What a thrill. I got to sit down before Roots this week for a formal interview with the great Col. Bruce Hampton, that amazing paradox of an artist who’s still leading badass bands at age 69. He’s a musical space captain who never did drugs and a former military guy who led probably the singular hippie music revolution of the 1990s. We talked about Frank Zappa and the Allman Brothers and how the H.O.R.D.E. Tours ushered in the jam band era. And the musician and artist that is The Colonel kept circling back to the point, which is the essence, which is the way, which is, as he said “capturing the moment.” That’s the point, if we’re open enough to get it.
Wednesday night, our Summer season opener and a show I’d anticipated for as many reasons as we had artists, captured many moments. Or maybe it was one prolonged moment. The energy never lagged. The show had flow.
Col. Bruce opened the affair with a band of his usual high-quality recruits (he’s the jazz funk Art Blakey I tell you) and so we had drummer Darren Stanely working in intimate and immaculate interplay with upright bass player Kevin Scott. Tyler Neal was opposite Col. Bruce, playing off and with him both vocally and guitaristically. “It’s about time” they sang on the opener “Grogans,” which, whatever the hell it means, seems to be their calling card song. Killer trombone came from young Danny Wytanus on this tune and others. We heard smooth-riding, one-chord funk on “There Was A Time” and the jazzomolo swing of “Basically Frightened.” The summertime jam on “I’m So Glad” was the climax with Hampton’s most daring and melodically flowing guitar solo of the night. They signed off with “Goodnight Irene” and I was sorry to see them go.
The evening then took a sharp turn toward the subtle and graceful with Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles. And I have to tell y’all, I’ve been in a very elevated and exciting phase of listening lately, and between the band, Erin’s voice and the mad skillz of Sound Image, I thought this was the most natural, balanced and magnificent sounding set I’ve heard in ages. I couldn’t believe the beauty and emotion in the room. But none of that would really matter without a killer artist, and Erin is one. Leadoff “Soon Enough” is the go-to title track from her debut album, and it sways like wheat in Kansas and swells with pedal steel. Mark Fredson offered luscious harmony vocals on “Playin’ Old Games.” On “Wild Blue Wind” Erin’s moody, pitch-perfect voice took on strong shades of Emmylou Harris. She exhibits a purity and attention to phrasing and overall musicality that’s rare.
If Erin grew a male counterpart and went deep into the Virginia hills she’d be in the realm of the Honey Dewdrops, the delightfully and sumptuously named duo of Laura Wortman and Keagey Parrish. “Lowlands” made being broke down and stuck sound pretty sweet. “Loneliest Songs” was mournful and deliberate and deeply folky with a fine flatpicking solo by Parrish. Besides their pure, close harmony, they write really affecting and memorable tunes with lyrics that lay there like jewels on velvet. “Same old me, same old you / Same elephant, same old room” they sing in “Same Old,” a song that snared me immediately on their fine Tangled Country LP. I’d see these two anywhere anytime.
And closing the show a different kind of jam band. Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley have found the ideal balance between the formality that great country and bluegrass demand and the improvisational abandon that some of us love so much. They are both fearsomely good pickers who love to play back and forth off one another. They opened with Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia On A Fast Train” but really hit their stride with their smart cover of Elton John’s “Ballad Of A Well Known Gun.” This just need doing. Another reimagined cover was their funky treatment of the Wood Brothers’ “Pray Enough,” which is a very slick way to slip a gospel tune in to the album and set. In case we didn’t think Hensley was capable of writing songs fit for his staggeringly strong voice, he sorted that out with “That’s What Leaving’s For,” a song that could be a new standard of country balladry.
Rob & Trey wrapped with the very very fast “Leave My Woman Alone” and worked with our fabulous stand-in guest host Mike Bub to craft a fine Nashville Jam on “Nine Pound Hammer.” Thanks to all. I lost count of the moments.