Did you see that movie Whiplash? The one about the young jazz drummer who’s tormented by a sadistic music school teacher and bandleader? While I was excited to see jazz and drumming placed at the center of a major motion picture, I ended up really disliking it. It had no soul or warmth for the music and made serious drum study look like boot camp for merely playing fast. Musicality? Not so much. Just meanness, fear and speed. I bring you this movie reference from left field because this week we’re presenting a great jazz drummer (and rock and soul and funk drummer) who is all about the music and because we also have a famous and beloved new-era southern rock band that’s so musically different I have my own case of whiplash. But as you probably know, that’s our formula and it nearly always works.
Southern rock is too easily reduced to Marshall amplifiers and Confederate flags, and as one who grew up in North Carolina, with Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers on my record player and in my world, it’s been interesting to reflect on the subgenre in the context of the roots music renaissance. My interpretation is that if deep south folk and blues got a heart transplant and an amplified makeover in Britain in the late 60s, Southern Rock took back the torch in the early 70s and scaled up juke joint blues for the rock arena. There was some knucklehead, one-dimensional stuff, but also some great songwriting and in the case of the Allmans, world-class, jazz-influenced nuance. Blackberry Smoke is a revival of the revival in all its best aspects. Formed in 2000 in Atlanta, the band fronted by songwriter/singer/guitarist Charlie Starr went full tilt indie, performing relentlessly and building an organic following. They were pulled under the Southern Ground tent of the Zac Brown Band and eventually signed to Rounder Records.
That association led to last year’s acclaimed and brisk selling Holding All The Roses, an album that’s full of surprises, great melodies, colorful chiming chords and beguiling blends of the acoustic and electric. The band feels Georgia through and through, with nods to and shadings of the Allmans, Drive-By Truckers, Otis Redding, The Black Crowes, even a dash of Athens pop. The album opens with some juicy pile driving rhythms and jet engine guitars. But lest you think it’s going to be all power-chords and swagger, you get the dreamy beauty of “Woman In The Moon” or the comfortable country rock of “Too High.” There’s a lot here – cathartic power, sincerity and musical intelligence. The mix has helped Blackberry Smoke become a huge live draw and it will be a jolt to welcome them to our fold.
So now whiplashing over to the other end of the spectrum we find the Chester Thompson Trio with its deft touch lineup of Joe Davidian on piano and Michael Rinne on bass. In Americana I can think of only Levon Helm as a drumming quasi-band leader, but in jazz it’s not uncommon. Thompson has a lot of leadership to give after an incredibly distinguished career that started in the early 1960s, backing fascinating musicians like Ben E. King and organist Jack McDuff. Thompson was clearly looking for music with challenges and originality because he auditioned for Frank Zappa and joined that incredibly demanding band for several years. Then it was on to jazz fusion icons Weather Report for a stretch before he secured the gig that would anchor his career for decades – Genesis – where he often played in a thundering duet with drumming singer Phil Collins. In the early 80s, I was bananas for the albums Abacab and Three Sides Live and it’s nice to learn that when I drummed along with those LPs for practice I was trying to keep up in most cases with Chester. Thompson made his Nashville his base many years ago, and from here he’s toured and recorded widely with stars like Donna Summer, Neil Diamond and more. A musician could hardly have a more well rounded life’s experience, and as a long time teacher at Belmont University and the Nashville Jazz Workshop, he’s made a name as a mentor and brilliant instructor, the polar opposite of the J.K. Simmons character in Whiplash.
Also on our bill is the more core Americana sound of Girls, Guns and Glory. This Boston quartet has been at it for just shy of a decade with a religious fealty to the legacy of Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. It’s country with a spank and classic rock and roll with a twang. Lead singer Ward Hayden says the band is “really rooted in various American forms of music whether it’s rockabilly or hillbilly boogie or traditional country or rock ‘n’ roll. I consider us a rock ‘n’ roll band blended with classic country music, but this new album is really more of a straight up rock ‘n’ roll album.” He’s speaking of Good Luck, GGG’s most recent studio album from 2014. But they’ve more recently made a live covers album of all Hank Williams songs, interpreted with switchblade edge. The guys were supposed to kick off 2016 with gigs in New York and D.C. but the snows overtook those shows, so we’ll offer shelter from the storm and a welcoming stage.
Rounding things out is a new iteration of the musical journey of East Tennessee’s Kris Truelsen, whom we last saw in the old time duo The Blue Ridge Entertainers. Now he’s leading a four piece called Bill And The Belles with two ladies on banjo and fiddle and a gentleman bass player. The group revels in pre bluegrass songs, mountain ballads and Tin Pan Alley classics. They’ve been a resident band for the Radio Bristol revival of Farm and Fun Time via the Birthplace of Country Music. They’ll be in the second slot while opening artist Brian Whelan will bring well-wrought songs and the experience he garnered as a long time band member for Dwight Yoakam. He’s young and hugely respected for his musicianship and his singing. It also sounds like he brings and edge and free thinking spirit that we admire.
So while from here on Sunday morning we may all be wondering how we’ll get out of our driveways, we have no doubt that we will. The snow, I mean the show, will go on. See you for a big one on Wednesday.