Submitted by Craig Havighurst on November 18, 2013 – 04:30
Not to be too cosmic about it, but our wildly diverse Wednesday night show got me thinking again about Jim Lauderdale’s yin-yang suit. Jim’s an expert at Tai Chi you know, and the key symbol of Tai Chi’s affiliated Taoist faith is the yin-yang, an expression of the universe’s interwoven opposites. The idea is that black and white (or male and female or up and down) don’t exist on their own. One bids the other into being and each contains the essence of the other. And for me, a show as good and rewarding as this week’s, one that mingled seeming opposites (folk music with hip-hop and hip-hop with classical) suggests that we at Roots are following a pure path – what the Taoists call “The Way.”
I’ve been hearing about April Verch for years but never found myself in front of her stage. My bad. She’s a fluid and rhythmic fiddler who dances with her fingertips and her feet. Backed by acoustic bass and guitar, she opened with a Canadian tune that shares half a melody with the wonderful US flatpicker’s favorite “Big Sciota.” Here, Hayes Griffin’s guitar lead locked in percussive union with April’s power clogging. She brought a full size sheet of plywood on which to tap her fast-tapping toes and heels. (I wonder how they get that thing to fly-away gigs?) More gliding ease came from her bow on “Big Eared Mule,” because what could inspire a tune more than that? We finally got to hear her sweet country soprano voice on the original song “Broken” as Cody Walters traded his bass for clawhammer banjo. To close, Verch played a medley of traditional tunes that included an even more dazzling display of clogging. What sweet, open-hearted soul to kick off a show.
Primed with acoustic ambience, we revved the motor up pretty hard for the next two sets, starting with the classic rock and roll of Matt Butcher. He’s an English cat who’s spent time in Florida before moving to Nashville. And it sounds like he’s been a sponge for the good stuff all along, because in his too-short stint on stage, I heard honestly earned overtones of The Kinks, Bowie, The Who, T. Rex and other muscular 60s and 70s legends. Smartly clad in black, the five-piece band wielded solid-body guitars and cultivated a sense of drama. The tunes had shape and catchy ideas. It made me smile a lot and it was over too soon.
Many folks might assume that you couldn’t get more opposite than folk music and hip-hop, but those who know better know better. Hip-hop is voice-of-the-people music – more so certainly than pop or even the aforementioned golden age of rock. And duo Black Violin have parlayed hip-hop’s populism and monumental rhythms into a vehicle to communicate their passion for classical music, while making music that can only be described as fantastic. We’ve dabbled at the outskirts of hip-hop at Roots, but only on this show did we feel the full depth of the groove of a real drummer working in synch with a digitally empowered DJ. Over their awesome, sub-sonic beats, Wil B. and Kev Marcus made stringed magic. It opened with a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, sampled from a standard recording, but with Black Violin’s entrance, that famous piece got atomized, remixed and remade in a chorus of counterpoint. “Dirty Orchestra” and “A-Flat” both had bold themes and complex violin interplay over thrilling beats. Then a cover of Imagine Dragons “Radioactive” let us hear Wil B.’s silky singing voice over a fuzz-tone pizzicato duet he fashioned with a looping pedal and his viola. And his partner Kev Marcus, playing the whip-quick arpeggios in closer “Virtuoso” with a toothpick in his teeth and a backwards camo cap offered a joyful rebuke to the pomposity I’ve seen in a lifetime of caring about and loving classical music. And the set took a truly emotional turn when the guys acknowledged in the crowd their first high school orchestra teacher who’d mentored them years ago. She’d never heard them play as Black Violin but she happens to be in Nashville now and was able to make the connection at Roots. This is what we live for, y’all.
The volume and thunder of those two sets gave way to the more transparent sound of bluegrass as the Hillbenders took the stage with extremely kind words from singer/mando guy Nolan Lawrence about our show. (Back at you buddy; the honor is ours.) They opened with a sunny horizon traveler’s song about journeys outward and inward. An instrumental got a cadre from the audience up and dancing. And their cover of MGMT’s “Kids” produced great ensemble singing and some slick solos from Mark Cassidy’s banjo and Chad Graves’ low-hung, rockabilly-ready Dobro. Their bluesiest tune, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” featured Jim Rea’s acoustic guitar and singing, which had a nice growl and mucho enthusiasmo. Four of the six guys joined voices on the set finale, wrapping things up on a breezy, joyful note.
And that segued naturally into The Greencards, a bad that’s been playing outside the bluegrass box since its inception. The kickoff was an instrumental from the new Sweetheart of the Sun album with a catchy, curling motif on the mandola by Kym Warner. And its strolling tempo was about as speedy as they got for most of the set. Carol Young sang delicately and warmly on the stately and somber “Ocean Floor” and she sounded great in harmony with the band’s current fiddler Kristin Weber on “Traveler’s Song.” Another instrumental with the adorable title “Kissyfish” featured brilliant guitar leads from Carl Miner. And then on the final song the old punch Greencards returned with the pulsing, thrumming “Rivertown.”
The Loveless Jam riffed on the standard “I’ll Fly Away,” because, let’s be candid, we’re all gonna die. You can’t have life without it.