Tough Acts To Follow

It was a real treat watching Malcolm Holcombe’s set standing next to Matraca Berg last night. Like so many folks in the audience, not to mention your correspondent, she was transfixed by his intensity and emotional depth. She said something to the effect that she couldn’t believe she had to go on after him. I said really, that’ll be no problem. And of course she went up there and conjured up just as much magic, albeit of a different color and temperament.

At Music City Roots, one act follows another, and they nearly all set the bar really high for the next guy or gal or band. We’re amazed ourselves week in and week out how many varieties of good and authentic there are. And last night delivered five more, ranging from a bluegrass opener to a closer who couldn’t be pigeonholed by an army of pigeons with shovels. Here’s a quick report…

When the Boxcars first played Roots a year or so ago, they were quite young as a group. Veterans of bluegrass each of them, but as a new band with a new brand, they had only just begun to work the road and grow into their repertoire. They were amazing, don’t get me wrong. But to hear these guys now, seasoned and well-practiced, was a joy. I failed to mention this last night, but these guys won this year’s awards for Emerging Artist and Instrumental Group at the IBMA Awards, even as key members Ron Stewart and Adam Steffey each took awards for their instruments. They’re richly tradition-minded, so “Henry Hill” swayed with lonesome blues. And “Jumping The Track” was the opposite of a train wreck – pure instrumental skill and finesse, set to a clean, propulsive beat.

Recent Chicago to Nashville transplant Daphne Willis was new to most of us last night but she filled the room with a rich, contemporary voice and hooky songs. Backed by a second acoustic guitarist and a percussionist, her material had groove and spaciousness. “Do What You Want” had Calypso undertones. “Shake It Off” shook with syncopation. And “Stay” was a lovely lonely appeal. Her stuff will sound good to fans of Jason Mraz and Brandi Carlile. One guy I met after the show had purchased her entire catalog at the merch table. We’ll call this the Daphe Effect.

The contrasts continued as we flowed from flinty, aggressive Malcolm Holcombe into lyrical, soulful Matraca Berg. Such a brilliant juxtaposition. I was not surprised to see the room transfixed by Malcolm, for he is unforgettable. On “One Leg At A Time,” he’s a stomping bluesman who emerged from some crack in the Earth. On “Becky’s Blessed,” he’s a lyrical angel, painting a sweet picture in words and music. On “Drink The Rain,” he’s half menacing, half seductive. All in all, he’s one of the greatest performing songwriters of the age, and we were lucky to have him. Meanwhile, Matraca casts her spell more subtly, and her lovely voice and words were aided by a cool instrumental setup that paired her guitar with a cello and Dan Dugmore’s electric guitar or steel. They glowed together on “If I Had Wings.” Her husband Jeff Hannah joined her for “Oh Cumberland,” inspired by her growing up in Nashville. “You And Tequila” is a dreamy song that became a big hit for Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter this year. Matraca’s version is more moody and laden with regret. Her set closer, “Your Husband’s Cheating On Us” set up the story’s tension and punch-line beautifully.

And finally, a return visit from Nashville country rock shape shifter Bobby Bare Jr. Capable of punky fury or country contentedness, he’s always one to put you on the edge of the seat. Last night’s set had a noir-pop vibe, with gorgeous background vocals. There were shades of Calexico and Lambchop in the moody, pretty songs, and Bare’s voice is amazing with its power and scratchy patches. Chris Scruggs lent his electric steel chops to the affair, and the drummer played a cardboard box. So Mr. Bare’s reputation for quirky, smart and charming sets was duly fulfilled.

With a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band guy in the house (Hannah), the Loveless Jam became a singalong take on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” with standout vocals and solos all around the horn. We got home to discover that Matraca and Jim Lauderdale had both been tapped for Grammy nominations that evening. The show itself makes for a tough act to follow, but we’ll be back next week.

Craig H.

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