Submitted by Craig Havighurst on December 12, 2013 – 18:38
It’s a line we hear frequently from Jim: “You never know what might happen at Music City Roots.” For a while I thought it was true enough, with a bit of P.T. Barnum hype mingled in. But in reflecting on our four-year journey so far and in interacting with our wonderful fans as part of our first fund-raiser (of which we shall speak no more!) and in experiencing a night like this Wednesday’s show, I realize how profoundly true Jim’s words are. When we launched Roots, we had no idea what the future held or if we’d get through the first few weeks without stumbling on ourselves. And on a micro-level, even with our fairly set formula and flow, something always happens to surprise, delight and move us. Never has that been more true than this week’s show. There were legends at the mic and on the bandstand. Kindness and respect flowed like moonshine. Flowers were handed out from the edge of the stage. Oh, and there was a parade. I’ll never forget this one.
The thing that strikes you about John Fullbright, the night’s opening set, is his focused power. Like a martial artist who’s trained to channel all his energy into efficient blows, Fullbright’s delivery makes most other songwriters look nonchalant. He doesn’t writhe around or anything like that. He’s almost eerily calm. But you’d best be ready for an intellectual, emotional (and metaphorical) 2×4 to the chest when he strums his Martin acoustic. “Satan And Saint Paul” from his triumphant debut album is a tale of anguish and searching. John tenderized the set with “When You’re Here” and “Didn’t Know,” new songs that dealt with more sympathetic situations of the heart. But set-closer “Gawd Above” spoke directly to the audacity in Fullbright’s artistry. He sings from the point of view of a jaded God. Though in the end it may be a tougher verdict for the human race.
From the solo to the mega-ensemble we went, as Bobby Rush and his band BlindDog Smokin’ took the stage with three singers and four instrumentalists, all in formal black. Bobby, in a dark olive suit with gold embroidery, was large and in charge from the beginning. His voice was rich and sonorous on opener “Decisions” which slip-slid in mid-tempo funk. “Stand Back” had a Latin rock groove, showcasing Chalo Ortiz’s crisp electric guitar. I bet he had a poster of Carlos Santana on a wall at some point, if not today. But the tour de force was a ten-minute piece of blues theater called “Funky Old Man.” Written by then-fan and now band-leader Carl Gustafson as a kind of dialogue/dance battle/support group session between two funky old men, the tune let the 79-year old Bobby Rush boogie, kick, jump, vamp and thrust. It was only a fraction of the risqué level he achieves in his blues club shows, but we got the idea, as well as just a glimpse of dancer Mizz Lowe’s booty-shaking skills. (Miley Cyrus, you are a poseur at this stuff, honestly.) With a James Brown-with-a-cane-and-a-cape ending and a big flourish by the band, Bobby wrapped the set by handing roses to the ladies in the crowd. I think the old man is lying about his age.
Then came a classic Music City Roots mood swing, from folk-funk to folk finesse, as we welcomed the serene and sophisticated Sarah Jarosz to the stage with her violinist Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathanial Smith. Her voice alone could lower the blood pressure of a hypertensive ambulance driver. The interplay of instruments and voices in this soft power trio tickles my passion for bluegrass, jazz and classical all at the same time. Sarah played four different stringed instruments over five songs to compound the fascination. “Build Me Up From Bones” and “Mile On The Moon” were silvery cool and melodically graceful. They did the rippling Celtic-influenced instrumental “Mansinneedof” (reference the inside joke here), which was especially delightful during its plucked pizzicato passages. The finale was “Fuel The Fire,” with a newgrass pulse, Sarah’s clawhammer banjo frailing and an Appalachian-inspired melody. Thanks to our audience for their crypt-like silence during this subtle set, by the way. It was worthy of undivided attention.
Now think about this. Our wonderful host Jim Lauderdale has done at least a half a dozen featured sets on Roots during the life of our show, and every one has been different. His range is just amazing. And on this evening of jaw-droppers and eye-poppers, Jim took the stage not only with Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars (expected) but a superb horn section of Jim Hoke and Steve Herrman and (double-take) Muscle Shoals icons David Hood on bass and Spooner Oldham on keys. For perspective on how awesome that little cameo was, check this out. The songs, from Jim’s magnificent new Black Roses album made with the Allstars at their historic studio, shuffled in 6/8 soul time with varying degrees of North Mississippi trance. I love “Throw My Bucket Down,” which never leaves its home chord but also never lacks for dynamism. The delicious chord changes came on “Bull By The Horns” a tune with R&B sweetness and a muscular chorus. “Ride On” was pure country soul that showcased the horns. It could have been 1959 or 2020; Lauderdale’s work is timeless.
All the Allstars had to do was retake the stage with bass player Lightning Malcolm and throw down like they do. Luther, who’d played a gorgeous Gibson 335 during his set with Jim grabbed a home-made, electrified soup-can diddley-bow and rocked like Zeppelin on opener “Rollin and Tumblin.” Then the expensive guitar came back as the band slid into the smoother, sweeter “Meet Me In The City” over Cody’s crisp, clockwork beat. Luther’s bare-fingered right-hand technique, paired with his skilled slide work was as exciting as any guitar we heard this season. And then Cody came from behind his drum kit, donned his own electric and the brothers conjured magic on an Allman-esque guitar instrumental called “ML,” which is done acoustically as a bonus track on the new World Boogie Is Coming album. Their live version, with its electric swagger and canny improvisation, was a journey. Truly amazing. And just as Bobby Rush saved his spectacle for the end, the NMA took their last song into the crowd with a chanting “Granny Does Your Dog Bite” that featured only marching drums and voices. Cody donned a Mardis Gras mask and spit the lyrics like a river bottom rapper while nearly busting his snare drum. They paraded all around the barn and landed back on stage to rafter shaking applause.
All that remained was to tap the Allstars’ much loved rendering of “Sitting On Top Of The World” as a Loveless Jam. I personally missed the sound of the cane fife, which we talked about in the interview room, but all other pieces were in place as the boys, Jim, Bobby Rush, John Fullbright and others traded verses. I got to bang on the bass drum with my drumming hero Cody, so an already mind-blowing night came with kind of a dream come true conclusion. It’s been said many times, many ways. Anything can happen at Music City Roots. And Merry Christmas.