By Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer
“Nashville has my heart,” said Bex Chilcott aka Ruby Boots during her set this week at Roots. I think she spoke in some way for just about all the Australian artists who took the stage this week for our annual night of Down Under overdrive. Aussie Night features artists who have worked very hard and established enough bona fides in their home country to qualify for travel money and promotion from Sounds Australia. And the end of their 10,000 mile journey is Music City, for good reason. Others have come before, from Keith Urban to that sweet O’Shea couple, establishing careers. This is the place where you can put a U.S. career together. And as Bex said, contemporary Nashville with its open-hearted community of creators, is very special. And we’re all about welcoming pilgrims, especially when they’re as talented as these folks.
Rick Price has actually emigrated to Nashville, and I can’t believe he’s been singing and writing in our midst here the whole time Music City Roots has been on the air. This guy’s quite incredible, with a supple and powerful voice that can leap between chest and head with a falsetto that’s tender yet manly. I recently fell for the stomping energy of his opening track on the new Tennessee Sky album called “Work That Fire,” and to make up for the lack of band he got the crowd singing the “on my way home” refrain. His finale was a brave and brilliant a cappella song called “Until We Meet Again.” Playing a well-worn Maton guitar and looking clean in a vest and shirt, he owned the stage and got us off to an energetic start.
I for one am kind of devastated that the next two artists live so very far away. I’d sign on as a fan clubber for both Raised By Eagles and Oh Pep! These Eagles played country rock but sounded almost nothing like that California best-selling band that may or may not have raised them. The rhythms were clean and propulsive. Up to four voices at once made the harmonies lush in a Band of Heathens kind of way. The electric guitar playing by Nick O’Mara, Telecaster and lap steel, was brilliant. But my fondness came from an overall feeling, an ease and cool the band maintained on both the rocking material like “Jackie” or the ambience of “Waiting For Ghosts.” Fly on young Eagles. Fly on.
Pep is an old fashioned word, but Olivia and Pepita who make up Oh Pep! (get it?) have put together a properly modern folk rock band with poetic lyrics, fascinating musical textures and a radiant positive energy. “The Race” had truth-in-advertising briskness and a melody that really sticks in my head. The epic “Tea, Milk & Honey” ended the set with a long introductory passage and then great dynamic playing by the full four-piece band. Pepita’s use of fiddle in unusual ways is another plus. Oh Pep! is embarking on a full US tour, so wherever you are, check em out.
Ruby Boots came on with red hair and a black cowgirl outfit (my favorite color scheme, to adapt Richard Thompson). The five-piece band conspired to make crisp, uptempo country rock that framed Bex Chilcott’s bold voice nicely. This time the fine electric twang and slide came from guitarist Lee Jones, especially on the desert lonesome “Middle Of Nowhere.” That set the table for Mark Moffatt’s St. James Infirmary, about which we knew nothing, because this was their fourth gig. Let’s call it a high quality bar band with good taste in cover choices. I haven’t heard “Poke Salad Annie” in ages, but they came out with that one and it was funky and Southern. Lead singer Greg Mangus can often be found singing fearsomely difficult lead vocals for the Long Players and rock and soul projects in the city, and he was fantastic, with gravel and grease and a massive physical presence. Moffatt played blistering guitar solos. And a night that had been pretty mellow hit a rock and roll climax as it ended. The assembled bands did a joyful version of “Let The Good Times Roll.” Not exactly an Australian anthem. But certainly apropos to the feeling of the night.
Thanks to the AristoMedia family for coming out to help us salute the late great Jeff Walker. Thanks to Dobe Newton for once again shepherding some great Aussie bands and artists our way for a great lineup. It’s fun to have a relationship with a country that’s so very far away. It makes reaching the whole world feel possible.