EXCELLENT TIME

We don’t hear drum solos very often on MCR. Drummers in Americana are too often called on to sit in back and keep a competent beat. Drum solos, despite the bad rep they got during the arena rock era, are one magic and essential part of jazz and have always been of special interest to me. The difference between a knuckleheaded drum solo and a good one is subtle but important. A solo reveals the musicianship of the stick wielding human who usually doesn’t get attention unless they knock over a cymbal or something. I was admiring the musicianship of Michael Caskey and his smiling symbiosis with band leader and show closer Davy Knowles even before he got a minute to himself in the rippling “Tear Down The Walls.” The guy had panache and excellent time. And he was part of an overall excellent time that featured the stellar rock blues of Knowles, indie folk rock from Blank Range, mystifyingly mature country music from Emi Sunshine and the muscular songwriting of Hugh Masterson.

Hugh’s nickname and former band persona is HughBob, so I’ll call him that because it’s fun. And HughBob was right on time with a kind of Springsteen by way of Wisconsin by way of Nashville kind of country rock. HughBob played acoustic guitar while a sharp five piece band made Telecaster twang and slurry steel happen all around the songs, and the songs were honest depictions of real life – getting mugged for one thing – and the push and pull of the American small town.

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Emi Sunshine was surprisingly strong when she played roots three years ago at the improbable if not impossible age of 10. Now 13, she ripped through a set that left us all gobsmacked and emotionally involved. Opener “Katie Bell” was an original mountain murder ballad set to the groove of “Seminole Wind” with a Buddy Miller style yelp and passion. A song about a kid with autism was somber but lovely and utterly real and heart tugging. And she threw down with some straight up folk protest in a song about the American dream turning into a nightmare for regular folks. Could a 13 year old be the musical conscience of rural Tennessee?

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The four piece band Blank Range was a lot more colorful and contoured than its name might imply, with an intangible kind of strength grounded in melody and mood. Three guys – Jonathan Childers (guitar), Grant Gustafson (guitar) and Taylor Zachry (bass) took turns on vocal leads, lending variety and personality. But it was the harmony vocals set against seductive grooves that really made the ensemble stand out. From the shaggy but tight “86 My Mind” to the jabs of noise and controlled chaos of closer “By My Side,” the five-year-old band proved why they’ve won over every booker, journo and house they’ve played for.

I had so many questions for and about Davy Knowles, the 30-ish British guitar slinger and songwriter who came to play our show closing set. A pre-show hand shake revealed a super nice, super English guy who just seemed delighted to be here, there or anywhere. On stage, the gentlemanly demeanor was replaced, or I should say supplemented, with a fierce focus on tone and burning blues rock passion. Davy’s reputation as a player, singer and writer is well earned. His voice is naturally authoritative. He works chemically with his band, especially drummer Caskey, with whom he shared a lot of eye contact and smiles. This young artist is going to be a force for a long time to come.

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