By Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer
We had this incredible group, the Whiskey Buffalo Brothers String Band, at Music City Roots this week, and I have to wonder why we didn’t think of inviting these folks before; the show was simply stellar. Okay I jest, but our four bands did seem to fit together into some kind of platonic ideal of Americana band-hood. Many moving parts, tightly bound together by years of experience on the road and in the studio. Ostensibly we were there to salute Merlefest, where our super-group is heading or arriving even as I write. And it wound up being that, but also a testimonial to group dynamics.
The Whiskey Gentry brought new material in the form of songs set for release this summer or fall on their third studio album. Now a seven-piece band, they hit the stage with determination and passion, especially drummer Nico Lembo who smiled intensely from between his headphones. “Dead Ringer” put lead singer Lauren Staley Morrow into a zone like a sassy Loretta Lynn. I just loved the song “Looking For Trouble” with its tight construction and smart little chord changes. It was either advice to a wayward friend or a plea to a lover that cast the future as a bundle of choices. “Rock And Roll Band” was bouncy and brazen as it came from a place of hard-earned band knowledge. And the core duo of Lauren and Jason Morrow sang alone on the tender “If You Were An Astronaut” inspired by the late great Gram Parsons.
I had my virtual Merlefest Moment when The Foghorn Stringband hit the stage, because nothing touches me down deep in my roots loving heart like surging, pulsing old-time music, and few do it as infectiously as this Portland, OR quartet. They took me to my happy place in a camp chair near the Cabin Stage with the supple, flowing fiddle of Sammy Lind leading the way. “New Shoes” was a bouncing, swinging vocal number with Sammy and Caleb Klauder singing together. But then this band will shift up on you and tap the voices of guitarist Reeb Willms and bassist Nadine Landry too, voices that penetrate the bone. Foghorn can kick it like West Virginia and like Cajun Louisiana, as they did with a guest triangle player. Who has a guest triangle player? They played a nice long set of short, piquant songs. The pure stuff.
One gets an incredibly reliable level of excellence and funky firepower from Donna The Buffalo. I was especially focused this time on the Hammond organ as played by David McCracken, because it was so percussive and pulsing and because I had a great view of his hands. On opener “Heaven and Earth” his off beats were set against Tara Nevins’ quick snapping tambourine, and when he soloed it couldn’t have been better form Booker T. himself. The band served up the certified D the B hit I needed to hear in “Family Picture,” a song I’ve been shaking my butt to since it came out in 2000. Tops in the set for me though was the hard Zydeco throwdown “Revelation Two Step.” Tara brought out her accordion and the rhythm section of bassist Kyle Spark and drummer Mark Raudabaugh tied the whole thing up in high tension wire. In fact they were amazing all night. The standing ovation was no surprise whatsoever.
It sure is nice having the Wood Brothers officially headquartered in Nashville because I think we’ll just be a better music show with them in proximity and maybe they’ll be able to play more often. As I’ve said before, this incredibly efficient trio of guys is the quintessence of Americana: classic musical ingredients and a completely original admixture of them. Chris Wood’s acoustic bass shook our bones with its woody tone and subwoofer intensity. Oliver played all kinds of dirty deep South electric guitar. Jano Rix worked his Shuitar personal percussion device for a couple songs and then headed back to the drum set for the rest of the set. It was all just stellar but I have to salute “Snake Eyes,” which fuses everything the band does so well. The groove was pure New Orleans with syncopated cowbell and an Iko Iko backbeat. The vocal was a three-part harmonic wonder. Also, “American Heartache” brought some new colors to the Wood Brothers paint box. The execution was just flawless. And Chris danced with his bass.
After a final tune that opened up the most free jamming territory, the Whiskey Buffalo Brothers String Band took the stage with Jim Lauderdale for an unprecedented Nashville Double Jam, segueing from “Express Yourself” into a Doc Watson nod on “Deep River Blues.” With a Buffalo rub board and Jano on drums and the return of the Cajun triangle it was a tasty little glimpse of JazzFest AND Merlefest mixed together. Now y’all have great festival, wherever you are.