Roots Watch: Variety, the Spice of Live
I’m out there in the audience a lot, and, for me, the ideal performance situation is a relatively intimate one in which it’s possible to pick up on what the singer or instrumentalist is doing up there, even feeling up there, right now. For me, that adds even more dimensions to the sense of truly being present than being close enough to the ballgame action to see the pitcher’s expressions; it’s why the close-up was invented. Of course, it’s kind of nice to be able to hear, too—well enough for impact.
I fully understand that there are attractions for many in being packed in amidst massive throngs, clapping over your head as coaxed into doing so by acts who need to do it to stimulate or simulate response, and, occasionally, even hearing the show and maybe seeing, out past the people taking phone photos of themselves, the two-inch performer working away there under the giant screen and fireworks. Those are perfectly legitimate social—not musical— attractions, but, no surprise, during the weeks of Nashville in June that featured CMA Festival and Bonnaroo, I was elsewhere in town, at agreeably-sized performance spaces and clubs, at shows that not only were striking and often terrific, but made me notice something: one thing I really miss at supersized shows is variety—rhythm and flow in the succession of numbers’ volume, rhythm, tone, mood and content, and whatever physical stage business might go along with them. There are but a handful of performers in any genre who can pull off that variety in huge but for most performers that’s hopeless (I sympathize), and they go to all big, all the time, to hold interest.
If I were more inclined towards conspiracy theories, I’d figure that TV’s fixated competitive over-singing contests are designed to prepare audiences for accepting big ticket, one-toned shows, but, in fact, history shows that there’s a fashion element there; this too will pass. A recent Public TV pledge week special on late-Sixties/Early-Seventies performances of Burt Bacharach songs was a reminder that, there was even an era of habitual under-singing, to which Burt’s bossa nova-influenced deadpan, staccato, beep and honk ballads often lent themselves, climaxing in Herb Alpert singing “Or else… I’ll just… die” as if he was saying “Or else I’ll just have to call a refrigerator mechanic.”
These recent Nashville performances leave me very much encouraged that we’ve now got some highly talented, club-educated, audience-savvy performers coming along who are emerging with the skills, knowledge and desire to put on varied, engaging, well-orchestrated shows that both surprise and connect to audiences in the room:
June 1st, in the newish performance space at Jack White’s Third Man Records, the 1920s and ‘30s vaudeville-influenced Pokey LaFarge and an expanding version of his South City band introduced his new self-titled release. He’s added a full-time cornetist and clarinetist, the better to expand the range of what he can get into and where the jazzy solos can go (variety-oriented artists look for that) and it works. The band’s not as retro as some take it to be, the playing style often veering aggressive in a modern way as often as it’s laid back in old school styles, and the new songs are contemporary in lyrics—as is the banter. Another provocative development: this was one of the first events at Third Man to be recorded for later vinyl release live ——a concept as likely to promote variation from a locked set list and surprise—as show-off talent competitions have been to promote sameness. (Americana veteran Paul Burch, a decided influence on Pokey’s singing and presentation style, and for my money, one of the most consistent performers, writers and rhythmically inventive bandleaders to have come out of the whole 1990s alt.country scare, opened for him, with always inventive fiddler Fats Kaplin in the band, exciting clarinetist Chloe Feoranzo borrowed from Pokey’s outfit for the closer.)
I caught John Fullbright June 5th at the High Watt, at the Mercy Lounge complex, a room with the intimacy, sound quality and sight lines to frame beautifully the immensely exciting and promise-filled performance Fullbright offered. Yes; he’s a “singer-songwriter,” but if that suggests to you “strums and sings autobiographical epics,” it doesn’t give the picture. This young guy’s already got a huge musical vocabulary to play with, ranging from gospel (in particular) to Brecht & Weill theater songs to hard rock and hard country, and he mixes them up originally, in ways that would do Tom Waits or Randy Newman proud—while having been gifted with a voice more mellifluous than either, and showing considerable grace in connecting with the audience. He’s got a band that matches his “hard rock there, quiet ballad here” needs, even within songs, and he does some things—such as his piano/and near-chromatic sounding harmonica solos, that I’ve not seen anybody pull off so well any time. This looks like a major, unique star in the making and, as editor Thanki noted in her review of his DC-area show, you do suspect he won’t be in rooms this size for long. He was on the bill at Bonnaroo, but I hope he gets time to play those sweet spot 800-2000 seat venues, where what he can do will be found—not lost.
Sturgill Simpson, who premiered his swell new CD, High Top Mountain, at the Station Inn on June 12th works in a seemingly more defined area, circling around interesting variations on hard, honky tonk and Outlaw era style country, but—with decades of club work under his belt and a versatile band, he also mixes it up with licks more often heard in the eastern mountains than the Texas flatlands. Simpson’s often compared to Waylon Jennings, and there are some strong connecting points there, but one of them is that there’s not just one mood included. Sturgill includes that bluegrass and flatpicking sound angle, and instead of recapitulating Waylon’s signature rhythms, also brings in guitar and steel that you’d more associate with Merle Haggard’s Strangers. It works.
On June 17th, the much and rightly-honored Time Jumpers were back at their regular 3rd & Lindsley gig after a tour; obviously, with the likes of Vince Gill, Paul Franklin and Ranger Doug Green in the mix, this polished and gifted outfit can mix it up while keeping it swinging; they showed their full trooper cred in doing this show minus the ailing Dawn Sears, who typically adds yet another fetching vocal flavor to their mix. They brought out for a short guest set the visiting young Amigos band, a promising trio down from New York that astonished the crowd with their rhythmic inventiveness, variety (washboard, sax and fiddle in this group), and vocal harmonies while transforming various styles of American roots music —singing accordionist Samuel Reider in particular. I’ll watch for their oncoming album release; here’s what they did with Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that evening. Viva las variedades!
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