Get comfortable; this could take a while. Wednesday’s Roots was like two shows in one, each with its own personality and integrity. Act One featured three wildly different but complimentary musical visions. Act Two was a coming out party for a superb album by a beloved Nashville musician. Together they added up to a night of immeasurable heart and joy. The musical skills on display in both halves were stunning for sure, but the evening affirmed that technique can get you on the highway but it can’t take you all the way home. Because home is about heart. I think the reason I gravitated toward roots music and away from the fashionable main stream had to do with temperature. Like a migrating bird, I needed to move away from the cool and toward the warm. Radio pop/rock depends on a posture that’s aloof, guarded, stylish and kind of cynical. The world’s harsh and ironic and touch-less as it is. I want my music to wrap me in something comforting and I don’t have time for masks. If something can be transparently beautiful, then why not?
Jake Shimabukuro is pushing 40 but his face, his energy and his body language on stage suggest something like half that. You know how Chris Thile can look like he’s about to bounce to the moon he’s so happy about playing? That’s Jake with his ukulele. He came out roaring with a flamenco-infused tune, played in sensitive partnership with only electric bass player Nolan Verner. It was so dazzling he got a full house standing ovation for the first song. (Good start to the night, said the producers silently to themselves.) Then the room hushed for the tender “Ichigo Ichie” and remained transfixed for his signature tune, the expansive arrangement of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It’s got delicacy and classical counterpoint here and polychromatic rocking power there. It led to some tandem jazz lines between the instruments and a fine bass solo. And the closer (I’m not clear on most of the tune titles at this stage) found Jake building harmonic ideas on a looping pedal and soloing over his own chords in a heavy metal meets blues kind of finale. I got to spend 30 minutes on the radio with Jake before the show and it was inspiring; watch for that conversation on the web site soon.
If you’d sketched out a night that touched all the Americana bases you’d say: Hey right here we need some classic swing. So that’s what transpired as Gnarly Parkers came to the stage with young nine musicians in crisp white shirts and ties, save for lovely vocalist Anna Arata looking stylishly vintage in a Chinese print dress. The horns punched and swooped like Count Basie’s Orchestra. Leader Ryan Leet and fellow guitarist Josh Irwin strummed elegant four-to-the-bar chords on their well aged archtop guitars. Leet sang with panache in the vein of Chet Baker or Harry Connick Jr. on the cheeky “Big Ass World” with Arata in support. She took over lead vocals for the second half including “Sammy Shake” with its jungle drums and the sweet and mellow finale “Dream Of You.” That featured a really find light-touch piano solo by band arranger Will Padgett. I learned he’s the son of John Padgett, a friend and colleague of our founders from back in their WSM days. Nice family circle stuff there.
The papers are filling up with stories and features about the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, that devil of a natural and man-made disaster. Any connection we can make with the Gulf Coast and the musical soul of the greatest American music city is always welcome. And at the pivot point of this week’s show came a blast of New Orleans swamp pop and rocking blues in the capable hands of the Honey Island Swamp Band. They offered the set-opening musical question “How Do You Feel?” which was really kind of a silly thing to ask the 800+ euphoria addicts in the crowd. I loved “Head Highwater Blues” with its slappy backbeat and its fusion of slide guitar and organ. The slide came from Chris Mulé who really made some magic happen. And partner Aaron Wilkinson can really sing. The two got into some fine Allmanesque twin guitar passages, especially on closer “Ain’t No Fun.” Again with the irony.
Usually the world of music scribing involves a separation between record reviews and show reviews, but this gets to be both at once. And several things occurred to me as we were taking in Andrea Zonn’s upcoming album Rise performed in sequence. First is that while I’d love to see us do more full album recital style shows, there just aren’t that many albums that hold up front to back with 100% satisfaction and sufficient variety, the way this one does. And while Andrea said in our album bio collaboration that her working title for the project was The Love Album, we can at least retroactively remember this event as The Love Show. For there was much of it zapping all around Liberty Hall.
I’m a music first/lyrics later kind of listener, and that’s why I’m in love with Rise; it’s a total immersion musical experience. It’s got many memorable lines and well wrought songs to be sure. But it elevates above so many fine Nashville songwriting displays with sonic ideas, like the daring major-minor-modal shifts in “Where The Water Meets The Sky” and the onomatopoetic chorus of “Rise”. So Andrea and team were determined to translate those nuances and tricky bits on stage, including the unprecedented commitment of a night-before dress rehearsal on the Liberty Hall stage. Thus was all that studio thoughtfulness translated into an hour of live sonic gorgeousness.
Songs one and five, “Another Side Of Home” and “Let Them Go” seemed to be written a bit under the influence of Andrea’s employer James Taylor, with their New England autumnal sweetness. On this night the much lauded studio wizard Mac MacAnally was on hand to sing the parts JT sang on the record. Blues icon Keb’ Mo’ came out for the gospel-infused “No Reason To Feel Good” which sounds like it’s not a feel-good song, but it is. Keb and Andrea trading solo ideas (his guitar, her fiddle) over the song’s sweet vamp was fabulous. Vince Gill emerged for the first of several support spots, playing guitar and singing on “Crazy If You Let It,” a graceful study in resilience. The mega-amazing Jim Oblon played guitar in the band and he kicked off my favorite track with the spooky simple riff that defines “I Can’t Talk About It Now.” I could bob my head to that one all night, savoring its deliciously jazzy chords. The joined voices of Andrea, Mac and support vocalist Drea Rhenee on closer “Let Them Go” were indescribably thrilling.
I’m going on and on, but let’s say the B-side set was every bit as good with the title track as an emotional climax. Here, album collaborator Thomm Jutz got some prominent space for his acoustic guitar skills and Oblon took the solo with his fiery and fascinating approach. Alison Brown came on with her banjo for the tempo shifter and seventh inning stretch that is the swinging “Swing And A Miss.” Then more Vince with the beautifully written, easy-grooving “You Make Me Whole.” And the final guest of the night, incredibly tall and incredibly deep-voiced Trace Adkins, strode on to sing with Andrea in the album closer “Ships,” a kind of Celtic blessing.
All this made me think of 20 Feet From Stardom, the Oscar winning film about Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and other classic background singers who leave us moved while we learn the names and faces of the stars they support. Andrea could have been in that movie. She’s one of the best and if anyone deserves to step those 20 feet to center stage it’s her. And like I said before, it’s more than just her ability to toss off a world class fiddle break or sing crystal clear tones. She projects herself and her inherent gentleness in all musical situations. She makes parts into a whole, just like her song says. She inspires loyalty and connections with the musicians around her – like the hugely famous bass player Willie Weeks who made time to do the album and this gig. That takes something songwriters and singers tell of all the time but show and share less often. You know what I’m talking about.