I never thought much of the melody, but that Christmas hymn penned by John Jacob Niles called “I Wonder As I Wander” always struck me as a worthy sentiment; we should all wander and wonder a lot. Later I learned of J.R.R. Tolkein’s quote that “Not all those who wander are lost,” and I related to that as well. (It’s also a favorite of Chris Thile, who took it as an album title.) The word wander does seem to imply aimlessness, but I’m trying to raise my kid to see wandering and exploring as essential to a learned life. It’s curiosity in action, whether via hike, urban perambulation, road trip or daydreaming. One of our bands this week at Roots put Wander into its name. Another came into our world entirely because they wandered far from home, seeking something unnamable and finding something irreplaceable.
You may recall the story of Italian folk/bluegrass band La Terza Classe and how they came into our world. It was August of 2014. Our host and roadside hero Jim Lauderdale was driving back to Nashville after a gig and he saw a van broken down off the highway with some scruffy dudes trying to figure out the situation. He got an impulse to stop, and he learned they were a band Italy called La Terza Classe on a pilgrimage to the home of the music they loved. Jim invited them for a one-song appearance on MCR and they brought the house down. This week they return for a full set of songs. Their band name references the under-deck, third class accommodations on the old ocean liners that brought millions of immigrants to America. There in steerage, working class people from many cultures mingled and mixed, much like the story of folk music in the USA. These guys play with spirit and vigor, and we’re excited to see them again.
Meanwhile, the Way Down Wanderers from Chicago seem to be moving ahead with a sense of direction and momentum that may belie their name. Dubbed the Windy City’s Best Emerging Artist for 2014 by a major publication, they’re out on the festival circuit where our booking secret agents heard them play. The group features two front men and lead singers in old friends Austin Thompson and Collin Krause. Both are formally trained and indeed traces of careful composition sneak through in the WDW sound. Collin has a high, fluid voice and plays mandolin and fiddle. Austin is the lower voice and chief guitarist. The full band features drums and upright bass. This could be a you-saw-them-first-here moment.
It’s a night of youthful, emerging talent all around, and we’ll close with the rocking soul of Julie Rhodes. The powerhouse vocalist and songwriter was grinding out a living at an ice cream shop in suburban Boston not long ago, but she met some musical partners who helped coax her commanding and expressive voice to the fore. In just a short time gigging around the East she’s already garnered abundant praise and earned a lot of believers. PopMatters hailed “the arrival of a significant new Americana/blues talent.” The Boston Herald said that “her songs seem to rise from the ghosts of ’50s blues and ’60s soul greats.” And her debut album Bound To Meet The Devil includes guest musical magic from Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, Muscle Shoals keyboardist Spooner Oldham and steel guitar icon Greg Leisz, so somebody must know what she’s doing.
Opening the night will be an interesting twist for you string-band musical wanderers. Ever heard an all ukulele band? Ever heard an all ukulele band from Memphis? Now’s your chance, as the Memphis Ukulele Band takes the stage. We know about this acclaimed and curious group thanks to friend of the show (and Nissan Leaf driver/model) Larry Nager. He’s been the bass player for the band in the past and he recommended them. Their bio notes that the uke is “one of the most intimate, evocative and underrated stringed instruments. It’s fitting, then, that Memphis – also intimate, evocative, certainly underrated – is the setting for this magical collaboration.” And of course Memphis soul is always welcome on our stage in whatever form.
It’s our season-closing show, and what a season it has been, with collaborations and wandering of our own. We’re not sure if we’re more excited about having a couple weeks to rest and focus on producing our television series or about saying goodbye to Winter.