When I was a kid, they taught us in school about the instruments (do they even do that anymore?), and they kind of passed them off as ALL the instruments. Once you knew about your strings, winds and your English horn and your tympani, you were good to go. But I can’t tell you how often we encounter completely novel, foreign or unusual instruments at Music City Roots. The band Poor Old Shine recently came by with an antique hand-pumped organ at the core of its sound. Our Aussie pal Dobe Newton recently wielded a bottle-cap-encrusted “lagerphone.” And this Wednesday, I did a double take as I realized that Bryan Owings, the great drummer who accompanied lead-off artist Minton Sparks, had constructed a hi-hat out of plywood and CHAINS. So when Minton launched into her piece called “Tennessee Prison For Women,” Bryan’s work-gang BOOM (pause) SHHHHANK (pause) groove was coming from his bass drum and these two plates of home-made hardware crunching together. Bryan, typically self-effacing, credits the inspiration to fellow Nashville rhythmatist Marco Giovino, of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. Call me a geek, but this is the kind of thing my sound-loving brain gets jazzed about.
Bryan’s “chank-o-phone” (my name, because he doesn’t have one) was part of a great night of reinventions and old beats on new things. Or was it new beats on old things?
Minton Sparks for example has re-made spoken word performance in her own way, merging elements of Minnie Pearl with Spalding Gray and setting her evocative words to atmospheric Southern music. And what music it was. I’d only seen Minton perform with a lone guitar player in the past, and her usual guy John Jackson was on hand, but this time he was joined by a full band with bass, drums and two major-league support vocalists – Melissa Mathes and Etta Britt, both of whom have played our stage as featured acts. Over their textures and grooves, Minton told her usual gripping stories of complex lives and family baggage. “Gold Digger” was about an over-done dame “looking for a sugar daddy.” And the spooky “Time Flies” made a character out of a black Cadillac hearse. It was fun watching and feeling the audience adjust and warm up to Minton’s very different, utterly seductive artistry.
The men with hats and badges taking the stage next weren’t there to arrest anyone, but we felt safer having Sherriff Scott & The Deputies up there anyway. They’re tapping into the up-to-date sound I’m calling pulse-grass (see Punch Brothers), where the bass makes an insistent four-on-the-floor, one-note figure and leaves loads of space for musicianship and vocalism on top. The fiddle and banjo melody that set the mood for opening song “Marilyn Monroe” was infectious, as was Scott Simontacchi’s cool baritone singing. They invited out the divine Angel Snow for a duo vocal on “Among The Wreckage” which I’m pretty sure was a post break-up number. And “Las Vegas Nights” showed Scott’s lyrical prowess, as he took familiar notions from Sin City and remade them with telling and digital-fresh details.
The Deep Dark Woods are deep indeed but not always dark, and their blue-jean comfortable folk-rock marked yet another strong shift in feeling during this varied night. Lead singer Ryan Boldt evokes Richard Buckner and Leonard Cohen with his strong but somber voice. The opening song featured gorgeous Hammond organ from Geoff Hilhorst. “Red, Red Rose” had a decidedly Grateful Dead feeling. The title-inspiring “Gonna Have A Jubilee” from the new album wasn’t jubilant exactly, but it did feel like a fire in a hearth on a cold Canadian winter. And I especially loved the atmospheric opening and striding rhythmic force and punch of “18th of December.” That’ll be a smoker on Roots Radio for sure.
Tristen scared me a little, and not because she’s found musical meaning in synthy pop, but because as I wound down my interview with Ryan from DDW, she was looking at the screen of her laptop below her keyboard with concern. Was our show about to be derailed by the dreaded Mac beach ball? No. Whew. She fired up her keys right on time, along with her otherwise organic sounding four piece band featuring bass, drums, electric guitar and cello. Opener “Catalyst” did indeed sound like a change agent. “Gold Star” had a soaring, swooning melody that played off pulsing arpeggios from the cello. And “Startling News” got downright orchestral, as Tristen showed that her clear, affectionate voice gets even stronger as it goes higher. The wrapper was the fantastic single “No One’s Gonna Know,” a piece of incredible pop songcraft.
That left cleanup duties to Deer Tick, a serious rock and roll band that lets itself take journeys into country and folk enough that a set is both powerful and varied. “The Rock” was bitter and sad reminiscence on a crashed engagement. “The Dream’s In The Ditch” sounds sunnier than its subject matter, with great fat chord changes. And “Thyme” burst into a fireworks display of Pink Floyd-ish arena rock. Then a sweet surprise as the band brought on big-deal singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton for a pure country duo on “In Our Time.” The Loveless Jam was “Goodnight Irene” and that tends to be a good tune to do when you’re trying to signal that the show is over. It was a good night indeed.