The Mini Bluegrass Festival

Whenever you’re at the Loveless Café around suppertime, you know it’s going to be a good night. And when there’s a Music City Roots show at the Loveless Barn, you can count on it. But even after the dozens of memorable nights I’ve spent there since MCR started almost a year and a half ago, I can’t remember one as varied and just plain great as this past Wednesday.

Which was odd, since backstage, everything was going wrong that could go wrong. Jim Lauderdale couldn’t make it because his mom was seriously ill, so Peter Cooper came in at the last minute. Keith Bilbrey started having eye problems soon after the show started and left for the hospital (he’s fine). Interviews were tossed out of order, rendering the script, usually little more than a loose guideline anyway, completely useless.

All of which just goes to show how little all that matters when you’re fielding such a first-rate bunch of musicians.

Cooper enlisted one from the start, bringing in Grascals mandolinist Danny Roberts to help out on “Hickory Wind.” Then it was off to the races, as the rest of the band – singer-guitarists Jamie Johnson and Terry Eldredge, singer bassist Terry Smith, fiddler Jeremy Abshire and reigning IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Kristin Scott Benson – blew onstage for the Grascals’ trademark bluegrass explosion. Their high-impact set ranged from “Last Train to Clarksville” to Johnson’s powerful tribute to the kids at St. Jude’s “I Am Strong.”

Matt Flinner took the bluegrass theme into left field with his trio, featuring music from their new Music Du Jour. The idea was a pretty challenging one, coming out of a tour in which they wrote instrumental pieces during the day and performed them that night. The experiment worked in lively challenging tunes as well as guitarist’s Ross Martin’s hauntingly lovely “Bitterroot.” They closed on a more traditional note, tearing up the traditional “Lee Highway Blues.”

The mini-bluegrass festival continued, as Darin & Brooke Aldridge took the stage with an all-star band that included Scott Benson on banjo, McCoury bassist Alan Bartram and fiddler Rachel Renee Johnson. The Aldridge’s vocals sparkled, especially in their duet, “Sweetest Waste of Time,” recalling the classic harmony blend of such family acts as the Louvins.

Miss Tess & the Bon Ton Parade were next, in the third MCR appearance by the singer-songwriter. There are echoes of Norah Jones and Blossom Dearie, but Miss Tess is impossible to pigeonhole, playing a mix of original swing and pop with a 20s feeling and laidback New Orleans groove that somehow sounds completely contemporary. Solos alternated between her vintage Epiphone archtop guitar and Raphael MacGregor’s Oahu lap steel. At a time when most artists are judged by how well they fit into their assigned boxes, Ms. Tess is in a class all her own.

The night ended with Raul Malo, arguably the best male vocalist, not only in Nashville, but on the planet. The former Maverick’s band was stripped down for the night, just his gut-string guitar, Michael Guerra on button accordion, Elio Giordano on upright bass and Malo’s long-time drummer John McTigue. The set opened with his slowed-down take on the ’60 s pop hit, “Hey Baby,” and went on to his own Latin-influenced originals, including the romping “San Antonio Baby.”

Keeping with the family feeling of the night (Jamie Johnson had brought his son Coltrane with him for his Chat Room interview), Malo’s set included a” Happy Birthday” to his youngest son Max, “the sharpest-dressed 10-year-old in the world,” according to his proud dad.

Malo led the finale jam on the Mavericks favorite, “All You Ever Do is Bring Me Down,” a song that had the opposite effect on the dancing-room-only house. It was a great end to a great evening. Backstage may have been even more of a scramble than usual, but like a great restaurant, what got served to the house was a night to remember.

Larry Nager

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 26TH

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