Booking Music City Roots is a huge challenge, and I salute the wisdom of the twelve shrouded monks who set our lineups each week from their secret chamber, rumored to be deep in the Earth not too far from where they hold Bluegrass Underground. Sometimes we on the team take a special interest in an artist, and after we submit our suggestions on parchment scrolls with a small offering of fruit and incense, we wait in hopes of a good outcome. That is approximately how my personal desire to see Candi Staton and William Tyler booked come to pass this week. I had nothing to do with the other two bands on the bill, and yet as so often happens, they all fit together nicely, with four different but complimentary visions. In a surprising twist this week, we got a double dose of instrumental music to balance out two grooving and passionate artists with big bands rooted in the blues.
The first of those was Brian James & The Revival, a group that came to our attention through the best way possible – the urging of fans who loved seeing him play regularly at Kimbro’s in Franklin. Clearly some of his local posse came out to see him on our stage, and it’s clear why they dig him. The music is rich and robust soul food. Brian and companion Telecaster player Matt Tedder were two stylists working in synch. Killer organ and keys came from Kenny Zarider. Brian’s energy and full-body engagement held it all together. He goes into a sort of trance. He wiggles and struts like Joe Cocker. And he has a relationship with his guitar like a well seasoned marriage. Its voice and his singing voice chatter back and forth with understanding and combative humor. He sang four sturdy original songs, worked up a major case of the sweats, drew several standing ovations, put his guitar on the deck and whanged its open strings by jumping on stage next to it for a final chord. It was a little bit of chaos and rock and roll to wrap up a tightly packaged set of intense American music.
William Tyler is a brave guy to step away from the conventional world of being in a band and writing songs to touring and recording as a solo guitar instrumental composer. Not only is this cool for the overall variety and thoughtfulness of music generally, I really enjoy his rolling, atmospheric tone poems. “Missionary Ridge,” inspired by Chattanooga’s Civil War battlefield, had a mystical melody and a story secreted in its flow. “Portrait of Sarah” was the most intense tune of the set, rumbling with some dark chords and finger slides and a rush of notes. Sarah must be something. He switched from acoustic to electric for the final “Tears And Saints,” a favorite tune of mine for its Celtic grace notes and serenity. This concluded with some electronically enabled looping and a growing cascade of delayed notes and warbles controlled by knobs instead of strings – a great sonic surprise.
The instrumental mastery continued as Brittany Haas, Paul Kowert and Jordan Tice took to the spotlight. You probably know I’m a real geek for music with layers and parts and complex interplay, and that’s what we got. Opener “Leadfoot” had unexpected shifts, pushes and pulls, yet it also had bluegrass drive. Another thing that’s great about instrumental music is it inspires creative titles for tunes that would be, um, improbable attached to lyrics, and so we got “Grandpa’s Cheesbarn” (with polyrhythms and stabs that reminded me of Bartok) and “Monkey Trouble” (a lighter tune that really danced on Brittany’s fiddle). The latter also featured a fantastic bowed bass solo by Kowert and satisfying bluesy slurs that kept it trad while it was also rad. To close they did sing one – a John Hartford gem called “Skippin’ In The Mississippi Dew” that has a really brisk tempo and a traffic jam of words. A segue into a simple waltz ended a very satisfying set that for me worked equally on the brain, ears and heart.
My experience with Candi Staton began with a sit-down interview on Roots Radio that revealed an artist who’s classy, adaptable, passionate and strong. She painted a vivid picture of auditioning for Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals in 1968, and she described a life with many chapters and challenges and seemingly much fulfillment. Like a classic soul artist, she came on stage after her introduction to a slinky vamp by her six-piece band, which included Staton’s son Marcus Williams on drums. Two of those musicians were support vocalists Lori Hall and Erik Blue, and Mr. Blue took on a playful and affectionate duet role in opener “I Ain’t Easy To Love.” Staton followed that with the romantic “Even The Bad Times Are Good,” a song by William Tyler’s dad Dan, who was on hand. The lovey dovey factor got even richer with the ballad “Eternity,” which had several couples holding hands in the front row. (Heaven knows what folks got up to in back.) Candi’s voice is indeed a sweet treat with smoke, silk and a country cry. Her original song “Three Minutes To A Relapse” showed her humor and sass as a performer and songwriter.
Jim Lauderdale kindly accepted my request to hear “The Thrill Is Gone” for the Nashville Jam, as B.B. King died last week one day after our show aired. With two bands steeped in the blues on stage it went great, and the acoustic masters from HKT got solos in as well. The performance was a microcosm of the night – music with and without words, each powerful and emotional it its own way.