It’s easy to marvel at the precision of a really well made watch or a Formula One engine. At least I’m into that kind of thing. Exquisite synchronization makes me feel good inside, a bit like music. And we had music that made me feel Swiss watch perfect at Roots this week. When Missy Raines plays bass and Mike Compton plays mandolin, she on the one and he on the answering two, something uplifting and numinous happens. She pushes and he pulls. It’s immaculately quantized, yet incredibly human, like a heart. Everything I ever learned to appreciate about string-band timing and feel is wrapped up in that relaxed, tick-tock, rock-steady beat. And there’s nobody better in the world than these veterans, the heartbeat of the Helen Highwater String Band. Don’t worry, I’ll gush about band-mates Shad Cobb and David Grier for other reasons shortly. But I woke up after the show thinking about the boom-chick, boom-chick mantra evoked by these bluegrass shamans.
A different kind of groove was key to the first half of the show, which this week really did feel like two acts of two. We featured a couple of gentlemen with smooth sensibilities that take roots music in one hand, pop music in the other and hold both up to the light to see how they might refract into one another. James Apollo (named as if for the god of music, art and the sun, but no pressure or anything) came across the country with his band to get under our skin with swirly, reverby and cinematic songs. Acoustic bass, organ and a vintage acoustic guitar mingled with Apollo’s big spanky arch-top electric, and his singing was seductive and intense. Songs like “Bottom of the Hour” grew into fervent pop anthems.
Kai Welch’s take on pop has more in common with the Talking Heads or Guster. It’s got space and a light touch. Opener “Perpetually Out Of Fashion” features cool unison voices over a subtle funk. Song number two had metronome clean rhythm and monotone vocals with a wild spark of dissonant electric guitar from Kai. The band of Nashville bad-cats included Heather Robb singing and playing keys, Tommy Hans on guitar and Molly Martin on guest vocals. Picture them in over-the-top Christmas sweaters because that’s what they wore. But the music was a good deal more stylish than that, ranging from Beatles-sweet to the rapturous three-part folk harmonies of “Sweet Abandon” to the tricky, beautiful changes in “Chains.” Watch Kai Welch in 2015. This was the prototype show for a big year ahead.
The second half of Roots this week was about good old country comfort in our bones. We knew Doug Seegers was going to be special, but having only seen that street video that made him famous in Sweden, I didn’t know what kind of stage presence he’d have or how his curve-ball traditional country songs would sound live. The guy was never on big stages before this year, and yet he looked as comfortable, craggy and commanding as Billy Joe Shaver on beta blockers. With a twinkle in his eye, he launched in with a train song, singing with a voice of reedy strength and lonesome pathos. When he goes high, it cuts, and he has a heart-tugging yodel that can’t be taught. The songs are so smart with plain poetic language and little twists on old structures that keep it musically interesting even as it’s emotionally enrapturing. He evoked 70s California country with the breezy “Angie’s Song” and closed with his breakout song and the title cut from Down To The River. The joy Doug seems to take from singing about strife is infectious and inoculating against the blues.
And that brings us back to the Helen Highwater String Band, which opened with an original called “Time” that seemed to announce its musical intentions. “Time, tick-tock, time,” they sang around one microphone on the chorus. Shad Cobb, one of the quietest bluegrass achievers I know, has a deserved spotlight role in the HHSB, offering clear tenor leads and defining themes with his rich, raw fiddling. The quartet mingled a swing feel with vocal gospel fervor on “Glory Bound” and delved deep into the blues with the Mississippi Sheiks song “Please Baby.” Being an instrumental freak, I took special joy in David Grier’s original guitar tune “Big Dirt Clod.” Sounds funny, but the clean melody and inventive solos by Grier, Cobb and Compton had the guitar geek student in me paying close and serious attention. I became a nutcase fan for Grier and Compton 20 years ago, and yet I’d never seen them really jam together until last night. So wow.
Guest host Peter Cooper opened the show with a John Prine cover (“All The Best”) and closed by leading everyone on “Worried Man Blues,” one of my old faves. He’s done a fine job filling in for Jim these two weeks, so we thank him as always. One more show to go before the year-end break, so make plans to join us next week. As always, it’ll be a fine tick-tock time.