Well dang it and a few other words that are more satisfying to say out loud than to write down. I got a speeding ticket on the way home from Roots. That long stretch of gently curving smooth asphalt as Highway 100 heads back into town can lull you. I was chatting happily with my wife and daughter about the show, and then I see a cop’s parking lights switch on. Dang it. Oh well. Happens to everybody. And the thing is, after a night like last night, how could you not speed a little? And how could you feel bad about a ticket for long? It was a barn-full of love and bold sonic wonders.
In order of appearance, which coincidentally was just how I experienced it, we hit it brightly with Tiller’s Folly, the jolly trio out of Canada that makes that good old newgrass music, tweaked with Celticana. Lead singer and guitarist Bruce Coughlan definitely has some Ireland in his velvety voice. He sounded terrific on “Once,” which has some country legs. Nolan Murray took charge and swung hard on mandolin with “Panhandle Rag” and while Bruce and bassist Laurence Knight took solos, Murray picked up a fiddle and wailed on that too. They ended with the title track to their new “Go The Road” CD, a song and title I really like. The tune rolls on polished rails but also has quirks and surprises. Glad to see these always engaged and engaging guys.
Rebecca Loebe proudly declared herself “a full time itinerant folk singer” and demonstrated the sparkle and brass it takes to pull off that audacious career. The Atlanta to Austin transplant is a veteran of the first season of The Voice, and indeed she has a voice – sweet but concentrated, lively and nuanced. Her song “Redneck Karaoke Bar” wasn’t campy as I expected. Rather it was sincere song about quirky characters. And she really stilled the room with her cooing, soaring vocals on the song “Darlin.” We were both sad there wasn’t a slot to interview her on last night’s show, but we’ll hold a spot for her in the chat room for when she returns.
I’ve had loads of respect for Canadian roots music multi-tasker Colin Linden for years and been aware of his project Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, but last night was my first full-on experience of this storied band. They may be the epitome of that hard to define term Americana, in that none of the rock, blues or country influences dominates. They’re a perfect fusion, with great Manuel suits and great songs. “Another Free Woman” had a timelessness and surprising energy from all acoustic instruments. They electrified as the set went on and the music grew ever tougher and more dangerous. They covered Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Shelter Me Lord” with fire and focus, and they wound up with “Swinging From The Chains,” wherein Colin simply fried it on a long Telecaster jam.
Tim and Nicki Bluhm surprised me on YouTube with their subtle as hell harmony singing and they surprised me last night with their height. This is one tall country singing couple, and they measured up with gentle, sincere love songs that seemed to exude out of their obviously strong relationship. (I think they’re the only duo we’ve ever seen kiss at the end of a set.) Besides the precise, layered vocals, their tunes come with cool twists and shifts and sweet language, as on the memorable “Unforgetaboutable,” which has such ease you’d think the word had already been made up ages ago.
That set the stage for the set I was not so secretly looking forward to the most. The Wood Brothers buzz is building, and I really think it’s because after a couple albums they’ve found their true core sound on this new Smoke Ring Halo album. The songs make the absolute most of Oliver Wood’s amazing broad sword of a voice. It’s heavy and it cuts. The opener “Up Above My Head” had grease and grace in equal measure, with a massive sound from just three instruments and a vibe that was half church and half country barbecue. “When I Was Young” built on a New Orleans rumba beat that simply exploded from Chris Wood’s world-dominating bass. “Smoke Ring Halo” showed off their smart arrangements, with tempo shifts and catches that really up the interest level. They totally earned their encore, the shake-em-on-down grooved “Shoefly Pie.” With label ties to the popular and savvy Zac Brown, this should be a great year for the Wood Bros.
Fearless host Jim Lauderdale stretched with a cool choice for the Jam, “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos.” I needed to look it up. It’s an old Texas prison work song that was recorded by Leadbelly, The Band and Bob Dylan among others. It’s choral oooh-oooh lines helped fill the barn. And a barn packed with happy people and distinguished guests. I spotted Gary Nicholson, bass legend Bob Babbitt, John Cowan and David Jacobs-Strain in the crowd. Thanks to all for making the scene. And hopefully for driving home safely. Your correspondent promises to slow down.