by Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer
Ratings on Amazon and Yelp are up to five stars, and this week’s Music City Roots suggested similar scale by which we might rate future shows. The Five-O scale. No, not the police. The number of standing ovations in the night. Leaving aside wonderful mid-set standers, which do sometimes happen in a scattered way, and notwithstanding our occasional five-act night, the maximum number of set-closing standing Os at a typical MCR is five, when you include the Nashville Jam. And this Wednesday at The Factory was a Five-O night, with four remarkable performances by four very different artists, followed by a Johnny Cash cover that sounded well-rehearsed on its first and only pass. This is also a testament to our crowd, which was large and attentive and excitable. But I think these acts could have earned standing Os from a bunch of snakes.
Nashville veteran Mike Henderson shocked everyone to attention with loud and lusty guitar, ripping off three choruses of 12-bar blues before singing “Weepin’ and Moanin’.” One might be forgiven for seeing Nashville as just too genteel a place, too calculated in its musical designs, to produce blues singers who truly evoke the Mississippi mud. But Mike, who’s earned his artistic freedom with hit songs for Trisha Yearwood and The Dixie Chicks, could cut with the best of them in Clarksdale or Chicago or Memphis. His cathedral-large guitar tone is as rich as any we’ve heard – a combo of vintage gear, a heavy picking hand and a guitar tuned down two steps. When he goes low, it’s low. He played mostly fretted solos, but his slide is always on his left finger, ready to carve off a slice or two at any moment. On his set closer “If You Think It’s Hot Here,” the title track off his new album, he broke traditional blues form and leaned more on a pop/rock melody that was enhanced by a intense slide solo. We must salute Kevin McKendree’s keyboard playing, which got especially nuanced on the quieter stretches of “Unseen Eye.” And the rhythm section of Michael Rhodes on bass and drummer Pat O’Connor offered a clinic in time, taste and combustion.
Smooth Hound Smith’s essence eluded me as I crash studied this week’s lineup. But between the opening fingerstyle electric guitar figures and the closing standing ovation, there was nonstop imagination, skill, finesse and intensity. Zack Smith is a multi-tasker’s multi-tasker, handling bass drum with one foot, snare drum with the other, plus guitar, banjo and harmonica. Caitlin Doyle played shakers and tambourines and melted faces with her clean, passionate and soulful country voice. He’s swarthy and muscular. She’s blonde and sweet. So the contrast and complement was everything. His picking was really clean and fascinating on its own. It merged into arrangements that really went somewhere, and with the velvety duet singing, the overall effect was magic. The songs were strong too, leading with the imaginative “Stopgap Woman Blues” (we’ve been there, right?) and ending with the stunning “Be My Husband” which put Doyle out front with a church-fevered proposal to some lucky guy. It was a cappella too, save for Zack’s intricate dance on his tambourine. He even made the drum change tone, which is an expert move. They’re relatively new as a band. So remember the name. Smooth Hound Smith. Smooth Hound Smith.
With a sharp shift of gears, Emily West approached the mic in a shimmering dress and her signature, vintage mega-blonde mane. I knew she A) had style and B) made cool recordings. But the shock was just how commanding and subtle a singer she is. I’m really stretching my brain to think of a vocalist on our show who’s had more moves and shadings and phrasing. She has perfect articulation and she can go from a purr to a major money note fast and clean. Usually singers like this look to others for material, but West is a daring, moving and skilled songwriter too. Opener “Fallen” started as a torchy love song but it took a dark twist that left a lump in my throat. “Puppy Dog” was funny, punny and downright naughty with more entendres than we have cameras. “Real Good Dancer” was vivid and melancholy short fiction. Nearly all theses songs were co-writes with her on stage collaborator K.S. Rhodes, whom we know and love, and who played guitar and piano, sometimes lending a strong second voice, as on the finale “Games.” This was a playful rom-com of a song that showed off Emily West as someone who could reanimate the lost arts of cabaret and classic pop. She has a fiery and fascinating new single on the AC charts called “Bitter” and I urge you to check it out and help push it to the top. This Nashville artist deserves to be on major stages and we hope we can say we featured her on the way up up up.
In their interview early in the show, Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell spoke of the “pure joy” of playing music in the context of their time supporting Levon Helm and his legendary Midnight Ramble shows. And they carried that ethos right up on stage for the closing set. No dour folk duo, they write and sing bright celebrations, like their opening song “Surrender To Love.” Here they took a country folk frame and jabbed really exciting melodic jumps and dives into the chorus that are uncommon in Americana. Larry’s guitar picking, here on electric, was enthralling and rhythmic. They covered the Louvin Brothers with “You’re Running Wild,” (shades of Buddy and Julie Miller, Emmylou and Rodney, Barry and Holly Tashian). The slow waltz “Did You Love Me At All” was written by Larry and sung by Teresa as a classic country heartbreaker. And their unique arrangement of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” with its fat back beat and gospel fervor closed a magnificent set.
Peter Cooper subbed for a traveling, recording Jim Lauderdale on short notice, and he shone in his opening song “Ancient History” then he led the gang at the end on Cash’s “Big River,” with Larry’s guitar and his drummer Justin Gulp keeping everything buttoned up. Five stars. Five thumbs up. Five standing Os.