The Old Ball Game

The whole nation used to stop whatever it was doing to watch the World Series together. Sad to say that’s no longer true. Baseball is just another entertainment option among many in today’s hyper-stimulated USA. So when I saw that Music City Roots was going to start at the same moment as a much anticipated final showdown between the Royals and the Giants after a marvelous series and playoffs, I thought, “Shoot, that’s NOT very Americana.”

Shows must go on, to coin a phrase. But of course, we can time travel now, so I managed to record the game and get home from Wednesday night’s MCR without knowing the outcome. Not that I had a dog in the hunt. With my Braves long eliminated, I cherished the final days of baseball for the sake of a beautiful game beautifully played. Simple as that. I feel much the same way about Roots, especially with shows like this week’s. Some nights and some sets are more impactful for me or you than others. But I have affection for all. I don’t root for anyone to win. It’s an exhibition, not a competition, as David Letterman used to say. Please, no wagering.

Our first inning was Jim Lauderdale’s opening song, a gorgeous number called “When Carolina Comes Home Again,” which was not only written with John Oates but performed with John Oates! Jim’s “close personal friend” came on stage to play fabulous rolling acoustic guitar backup while John’s steel player for the night, the great Russ Pahl, added delicate misty touches. It was a perfect little band, and yet we were just getting started.

Next at bat was Canada’s Del Barber, who proved to be an amiable and laid back guy off stage and a focused, wry and graceful singer on stage. “Country Girl” was a sweet, bright romance sung to a country blues guitar. (Her daddy has a gun, but nothing goes too haywire.) Barber brought out Brandi Zdan to play accordion on his last two tunes, including the contemplative and beautiful “Big Smoke” and a witty character study worthy of John Prine called “Peter and Jenny Lee.” That one came with a brilliant road story as well. Barber is going to interest anyone who loves Prine or Hayes Carll or Bruce Robison. He observed that traveling and playing music as a life is “a gift” and yet I think we all felt like the ones who’d been given something.

Caroline Rose is a quirky, punky twentysomething who came to the stage in a black leather jacket, a plaid skirt, sport socks and sneakers. It’s kind of her jam. She’s also got the jam. Her lead Telecaster electric guitar was proud and crackling, and tunes like “Roll On” had off-kilter extra beats and catches that made the grooves deeper and the songs more mysterious. By the time she was singing “Cult Leader Psychopath” (yep, that’s a song) she was whanging away as if at a sweaty dorm basement show. Things ended on a folkier kind of wave with “I Will Not Be Afraid.” Yet it didn’t take that line, repeated like a mantra in the song, to convince us of that.

Long, lean and lonesome is Caleb Klauder. He’s also feeling slick in the tonsils after enduring significant vocal chord surgery this year. It was a brief but unnerving interruption to a career being built on his prowess as a traditional country singer, old-time fiddler and band leader. They came out swinging with a bright country boogie called “Can I Go Home With You.” A number called “The New Shoes” featured a Cajun chank-a-chank waltz beat complete with accordion and fiddle. Reeb Willms, who’s also in Caleb’s Foghorn String Band, sang a great mountain lead on one tune and a duet with Klauder on “Last Time I Saw You.” All this was new and original music, but it could have been recorded, with great success, by Webb Pierce.

Having James McMurtry on stage was almost surreal for me. It reminded me of the time Alejandro Escovedo played. Or Col. Bruce Hampton. How did HE get here, I wondered? Our booking team is on the spot, that’s how. The precision gear-like interlock of melody and lyric in McMurtry’s songs is uncanny. He’s literary without a trace of highbrow. To say he’s intense is like observing that the cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway go fast. I didn’t take notes really. I just let the words and stories roll over me. The intricacies and hard characters in “Copper Canteen” were particularly effective, partly because I’d seen the lyrics written down, and with McMurtry, that helps. At least if you have no aspirations yourself of writing tough, character-rich songs that sing like butter. If that was my dream, he’d make me too discouraged.

John Oates returned to the stage for the final set fronting an astonishingly great band of Nashville cats. Pat Buchanan on guitar. Kevin McKendree on keys. And this ensemble made the music full and energizing. But it was John himself who made this one of the finest sets this year. It was the best he’s ever done at Roots for sure. “Lose it in Louisiana” is a soulful evocation of non-saintly New Orleans nights. I absolutely loved “Close,” which seems simple, floating on two chords, but the vocal interplay between Oates and singer Wendy Moten was enthralling. And it was indeed an honor to have Moten, a hugely accomplished lead and background vocalist, on our stage. She kind of blew my mind. The full band wrapped with a kind of slow jam of the news – an obliquely political song about troubled times called “Head That Wears The Crown.” Then for an encore John performed the epic “She’s Gone,” as he has in every performance since the 1970s when he wrote it. Nourishing stuff.

Our ninth inning was an incredible Nashville Jam – one of the best any of us can recall. Oates proposed “Come Back Baby,” a classic blues tune cut by Ray Charles, Lightnin’ Hopkins and others. And again, the blues proved its miraculous ability to connect all kinds of musicians. Oates kicked it off with a rich and authentic fingerstyle fugue. The vocals by all were great. Solos from the likes of Russ Pahl and Pat Buchanan were blistering.

The Royals kept it tense down to the last at bat with a man on third and a one run deficit in the bottom of the ninth. In the end, the Giants got the final out and won the title. I truly cherish the purity and operatic drama of such moments. Like our giants and royals of roots music, it’s American poetry and pride.

Craig H.

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