It was an improbable day to begin with: February 29, Leap Day. The fifth Wednesday in what is otherwise the year’s shortest month. A band of wild thunderstorms rolled through Middle Tennessee in the afternoon, but by show time everything had cleared up, and the folks rolled in, even for a bill without any so-called headliners. Instead it was the young and the restless – nearly all twentysomethings, who are making marks with solid songwriting and respect for tradition. It was a good night of discovery.
Woody Pines is a most affable guy with tossled hair and a ramblin’ man’s outlook. We talked about his love of street busking, and man he has the personality and voice for it. Familiar songs and new songs that sound like folkie standards come out of Woody and his band loud and proud. He manipulated the great Dock Boggs song “Red Rocking Chair,” helped by fiddler Phoebe Hunt offering an exotic, Arabian sort of solo. He perked up the old Mississippi John Hurt song “I’m Satisfied” and really swung the blues with two more. Thanks Woody for always bringing soul and energy.
W.B. Givens filled the Vietti emerging slot and filled it well, with loping songs full of mojo and meaning. His voice was proud and direct on “Two Shots of Mississippi,” which I’d like to have about now, and he cooed quietly on “Family Stone,” which drew in everyone’s attention. It was nice straight country folk backed by upright bass, mandolin and fiddle. And the same could describe Taylor Brashears, though she came also with a stunning voice. Looking like a classic beauty from the golden age of Hollywood, she led her band with a fiddle and a uke and some old fashioned poise. She half yodeled and charmed on “Tennessee Honey” and she dueted on an old Porter and Dolly tune with Jim Lauderdale, who’s bolstered her career after hearing her one day in Centennial Park. That’s a nice Nashville story.
Then, on a night of mostly simple songs, came the ornate and frankly dazzling sound of SHEL. These four sisters have been making music together through their lives, though it seems just recently they’ve found the sophisticated formula that’s propelling them on the charts and in the hearts of folk music fans. On the Celtic-feeling “Lost At Sea” they glowed like three Alison Krausses in blended harmony (sister Liza was under the weather, but she contributed a lot with her groovy hand-drum). They set the rhythmic center of “Ruby Slippers” with finger snaps and sang together in a flowing way over just a mandolin. Then Eva, the mandolin player, displayed amazing technique on a duet with sister Sarah on fiddle. This was maybe the most classical tune played on the Roots stage ever, and I loved it for its exquisite tone and timing. Then they covered Led Zeppelin! Curious yet? You’ve got to see this band.
And then it was back to solid ground with the bold, artful voice of Ryan Cook. It’s brave to follow a wild act like SHEL and close a show with just one guitarist as accompaniment (though when it’s Danny Flowers you’ve got a good head start). But Ryan’s just a great country singer and story teller with a centered quality that belies his years. He feels like a veteran. His melodic skills shone on “Gasperau Valley.” He spoofed modern culture in “Facebook Waltz.” And he was also witty and strong on “Single in A Bar,” the set closer.
So it was the lowest key night in a while, with no drum set and no rockin’ the house. But sometimes you’ve got to take a leap.