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. And you’re probably correct in guessing I’m about to tell you this took place – more than once – on Wednesday night at the Loveless Barn, chiefly with some fascinating females.
It began with a troika of songwriters, each with her or his own touch and tone. Shelly Colvin was graceful and warm, with songs that swayed on West Coast breezes. “Alright Now” had a lullaby quality. “Up The Hickory Down The Pine,” the title track of her current album, offers abstract images from a life well lived in tune with nature. Sadler Vaden, whom we last saw shredding through big amplifiers with Drivin’ N Cryin’, supported Shelly with some bold acoustic flatpicking. The rhythm section was rounded out by the great bassist Bryn Davies, fresh off her Grammy Awards gig with Jack White, punching the drive and singing exquisite harmonies. Then Mandi Rae hit the stage with a four-piece band and a rolling country sound. Mandi’s voice is quite something – really powerful but lonesome too. Her most engaging song was a long ballad about a missing girl in “Mystery On The Mountains.” Then the songwriter-ish first half of Roots wrapped with Andrew Duhon, visiting from New Orleans. Crescent City textures weren’t overwhelmingly obvious in his sound, though there is abundant soul pathos in his voice, and when he ran a glass slide around his fuzz-tone electric arch top guitar, the blues did issue forth. I loved “Feelin’ Low,” which was a blues with a bridge, and I loved his remark on stage (if I heard it correctly) that “a homemade song is chicken noodle soup.” It’ll heal y’all.
Then came the high drama and what guest host Peter Cooper jokingly called the “bluesy evil”. Luella and The Sun has scorched its way into the hearts of indie rock and folk lovers around here in a short period of time, and they do this by making a unique statement with every song. This was unlike anything I’ve heard in our venue. The stabbing tone clusters of Joe McMahan’s guitar evoked R.L. Burnside, but it had an atmospheric jazz voodoo as well. Over the course of the set, I detected influences of Afro-pop and John Zorn, with any avant-garde weirdness balanced with a locked-in, grooving rhythm section. When Luella entered, slim and tall in black velvet with gold necklaces, she brought a brash and insistent tone. The opener “Fly So Free” had an extended section where she sang alone, and there was hardly a breath in the room. I’ve never heard a background so quiet in the Barn, and she filled the void with a voice both forbidding and gorgeous. Her abandon is matched only by her control; it’s quite something. “Ditch Rider” sweetened things up a bit with starry night chords and a comforting 12-bar structure. Closer “We Got To Meet Death One Day” merged tent revival gospel with early rock and roll. It was moving stuff.
Also bold and leaving nothing backstage, the Vespers featuring the paired voices of sisters Phoebe and Callie Cryar, which can be adorable, fiery or furious. They’ve found some mystery sibling intervals that haunt the soul, and they – a bit like Luella – know when to dial up the passion and drive to the red line. The quartet shuffles instruments like nobody I’ve ever seen. Banjos, guitars, basses, mandolins and guitars can seemingly wind up in the hands of anyone. That leaves a lot of approaches to songs that still supports a core sound. I thought brother Bruno sounded especially good on upright bass, giving real structure to the new song “Out West.” The set closer “Close My Eyes” is a tour de force that opens with a striding marching beat matching drums and banjo. Then its gossamer vocals give way to an accelerating instrumental section and then a double-time shift that leaves everyone flailing at punk rock tempo. They’ve long been favorites of ours, yet they always surprise.
Thanks again to Peter Cooper for a run of guest-hosted shows while Jim Lauderdale was away. He offered up a cool new song that name checked about 100 great, semi-obscure Americans including race car driver Dick Trickle, who needed his own song. And Coop led the chorale on “Stand By Me” because hey, we’ll always stand by you.