Conventional wisdom says a multi-act show should build from small to big, from intimate to blockbuster. Well, you know how we feel about conventional wisdom. Last night at the Barn, we started at a full-tilt sprint with some of the largest bands we’ve seen, and by the end of the second act 17 musicians had been on stage. When we wrapped up a couple hours later with an acoustic duo, it made a kind of sense. Because from one end to the other, the musicianship was superb and the voices were some of the strongest and most moving we’ve heard.
Our over-the-top opener was a Brooklyn-based nine-piece with the seductive name Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. Son. This was freaky cool. Huge band. Huge sound. Fronted by a tiny lead singer with a huge voice and huge, stage-commanding presence. In Nashville we call this Martina-ism, after that nice McBride lady who blasts you with nuclear power generated out of seeming nowhere. Her name is Arleigh Kincheloe, and she’s got star power. The lanky guy playing smoking hard blues harmonica next to her turned out to be her brother. Meanwhile, the four-man horn section funked it up with wildly woven improvs and staccato stabs. The drummer was a polyrhythmic soul cat. And best of all the songs were really strong, with unpredictable angles and shapes. I certainly was due for a dose of New Orleans funk, and this helped a lot. These guys are playing Sunday night at the Five Spot in East Nashville, and you’ll probably see more than half the Roots team there. We were smitten.
Our Vietti artists brought nearly as many people, but Buffalo Clover came off more like a Fillmore act from the 1960s. A few love beads would have completed their look. And the sound had all kinds of nice organic crunchy influences, plus layers of Staxy soul. Then it was on to a pair of divine singer/songwriters with Amy Speace and Jill Andrews. Speace has a voice like spun brass, warm and weighty. Comparisons to Joan Baez or Judy Collins, a mentor of hers, are apt. “Too Late To Call It A Night” was a woozy romantic country ballad elevated by a tasteful guitar solo by sideman Tom Jutz. “Ghost” was also slow, but never dreary, because of Speace’s masterful phrasing. In world perhaps too full of female singer/songwriters, Speace is one who could transfix me for a nice long evening. But then so could Jill Andrews. The former member of the everybodyfields has readied her debut LP-length album, and we could tell from the opening melody of the title track “The Mirror” that it’s going to be a scintillating, absorbing delight. Andrews’s voice is slightly softer and loftier than Speace, with that heartbreaking purity of tone we hear in folks like Alison Krauss and Sarah Jarosz. Jill’s pop sensibility helps make her Appalachian-infused music very accessible and joyful.
And then there was one. One duo with one guitar. Sweethearts of the Rodeo rounded out the night with songs from their illustrious past and some from their new album Restless, coming this summer. Sisters Janice Oliver and Kristine Arnold were part of the Great Credibility Scare of the 1990s on country radio. And after many years of infrequent but fun reunion gigs, they’re back playing and recording for real. “Sinful Thoughts” was a new one, a minor-key devilish little tune. They chunked out the Cash classic “Get Rhythm” with actually more emphasis on the lyrics than the beat, which was a cool way to hear the song anew. And they wrapped with a song they’d been playing for decades, a feminized Waylon’s “Only Daddy (Mama) That’ll Walk The Line.”
On one occasion last night the thinky part of my brain intruded into the feely part of my brain to ask why oh why the music industry is so full of producers and record companies who think the human voice is something that needs “improving” or polishing or tuning. Of course some do need it, but I don’t know why you’d make a record with such people when there are voices like we heard last night, a magnificent lineup that didn’t need any assistance whatsoever.