You have to salute a band that carries, loads and unloads a vintage xylophone to a show like ours to play on two songs just because it’s exactly the right sound. Our closing band Seryn brought one on Wednesday night. From Texas. And you should have seen this thing. It looked like a hospital gurney from the 1940s with wheels and metal bars on top. Chris Semmelback got up from his drum set on a couple of occasions during Seryn’s set to add its pinging, singing texture to a lush and lovely soundscape.
Americana music is a minimalist art form, by and large. At its core is the lone songwriter with an acoustic guitar, and major heroes in our world know that their audiences won’t demand a full band on the road and often prefer the spare elegance of a solo show or a single accompanist. Heavy production in the recording studio can be seen as a departure from authenticity.
Saxophonist and show-closer Jeff Coffin offered a very cool insight about jazz in our interview at Roots Wednesday night. The word improvisation, he said, comes from the Latin improvisio, which means the unexpected, or to put it another way - surprise. That certainly at the core of my fascination with jazz. Where other genres get their mojo by fulfilling hopes and expectations and being familiar, jazz is an ongoing flood of surprises, era to era, artist to artist and moment to moment.
A friend once turned to me after a set at Merlefest and said “Ooh, I had a Merlefest Moment.” And I said, “Oh wow, you have those too?” It put a name on something that had been happening to me year after year as I attended that sprawling pop-up city of roots music. The whole thing was uplifting, but every so often during a performance the world would transform into a dream sequence. The song, the sound, the setting and the season would unify into pure state of transcendent NOW. Pupils dilated. Skin tingled. Heart rate elevated. Eyes glowed with dewy moisture.
“You have to hit all the bases,” said bandleader and broadcaster Joe Mullins from the stage on Wednesday night. He was talking about a bluegrass show, where you’d better sing about momma, murder, trains and God before the night’s over. But he might also have been describing a good Roots show, where we try to touch as many bases as we can on the Americana infield.
Things are warming up. On Tuesday evening I was at the ballpark basking in a perfect 70 degree night with a skim of pollen on my beer (you should try it – delicious). Then Wednesday, it’s a scorching 87 degrees! An anomaly I’m sure. Of course that’s the day our beloved barn’s HVAC system had some kind of seizure and would not respond to our ministrations. So it was a bit warm in there, and we hope it wasn’t a bother if you were our guest. I actually loved having the tents open and the spring air flowing around. The performers?
“Uncle” John Walker (my new nickname for our show’s co-founder) wore his Detroit Tigers cap Wednesday night in honor of the city that offered a musical education/upbringing to himself and his old pal Derek St. Holmes, the man set to play our penultimate set at the Loveless Barn. It was a young man move bound up with a young man dream of perhaps trading licks with this arena-scale rock star on our stage. And by golly it happened. As Derek St.Holmes started the final song of his ripping and righteous set, he signaled to John to grab his Strat. Cool, except there was no gear in place.
Musical legends come in may shades of cool, from not at all to unapproachably awesome. And sometimes they come in cool shades, the way W.S. “Fluke” Holland did at Music City Roots this week. They were gold aviator specs that went ever-so-well with his amazing mane of white hair, not to mention his graceful, gracious personality.
With a lineup that flowed as naturally as a mountain creek, bountiful and beautiful voices, two full horn sections, tons of new music from new albums and a tent revival climax, I’ll nominate last night’s Roots for best in show. Quintessentially eclectic, we touched the bases of traditional blues, bluegrass, modern folk/country, soul/R&B and holy roller gospel. We were serenaded by lovers and by sisters. Our cup overflowethed. Before I pack the car to leave for tonight’s launch of our new sister show Scenic City Roots in Chattanooga, here’s what went down.
If there’s one thing in live music that people react to more than any other, it’s intensity. I’ve seen mediocre players and singers make huge audience connections by pushing their gifts to the limit and just opening themselves up emotionally. Yes, it’s a risk. It can go South in a hurry. But better to go for it. And when an artist is extremely good AND extremely vulnerable AND extremely expressive, mind-boggling things happen.