My headline this week comes from Pete Huttlinger, acoustic guitarist and seeming wizard, as he set up a tune on the stage of the Loveless Cafe Barn last night. In the story, he was playing for a gathering some time ago, and he chimed through the famous and gorgeous opening chords to “Josie” by Steely Dan. Somebody in the crowd, projecting forward in his mind’s ear to the complex song ahead, wondered aloud to those around him the above anticipatory question. The musician only has one hand on the neck and only six strings to pluck and by god that song has at least six parts that all flow together in interwoven wonder. Seriously, what’s he going to do now?
Huttlinger’s musical answer was awe-inspiring. Let’s just say there was a lot of effortless and efficient motion, with numerous right hand fingers all working impressively independently and the left hand moving up and down the neck to grab little bits of the tune that somehow magically notched together to form a cohesive whole. There was the sweeping funky bass line, the syncopated harmonic riff and the melody line clear as a bell, present and accounted for. (One thought that any second the guitar itself might start forming lyrics: “She’s the priiiiide of the neighborhooood.”) There was “Josie,” truly one of my favorite records of all time, re-imagined, re-applied to an instrument that’s already hard to play.
I’ve spent much of my life seeking out great guitarists, and when I get to see them live, as at our second annual Guitar Night, I have that question subconsciously back there at all times: “what’s he going to do now?” (Gender adjusted, of course, when I see Mimi Fox or Muriel Anderson or Susan Tedeschi.) That sense of suspense and tension is inherent in all great music, but for me with guitar it’s especially acute, because I know how easy it is to take the house of cards that is a guitar solo and smash it with a lapse of concentration or motor dyslexia. Lead guitarists, so often exposed completely out front, are the high-wire walkers of pop and rock music, and we had four super-smart, ultra-musical, deeply passionate exemplars on our show this week. And our full house seemed to believe it was special; as Ms. Laurie pointed out at the end of the evening, we think this was the first time we’ve had standing ovations for ALL our performers AND the Loveless Jam after. Heck I’m still clapping.
Huttlinger was first, opening as our lone soloist and our lone acoustic artist. Perfect appetizer. His first tune, the venerable “I Got Rhythm” featured right hand rolling figures like banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs and harmonic improvisation like jazz guitarist Earl Klugh. His Beatles medley was nourishing, and his seeming original tune “McGuire’s Landing” was a breezy and lyrical seafaring journey song. Pete’s set-closer was a little ditty known as “Superstition” which of course provides the same three-dimensional chess challenge as “Josie,” but this is one of his signature tunes. He nailed it. Standing O.
Pat Bergeson is not only skillful, he’s brave. Which is what you have to be to open your set with a lyrical ballad, specifically Grant Green’s “Idle Moments.” But our audience was appropriately hushed and the band oozed romance. Chris Brown coaxed just enough time out of the drums to guide, and organist Charles Treadway made that satin-sheet, liquid-sexy sound that can only come from jazz organ. It was lovely, but no way adequate preparation for what came next. Pat invited on stage his regular musical collaborator Charles “Wig” Walker, the Nashville R&B star whose career was renewed by the Night Train To Nashville project of a few years ago. The group played I think the most perfect all-out blues number we’ve ever had on Roots. The vocals were magisterial on “Fleetwood Cadillac,” and the band smoked in swinging unison. And it was the jazz version of the blues with the extra delicious chords, so yum. Standing O.
Our unofficial house guitarist Guthrie Trapp, star of stage, studio and band 18 South, was our lead dog in putting together this year’s Guitar Night. And I was anticipating his set because I knew he’d been polishing his original instrumental pieces as part of tracking his first solo album. And oh are these tunes great. See, there’s a style of electric guitar that’s basically always done best on a Fender Telecaster (the guitar played by all THREE of our electric pickers last night by the way) in which nearly all the fingers are used on the right hand, enabling what they call “grabs” which spank the guitar while making tone clusters and micro-chords that basically enable playing the guitar like a piano. The opener “Commodity” had overtones of Sonny Landreth, Pat Metheny and The Police, with its shockingly sharp rhythmic drive. The band: impeccable. Nashville legend Michael Rhodes played bass aggressively, making deep eye contact with Guthrie and moving about the stage like a ninja. Pete Abbott held down the drums, basically breathing with the other guys and always making the musical idea bigger and better. Guthrie’s “Monkey Bars” gave me a King Crimson thrill with its off-kilter time signature. “Patricia” shifted mood entirely with an island vibe. And the closing medley of “Angeline,” adapted from a great bluegrass fiddle tune into “Mambo Cheeks” swelled from lush to lacerating over five glorious minutes. Standing O.
And then Kenny Vaughan steered things back in a linear, rootsy direction, kicking off with the celebratory “Country Music’s Got A Hold On Me.” He invited Charles Treadway back to the stage for “Mysterium” from his V album, and the organ proved vital to the loungy, groovy essence of the tune. Kenny’s “Carolee” was a boogie woogie tour-de-force inspired by the late Opry star Carol Lee Cooper. And he granted us another guest turn by having Guthrie come up for a shred-off over Little Walter’s “You Know It Ain’t Right.” It was all deep and righteous, with just the right balance of flash and finesse. You know where this is going. Standing O.
Jim Lauderdale is always on the ball with the Loveless Jam, and when he suggested celebrating Jerry Garcia’s birthday with a round of “Friend of the Devil,” our multitude of instrumentalists rose to the occasion. Jim and Kenny traded the vocal duties through all the verses and bridge and then they sent the solos around the bases: Kenny brought the country grace, then onto Huttlinger with his acoustic touch, then Pat Bergeson with his mastery of harmonica, then Treadway on blushing organ and finally Guthrie, with his little hints of post-modernism built into his blues rock core. So yep, standing O. These tight-rope walking wizards deserved nothing less.