When we music nerds talk about vocalists having range, we mean they can sing from way down low to way up high, with a lot of notes in between. But sometimes Music City Roots shows a different kind of vocal range, like this Wednesday night’s show, in the astonishing diversity of ways humans can emit and emote with word and note. Amy LaVere was restrained and silky. Rachael Davis was brassy and swaggering. Nicole Atkins was fiery and haunting. And Mike Farris brought his usual blistering, belting voice, as well as the soaring soul of his beautiful harmony singers. Sometimes in Americana music, regular Joe and Jolene vocal skills get a pass if the songs and overall effect add up to something great. On this night at Roots though it was a quadfecta of vocal perfecta, with some sensational band playing as well.
It was Nature Conservancy night, so extra thanks to the artists for donating their night’s take to Tennessee’s wild places. Jim Lauderdale set the tone with a nice environmental anthem with lyrics by Robert Hunter before I interviewed our pal Paul Kingsbury about TNC’s upcoming “If Trees Could Sing” video series. The tree profiles with prominent musicians are being shot in large part by our crew and Jim appears in one doing tai chi. (We’ll let you know more as the September launch approaches.)
Then it was on with low-key but high-impact artist Amy LaVere. She derives her mystique by singing softly with the purest of tones and massaging the microphone with subtle curls and catches. Her music, especially in this night’s configuration with only her upright bass and the guitar of Will Sexton, is made of restraint. At times it was just her time-tapping bass and single notes from his vintage six-string, but it spoke volumes. The songs all came from the wonderful new Runaway’s Diary album, which I’ve fallen for a hobo off a boxcar. “Last Rock & Roll Boy To Dance” has a weird title but a minor to major key chorus hook that’s irresistible. “Big Sister” has vivid, revealing details as she remembers the “big shadow” who seemed stronger, faster, wiser during those vulnerable growing up years. The melody and sway of “I’ll Be Home Soon” has been stuck in my head for much of the past two weeks, and that was her closing number. I guess it’ll be there a while longer.
Nashville’s Rachael Davis brought a fantastic band featuring two horns, her husband Dominic on upright bass and Lynn Nichols on a Django-style acoustic guitar. This didn’t look like the ensemble from her most recent eclectic folk album, and indeed it was not. This was a new vision for her next recording, featuring original songs that ring like songbook standards with a swing jazz backing. The arrangement of opener “What’s Wrong With You” split the difference between classic New York and New Orleans. “Peregrine” had a Latin smoky bar groove and ended with an amazing high note from Rachael (she definitely has range). And in general, her vocals were as supple and commanding as her songs. This was retro yet revelatory. And for a set-closing encore, the band stepped off to let Rachael and her husband do a voice-plus-bass duo that stilled the room and then blew it up with applause. A true Roots discovery moment.
I’m not sure if most of our crowd was aware, but Nicole Atkins was, by traditional music industry metrics, the best-known and most critically-acclaimed artist in our lineup last night, with an army of Twitter fans and a press kit stuffed with accolades from rock critics. Was she everyone’s chai latte at Roots? Maybe not. But we love those jabs of art and those challenging moments when the vision of the artist doesn’t drive down the middle of the Roots road. She wore a flowing middle eastern gown with gold mirror sequins and she came to the stage bare of foot. She kept one vocal mic for straight signing and another one drenched with spacey reverb, where she’d turn when the effect was called for. Backed by a drummer and a skilled electric guitarist, she was charismatic, bold and feverish, conjuring suggestions of the Black Keys, Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush and Patti Smith. It was rock and roll, uncut and undiluted, melodic and passionate. She’s about to open a tour for Nick Cave after all. She did her own thing and she brought the drama. For some I spoke with, she was the top act of the evening.
Mike Farris is wheelhouse territory for us. With a robust six-person band plus three harmony singers (the wonderful Gale Mayes, Angie Primm and Hayley Reed), he did that special voodoo thing we’ve come to expect. The opening song was like a personal re-mix of the Staple Singers staple “I’ll Take You There” and a luxurious “Change Is Gonna Come” was stylistically fresh and got some couples slow dancing in back. Mike and the band (including a walk on guitar appearance by our own John Walker) stretched it out and let it ride on the ultra-funky “The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow.” Mike’s new album comes out on Compass in September, and we’ll keep you abreast of that because, as the song says, it’s been a long time coming.
All that set up our first Nashville Jam with drums and a big band, and it was the best show close in a long time. Farris suggested “Will It Go Round In Circles” by Billy Preston, and it was a veritable altar call for the great singers involved in the night. Each in turn stepped up and delivered a verse more soulful and explosive than the last.
So where last week was our packed house, pressure-filled opening night at Liberty Hall, this was the show where it became (almost) routine. We hope you’re ready for a lot of range and diversity in the months and years ahead.