It’s one thing when an acclaimed and revered artist comes to Roots and puts on a thrilling show, i.e. Alejandro Escovedo or Jimmy Webb. We know they’ll be great, and presto, they’re great. The more rarified and memorable encounters come when an artist’s facility far exceeds their familiarity. In other words, we love surprises. And this week we’re featuring two artists who arrived as strangers and left on the top of our hit parade of love.
If you polled our team, I’m certain that right up near the top of our Holy Smokes Moments would be the October 2013 visit by Davina & The Vagabonds. No doubt their website and online tunes suggested this was a tight band with a taste for vintage swing and tasteful musicality. But blurbs and YouTubes couldn’t hope to capture Davina’s animated showmanship, her intense passion or her flair for tiny hats.
Here’s some of what I had to say the next morning about it: “Seated at the piano, you could tell something was afoot from her animated eyes and vigorous jabs at her keyboard. And then came the voice, a fantastically bold, expressive and varied instrument equal parts smoke and sugar, with touches of Bessie Smith, Bette Midler and Betty Boop. . . .The band smoked. She played banging, difficult and dazzling piano solos. It was roots music with historic grounding and innovative flair, and D and the Vs were rewarded with I think four standing ovations and heaps of zany love from the crowd.”
Since that visit, the Twin Cities, Minnesota band has toured widely, played the New Orleans JazzFest and the Monterey Jazz Festival twice and released an acclaimed album (Sunshine) that includes some of the songs we heard that first night. A new live album is being readied for release, but we’re fortunate to get the real thing at Liberty Hall this week.
Hymn For Her, another MCR WTF artist who first appeared in March 2011, could be classified as modern day vagabonds, or gypsies or troubadours. They don’t leave home when they hit the road, because their Airstream camper is their home and transport too. And they’re a family with a cute little girl who’s growing up with some very individual and adventuresome parents. Lucy and Wayne are a kind of hillbilly hipster take on the White Stripes, except he’s the drummer (among many other things) and she’s the source of the dank, dark electric guitar riffs. But look closely, because it’s not a standard six string. It’s a cigar box guitar, a traditional blues instrument, modded up with electronics. With it, she can make head-banging rock and roll or Highway 61 groove. Together, the vocal blend, the brazen songs and the musical energy make for an unforgettable experience.
Our bill at this season closing show is rounded out by award winning blues and globe-embracing Celtic music. Coming up in the second slot are The Celts, a Nashville based band made of Irish and Irish Americans that stretches tradition without breaking it. Band founder Ric Blair describes in the band’s bio that he totally changed his career plans when he had an epiphany at an Irish pub, and now his band is a guest on the Grand Ole Opry and other prestigious stages.
Our third artist on the bill arrives fresh off her win as Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis. This was on a night of wins by the likes of Keb Mo, Bobby Rush, Charlie Musselwhite and more. Janiva Magness is a veteran artist who certainly deserves to be in that company. She is noted not only for her power and finesse but her songwriting as well. They say she’s had some trials in her life and they’ve fueled her songs. Fellow artist like Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette are among those who are crying out for Magness to get a wider reach and more fans. We’ll add our names to that list this week.
With our fixed address and our, well, roots we are not as vagabondish as we might like to be. But we are bound to out vows of supporting great music and hard-working artists. I think we’ve accomplished that this season and that we’ll do so again on Wednesday night.