Retro is a complicated concept that rides a razor’s edge between cool and square. Most of us crave SOMETHING about the past, no matter how hip we are, and it might come out in fashion sensibility, driving a ’57 Chevy or a vinyl record fetish. A healthy musical diet certainly should have plenty of the old mixed in with the new, and our lineup at Roots last night had that quality, and I mean it both ways. It felt vintage all around. And it was quality.
Lighting last night’s fuse was Shotgun Party, a trio out of Austin that comes off a bit like the Hot Club of Cowtown with more caffeine and better harmony singing. Jenny Parrott chunked on the archtop guitar while Katy Rose Cox bowed a fiery fiddle, and everything fell nicely together when they joined their bookmatched voices. They opened with a zippy take on “Red Rocking Chair,” which I know as the Doc Boggs song “Sugar Baby,” and they proved they can also soothe and lay back with “Lincoln,” a misty ballad that was touched up with a lovely, double-stopping fiddle solo.
I wasn’t able to pay as much attention to our Vietti artist Andrew Combs as I’d have liked. What I heard was serene and intelligent and assured. But I did get an earful of the Westbound Rangers, a fun quartet of friends from Belmont U. who’ve tapped the old-time vein with flair. They wrote their own theme song, which is very retro cool, and it set a great tone. While most of their stuff is rousing and rollicking, they did offer one tender ballad called “Time” sung most artfully by mandolinist Mike Walker. “Stonewall” was the set-closer, a romp of a tune about the Confederate Civil War general, with lead vocals by bearded banjo man Graham Sherrill.
Nobody brought the retro with as much skill and touch as Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade, a band returning to our stage after nearly a year. Miss Tess reported the band has moved to Brooklyn from its Boston base and is finding open ears there. No surprise, because when this quartet gets going, you can’t tell where the music is coming from – 1930 to 2020 would be a good guess. It’s got all the classic elements and all the trained chops of great jazz, but they definitely make a fresh statement. “I Don’t Wanna See You Anymore” had Tess grinding her guitar against a dirty railroad beat, while “The Bicycle Song,” a waltz from her new EP of waltzes featured a sophisticated, snaky melody and an amazing solo by her clarinet player Alec Spiegelman that sounded like something from classical composers like Ravel or Debussy.
And that led to the proudly old-school country music of Dale Watson, a favorite of Americana fans for years and years. What I love about him is that he doesn’t stay monotonously in Bakersfield country twang town. He’s also really good at tapping that 1970s smooth country vibe but keeping it country at the same time. He opened for example with the title cut from his new album “Carryin’ On,” which felt like a lost Glen Campbell cut. While “I’ll Show You” was much more from the roadhouse tradition. And he led the Loveless Jam with all the classic touch you could ever want in Hank’s “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It.” Never mind that the song got going before Eddie Stubbs had time to read the last commercial spots; Jim orchestrated the smoothest ending to the show ever, with Eddie reading over a live vamp of the song, and conducting the sweet crescendo of the song after Eddie was done.
It sounded even more like live radio of yester-year, and somehow the more authentically retro we get, the better it sounds to our modern ears.