By Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer
It must be October. A day after the Chicago Cubs pulled off a four-run ninth-inning comeback against the Giants to secure their Division title (rock!), this week’s Roots featured: a band called the WPA Ball Club, Aly Sutton dressed like a cast member in A League of Their Own and four basses (we pun out of love). They were all acoustic upright basses belonging to four very different and thoroughly wonderful bands. Then we capped the night off with a solo performance which I can in no way force into my baseball metaphor. Except to say that we won. Our seventh birthday show looked really good on paper and it sounded amazing in actuality.
Jim Lauderdale brought a big diverse audience together with a fantastic country song he co-wrote with Bruce Robison called “It Changes Everything.” The room was more than primed for the unexpected juxtaposition of Latin grooves and banjo wielded by Rafael Vasquez in the opening set. His San Rafael Band opened with a rippling instrumental featuring accordion, congas, a stellar drummer and the old five-string. In his interview the beatific Vasquez told us that on top of his deep Tejano background, he was deeply moved by seeing Earl Scruggs live decades ago. Vasquez donned nylon string guitar for “En Panama,” an original song that glowed with his seasoned, relaxed voice. The set closer really stretched out with passionate grooves and a fantastic electric guitar solo by the band leader. This all came about because John Walker (who guest emceed this evening) met Rafael through the latter’s day job driving customers to and from their car repairs at a local dealership. John always has his ears open for true roots musicians and their stories.
The WPA Ball Club brought a Nashville all-star lineup of musicians, including Fats Kaplin on fiddle/mandolin and Jen Gunderman on keys, while their leader Paul Burch brought a set of amazingly evocative songs about the life of Jimmie Rodgers. You just couldn’t play more authentically and coherently than this ensemble did, as Burch portrayed America of the 1930s. “Meridian” set the scene in Rodgers’ home town, where 40 trains a day are said to have passed through. Gunderman brought the perfect barrelhouse piano rolls and trills to “Black Lady Blues” and a romantic accordion on “To Paris.” The major to minor shifts in “Fast Fuse Blues” perfectly captured the hot, short decline of Rodgers’ health. And “Cadillacin’” was a dark boogie of early celebrity indulgence. Get Paul’s album Meridian Rising if you know what’s good for you.
I’ve loved Bryan Sutton for a whole lot of years now, and one of my Nashville dreams has come true getting to know him and work with him on bios and video. Because it’s been a close-up view of an evolution I’d have watched intently as a fan in any event. His playing has deepened and his commitment to musical leadership and songwriting has grown into the tight, hot quartet Sutton fronts today. They opened with a twisty instrumental and then kicked into the hot, high bluegrass of “Chase The Moon.” The slower and airier “Don’t Look For Me” offered a lovely stylistic contrast, and that segued into a remarkable duo performance pairing Bryan on banjo with fiddler Mike Barnett. The song of reconciliation and the crisp Appalachian groove was mesmerizing. Sutton closed with “The More I Learn,” which truly feels like his playbook for success – stay humble and keep listening.
Like the voodoo parlors of New Orleans, Davina Sowers brings a fascinating dash of darkness to her bright and brassy jazz. Her complexities and intelligence keep the Vagabonds from being even close to campy or old-fashioned. Especially transfixing were the muted horn choruses in “Louisiana Fairy Tale,” in which trumpet and trombone seemed to speak in tongues. Drummer Connor Hammergren sang through a megaphone in a duo with Davina on that one – a tune all dressed up in formal American harmony with everywhere to go. Her original song “Sugar Moon” was mysteriously slow – a waltz guided by heavy brushes on the drums, bowed bass, tandem horns and Davina’s incredible phrasing. A dropped beat in each of the song’s cycles made it even more interesting, and Davina closed it with an a cappella passage that left everyone frozen. A striding “St. James Infirmary” closed the set.
Raul Malo made a joke on stage about what a bad idea it is to follow a band with horns as a solo performer, but in fact his acoustic spotlight performance was the ideal denouement to an energetic evening. I couldn’t believe when he opened with “Siboney” from that great Los Super Seven album of a decade ago. I spun that track obsessively when it came out, so hearing Raul sing it over a rhythmically thumped acoustic guitar was amazing. I would not have thought a person could pull off the Mavericks’ “Come Unto Me” solo but Raul did with groove and brio, testimony to the sturdy melodies that he composes. “Here Comes The Rain” was simply gorgeous, and “Back In Your Arms Again,” a song Raul said brought his band back together, had a tight backbeat and tons of energy.
The gang took on “Hey Good Looking” at a wild tempo, driven by Davina’s band, and it was loud and lusty and fun. The crowd offered up its sixth standing ovation of the night and we signed off the air. Seven years down. However many more to go.