Not to just talk about the weather, but it’s kind of the defining reality right now isn’t it? Thick ice is taking down trees and power lines to our south and our East Coast friends are enduring their umpteenth snowstorm of the year. It’s not been so cold so consistently in Nashville in the 16 years I’ve lived here. And we’re all beyond sick of it. No doubt the brief chattering of sleet here yesterday afternoon and the frozen crap-tastrophy just over the horizon kept a few of our friends and supporters home last night. But when guest host Peter Cooper kicked off our show with his ode to hope and renewal “Opening Day,” its Spring breeze was musical encouragement to hang on a little longer. Pitchers and catchers are reporting for training camp this week.
And it was a warming night of music all around. Bluegrass got our blood pumping. We enjoyed folk music infused with North African heat. And our final two folk singers were like aural hugs. The bluegrass came from the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, who came out with acoustic instruments blazin’ as they offered up “Whitewater,” one of the all-time classic Bela Fleck instrumentals. But I think it was their second piece where 11-year-old Johnny Mizzone’s articulate banjo technique and round tone really came clear. These three brothers can pick – and compose as well. Most of the set’s tunes were original, including Tommy’s lick-filled ode to Tony Rice entitled “The Man From Danville.” Robbie’s fiddle glowed on the streamlined “Farthest Horizon.”
I wasn’t able to spend as much time in advance as I wanted to with the music of Piers Faccini, but man did he cast a spell in the barn. As promised in his press material, this European based songwriter is a sonic artist who borrows elegantly from North Africa and the Mississippi Delta, even as his vocals reminded me in places of trad British folk singers, with strong and slightly ancient sounding melodies. Piers played fingerstyle on electric guitars, creating haunting loops and snapping counterpoints, while his stage partner for the set, Jano Rix (he of the Wood Brothers) toggled between melodica and his patented rhythmic instrument the Shuitar. The arrangement of reedy drones (Piers played harmonica too), crunchy guitar strings and thick hand-drum groove put me in a divine trance.
Nashville band MODOC told me they toned down their electricity a bit and added some country texture for their Roots appearance, and that proved a thoughtful move, sandwiched as they were between two flavors of folk. Lead singer Clint Culberson said he hadn’t played a set on acoustic guitar in years, but matched with Kyle Addison’s tasty electric and guest musician Smith Curry’s swelling steel it worked great. Clint’s a great singer both in restrained mode and in full soar. The set built gradually in intensity, and it’s easy to see how these guys could hold rock and roll church for thousands of people. They look as if they’ll spend 2014 doing just that.
Our folky finish blended yins and yangs that applied well beyond the obvious black and white tones of the singers and their voices. Darden Smith’s material had the lean economy of the Texas storyteller. Vance Gilbert’s songs were more elaborate and lyric laden in the Northeastern folkie way. The former is emotionally level; the latter wins his audience over with a wild streak. Smith offered songs from his new Love Calling album, including the sweet title track whose mellow romance was supported by nylon string guitar. I heard Vance give Darden a big backstage writer-to-writer compliment for “I Smell Smoke,” which really is a gem with its smart play on its multi-faceted metaphor. And Smith invited co-writer Radney Foster (and, very spontaneously, Smith Curry with his steel as well) up to join him on “Angel Flight,” that masterpiece of a song about the Air National Guard unit that flies caskets of soldiers back to their home towns for burial. Then Vance took the stage in bright orange alligator shoes and matching shirt to do his funny and very warm thing. “God Bless Everyone” had a gracious message and a devious rhyme scheme. His gorgeous song of grief and loss “Unfamiliar Moon” is always cathartic. And “Old White Men,” constructed out of real life lessons and pictures of true mentorship was yet another reminder what a song master he is.
The gang wrapped the night with a joyful version of “Act Naturally” which is advice our musicians don’t need. They’d not know how to do it any other way. Now we’re more than ready for nature to take its course outside, in the melting, warming and blooming kind of way.