Ladies and gentlemen, the state of the musical union is strong, as somebody said (more or less) this week. We know that generally, but every Wednesday night we get fresh affirmation in the form of four (or more) artists who bring that blend of mastery and humility that epitomizes the best in Americana. And this week, with a band called The Americans and some sisters whose talent is no secret, plus two brilliant acoustic deep roots ensembles, our leading indicators and consumer confidence numbers were through the roof.
It got started with J.P. Harris and Chance McCoy (a name Mark Twain might have invented), who sat down to perform but who lacked nothing in intensity. J.P. has an enormous voice worthy of the trucker songs he usually sings. Here, it was old mountain songs and antique ballads performed on fiddles, banjos and guitars with a mixture of traditional and revisionist arrangements. I loved the low and slow fingerpicking in “Sugar Babe” and the snappy, fleet footed verses of “Walk On By.” They did a sonorous and mesmerizing fiddle tune with fretless banjo that sounded ancient and almost Middle Eastern and an 18th century ballad that was spooky and modal with bell-like touches. Two acoustic six-string guitars sounded like one big 12-string guitar on the finale “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town.” That was always one of my favorite Doc Watson numbers and this version rolled like its namesake locomotive.
Soul colors and surprising grooves are serving Della Mae well as they take their bluegrass based sound into their sixth or seventh year. They opened with the two songs that seemed to jump out of the speakers when their second, self-titled album arrived last spring. The proud anthemic “Boston Town” is about a strong union of the labor variety. And the syncopated “Rude Awakening” pulses with dark blues. Lead singer Celia Woodsmith’s power and rough hewn passion was especially vivid on “High Away Gone” with its work song stomp and clap beat against a fiddle and bass drone. For all the stylistic explorations though, it felt like hot home base when the ladies wrapped up the set with instrumental fireworks on the Celtic infused “Carter Country.” Jason Carter’s fiddle tune gave Kimber Ludiker a whole lot of room to dazzle. Same with Jenni Lyn Gardner’s mandolin and Courtney Hartman’s acoustic guitar.
It took us way too long to get the Secret Sisters on MCR, but now that they’ve played and knowing that they live very nearby (one of them in Music City), I hope their warm bubble bath sound can be part of our show frequently. Their harmony intervals are diamond pristine and their voices cooing and floating. The listener hovers between an overwhelming sense of beauty and the blue longing conjured by their songs. Their number about the Tennessee River was like moonlight on deep water. They covered the Everly Brothers’ “Lonely Island” with the heart-stopping presence that led T-Bone Burnett to insist they record it. And they wrapped with “Bad Habit,” with intense streaks of dark folk rock. All this with just two voices and one guitar. More folks need to be let in on this secret.
I was in the dark about the sound The Americans would bring and surprised by the depth and thoughtfulness of their set. They’re way into old time music, but they’re electric rock and rollers. The stage crew told me at sound check they were LOUD, but that conjured up the wrong imaginings. The five piece hit the stage with vintage guitar and drums sounding vacuum tube glorious. Leader Patrick Ferris brought a fascinating, darting voice that reminded me a bit of Steve Forbert. “Last Chance” featured the Secret Sisters on harmony vocals to bring an orchestral fullness to classy chord changes. The subtle rock and roll fervor gave way to the grace of a rolling fingerstyle riff on nicely dead guitar strings in “Stowaway,” which evolved into a long, multi-chapter work. There was a Johnny Cash train beat in disguise in “The Right Stuff” and some dirty Mississippi thump in “I’ll Be Yours.” The sisters returned for the finale, a languorous Bascom Lamar Lunsford song totally reimagined for modern ears. It accelerated near the end to a rousing gospel stomp on the refrain “take me back, take me back.”
And an all-hands version of “Man Of Constant Sorrow” took us home. And that home is America where as long as people are singing and writing and playing like this, from the bottom of their hearts, I’ll say things are headed in the right direction.