A day-long, drenching rain eased up and a huge bank of intricately folded clouds pushed East just at dusk, producing the most awesome sunset I can remember in Nashville on Wednesday evening. It made for non-stop sky drama on my drive down I-65 to Franklin, and when I arrived, half our team was standing outside just hanging out in the warm evening watching the Factory water tower silhouetted against the psychedelic glow. A friend tweeted that it was a “Jerry” sunset, since he and others were gathering to see the latest iteration of the Grateful Dead downtown. I figured it was a good omen for our own polychromatic, way out lineup of talent on MCR.
It began with a contrast and compliment of generations – two guys with takes on country and Americana music that reflect their times. Moe Bandy, 71 years old and rock solid in voice and stature, took the stage in front of his quintessential country veterans’ ensemble – gray haired gentlemen with goatees in all black who know their licks and their role in the sound like they probably know scripture. The music was soothingly classic and upbeat, opening with that dandy “Bandy The Rodeo Clown.” “Cheating Situation” brought the pedal steel to the fore with lonesome pathos, while “Too Old To Die Young” set thoughts on mortality to a two-step beat.
I asked Tim O’Brien backstage if he was familiar with fellow West Virginia native Christian Lopez as the latter kicked off our second set. The answer was no, but then Lopez is barely 20 years old, so to say he’s new on the scene is an understatement. But man, what assurance and skill he had, no matter his age. His clean, surging vocals were impressive throughout, especially in bright bluegrassy harmony with banjo picking sidekick Chelsea McBee. Lopez, who is also ridiculously handsome, traded acoustic guitar for an electric on the moody and gorgeous “Take You Away” which produced watery beauty on the verses and then icy power in a fine solo. Then his acoustic fingerpicking on “Will I See You Again” proved concise and elegant. Yes, we will see the power folk of CLB again, and it can’t come soon enough.
The pivot point of this interestingly constructed show was a trustworthy hinge indeed as Tim O’Brien took the stage. And while he appeared solo on acoustic guitar, his ability to make a band’s worth of rhythm with his right hand and vocal phrasing is peerless. His bounce and lilt was infectious on opener “I Gotta Move,” which seems to be quite literally about packing and relocating, though I’m sure there are layers of allusion in there. He dedicated the sweet “I’m A Mess For You” to his lady Jan who smiled back from the merch table. The title track to his new album “Pompadour” came off with O’Brien’s easy wit and friendly groove. My favorite though was the set (and album) closer “The Water Is Wise.” The co-write with Sarah Jarosz flows like the river it describes, and Tim’s intricate hybrid guitar here was a thing of wonder. What can’t this guy do?
That set the table for a big beautiful collision of Memphis and Nashville as the North Mississippi All-Stars took the stage. And while I’ve seen the brothers Dickinson quite a few times over the years, this set was more than ever for me about Luther’s guitar playing. It had focus and phrasing and delicacy and power. Most of the time he was using a glass slide on a black Les Paul, producing a mesmerizing tone. On “Mean Old Wind” he sounded like the two guitar attack of the Allman Brothers – on one guitar! Then the coffee can diddly bow came out for the signature NMA take on “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” and unplugged, through the microphone it sounded like something from China and something from Africa and something from the swamps of America all at once. The set closer was a country-inflected instrumental that put amazing drummer Cody Dickinson in the spotlight. I swear that dude is an atomic clock with an artist’s soul.
The All-Stars were originally scheduled to close the show because they’re, you know, famous scene-making major leaguers. But they graciously deferred to our own Jim Lauderdale whose album release feature set was something we’d been looking forward to. I’ve already gushed about the new Soul Searching album, and we heard in this six-song set just some of the variety and originality he’s brought to the country soul context. “You Were Here” has exotic Eastern scales. “Black Widow Spider” grooved to a rumba beat while Luther Dickinson displayed still more slide guitar imagination. This was all sensational, but when the three man horn section came on for “Way Out,” the whole thing did indeed head way out to another plane of time and space. The sound was deluxe and mellifluous. The lyrics were beat poetry mixed with Southern candor. We were all floored by “Worth The Wait” with its candle-lit groove and a stunning vocal performance. Then the swift rock-a-boogie groove of “Mysterious” ended the set on an energetic note before the bands gathered to sing a rousing “Down By The Riverside.”
I regret missing The Dead in the heart of my city, but this week’s MCR spectacle on the edge of Music City was as fine as an LSD sunset.