By Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer
The contrasts between two of this week’s leading men couldn’t have been more striking. One, a 19-year-old African American with Choctaw blood who performs down home parade music in a big blue feathered suit. The other, a lanky 55-year-old violinist/fiddler who’s spent much of the last two decades on the finest concert stages with symphony orchestras. Such is the beautiful breadth of music, and the 8.10.16 edition of MCR made me especially grateful that we get to reach so widely and put such textures side by side. And it was a show in two halves – the first emphasizing the song and the voice, the second, the ensemble and the groove.
Adam Stockdale, the English songwriter who performs under the moniker Albatross, has a 19th century vibe about him. Flowing locks, cook moustache and round horn rimmed glasses suggested poet or political dissident. But he was a gentle sort, chatting kindly with the audience in between lovely and lyrical songs that were story forward and human scale. “Little More Than Strangers” was about the people we collect and then let go. “Game of Love” was a poppy lament that’s earned airplay on Nashville radio. For the second half of the set Stockdale was joined on stage by his close collaborator Matt Menefee on banjo, which provided a nice silvery touch up to the artist’s fine fingerstyle guitar playing.
The Sweeplings presented a refined look – Whitney Dean in a white suit with a white guitar – Cami Bradley in all black save for her striking blonde hair. The yin-yang image seemed calculated, and I’ll be candid that I wasn’t sure I’d love this duo based on the cool formality of their recordings. But it took about half a song to seduce me and everyone else, because their voices absolutely nestle together like lovers. Bradley has a wildly versatile pop voice and she knows how to make it dart and dance. The surprising thing is how Dean matches her with insanely precise harmony, phrasing and surging dynamics. The songs were probably about love. I was too enmeshed in the lush music to think that hard.
There could have been an intermission at this point as if between two totally different acts, but all of our shows should have this much logic and structure. The O’Connor Family Band’s progressive bluegrass and virtuoso musicianship hit me in one of my most sensitive and longest standing musical soft spots. And it wasn’t just the picking and bowing, which was nuts, but the songwriting and singing too. We are watching the birth of a bluegrass star in Kate Lee whose clarity and intention on “Always Do” made goosebumps happen and her sky-high take on “Ruby” showed deep bluegrass feel and a bluesy cry. Forrest O’Connor was author and lead singer on “Coming Home,” the title track to the debut recording, and here his voice matched Kate’s in stellar harmony, plus a few more family voices besides. The fiddling was ten master classes packed into 25 minutes. When Americana blends its human emotional roots with virtuosity like this, I’m in my happiest place. And they ended with a segue from the moody “Those Memories” into “Johnny B. Goode” which was a showbiz closer that matched style with substance.
The only way I’d follow that performance is if I had a giant blue feathered suit and a New Orleans rhythm section, and fortunately that’s exactly what Jwan Boudreaux carries around as the frontman of Cha Wa. The intricate syncopations – the cowbell and shakers and Iko Iko thump of the bass drum and the pulse of the sousaphone emerged just as my mind’s ear hoped it would. Ain’t no sittin’ down in the presence of this primal American street funk. They did classics like “Fire On The Bayou” and “Li’l Liza Jane,” that brought a very particular sense of place to our stage. The five piece band sounded like more than that, with blistering, razor sharp drumming from Joe Gelini and those big thumping bass lines from Clifton Smith. Guitarist Raja Kassis, whom we last saw visit with Dave Eggar, offered some fine solos. And the band’s not so secret weapon is badass danger lady Haruca Kikuchi on trombone. The group’s debut album is called Funk n Feathers, and that’s what they do.
The New Orleans feel continued on the jam, but the universal quality of “When The Saints Go Marching In” meant that the fiddles and bluegrass instruments felt right at home. It was as if we could see the American melting pot bubbling right there on our stage.