer day. “Melody, melody, melody” is Byrd’s advice to songwriters, and he left us humming a few last night.
Our booking angels implied to me that in the new East Nashville, Jacob Jones is the don. The kingpin. The scenester supreme. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but he DID convince a small army of musicians to come out to the barn to back him up on his joyful, funky, danceable set. The four-man horn section was awesome, and Jones conjured a Stax-meets-Elvis Costello soul situation. I loved “Now That I’ve Found You,” a tune presumably waxed on JJ’s debut full-length, which is not officially out until January but which did arrive from the plant yesterday just in time for some venue sales. The set-closer “Play It Loud, Ray” showed off a performer who can cajole a room into a good time. 2013 should be busy for Jones.
Next was my double-take of the night, because I’d randomly formed a notion about Sarah and Christian Dugas as some sort of indie folk act, but what arrived on stage was a sharp pop/rock attack that reminded me of a whole wild mess of great things, from The Police to Grace Potter to Adele to Florence and the Machine. Sarah has a monumental voice, and brother Christian’s drumming seemed to conduct the band through the pulsing, spacious “I Won’t Fight You.” Catchy as hell, this one’s going in my music library. The rest of the set rocked hard, with taste and control. Sarah’s voice kept lifting off to new stratospheres. Then the electric guitar and bass slipped off and Christian came up front with an acoustic guitar, which he proceeded to play with a drummer’s intensity, while Sarah sang a unique “I Never Loved A Man.” We can expect a national debut by this band known as Dugas next year, and based on Wednesday night, they could and should play some very big stages.
Kevin Gordon is cherished by the Americana fanbase because he’s such a quiet achiever. I remember seeing him play a main stage at JazzFest about ten years ago and being super-proud that he was representing Music City with such class and finesse. He only offered up three songs last night, because the third was a doozy, the eight-minute “Colfax/Step In Time.” It’s a direct memoir of junior high in north Louisiana, when band leader Mr. Minnefield stoically and heroically endured a Klan rally at what was supposed to be a high school football game. It’s pregnant with telling details and builds to a tense and powerful crescendo, with Joe MacMahan’s expert slide guitar setting fires all over the stage.
Our nightcap was graceful and funny Elizabeth Cook who brought an efficient little trio of acoustic bass and electric guitar (wielded as always by her tone-hound husband Tim Carroll.) Her newest recording is an EP called Gospel Plow, whose title track became a favorite of mine when interpreted by the Nashville Bluegrass Band some years ago. Elizabeth recalled their darkly grooved arrangement in her opening take on the song. In fact she made it a set of all sacred tunes, and her voice cut through the rafters on “Hear Jerusalem Calling.” And they did “Jesus” because as she said Wednesday night, “no gospel record would be complete without a Velvet Underground song.” The finale Loveless Jam was came from a different sacred body of work, the song book of Lennon and McCartney. “Don’t Let Me Down” proved a good one for a robust sing-along chorus. Sounded like a sunrise.