Sunday, September 25, 2011

Robert Randolph and the Family Band

It's that time of year again, end of the summer in Nashville, and that means Live On The Green is back. This year, the free outdoor live concert series boasted a less than stellar line up, but this week was the standout. I was excited to see the good ol' Family Band again, as well as interested in the other bands playing.

I arrived a couple of songs into Moon Taxi's set. They are from Nashville, and I haven't seen them since the Windows On The Cumberland days, but I had heard their new song and it had been stuck in my head all week. These guys really have come a long way in those couple of years. Their funky jam-pop was polished, and their singer's voice made the whole thing sound like what would happen if Kings Of Leon smoked a bone and just chilled out a little.

The next act was introduced as being "voted Knoxville's best band three years running", which to me was like being voted best chicken plucker, probably not a huge amount of competition. I guess you have to factor in the amount of fratties and such amongst the voting fan base. Within the first fifteen seconds of the first song, it was obvious that this was a blatant Black Crowes rip off. It was like if the Crowes replaced Chris Robinson with John Mellencamp, in both singing and songwriting, but Mellencamp still tried to emulate Robinson. I was overwhelmed with cheese ball lyrics about small towns, diners, work on the docks and the like, and the rest of the band was so vanilla and bland that it made Bruce Springsteen look like the Jimi at Woodstock. I say if they play LOTG again for the next two years, they would get my vote for worst band three years running.

Finally Robert Randolph and the Family Band came out, starting with R.R. ripping of a pedal steel solo that already made me forget about the previous band's rubbish. Once the rest of the Family Band kicked in, the party was on. Their jammy funk is a lot like another popular rock family, that of Sly Stone, but with more drawn out jams, and of course the insanely talented front man on the pedal steel guitar. Randolph's chops are up there with Stevie Ray Vaughn and Duane Allman, and the rest of the band hangs right in there, often trading instruments and shining. The whole thing is like a huge party at church, with tons of energy and six dollar beers.

The thing about this night was that the Family Band started off so strong, there wasn't really anywhere else to go. After the first few songs, to me at least, it just kind of became background music as I started to run into friends and socialize more. It was rockin', don't get me wrong, and a lot of the crowd was going nuts, but by the time the clock struck ten, I had been there for almost four hours and I was ready to go. It was indeed a successful Live on the Green, and I'm excited for at least one more pretty good one.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Raconteurs

(This is the first picture I've posted that I actually took)

Imagine this. Your favorite band in the world has been on indefinite hiatus for the past two years. They announce a one-off festival show somewhere in Michigan, which turns into a couple more, including starting the whole thing off at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which just happens to be the last place you saw them in '08. It was just like finding out that your favorite local band is back together, playing the same old haunt they used to play back then. Tickets sold out in minutes, and I was lucky enough to have gotten one.

Finally, finally, the night came and as hard as I tried not to, I still arrived pretty early. There were two opening bands which I didn't expect. The first was a vaudeville style old timey bluegrass outfit whose name I never caught. I spent the time during their set walking around. The opening act I was expecting were Nashville's own garage psych-punk duo JEFF The Brotherhood. Their set was good, full of bulldozing guitars and pounding drums, and songs that roared despite only being played by two dudes. They had a real thing going, and it was good to see them enjoy their recent success, but agian, I was still a ball of excited energy and spent most of their time pacing the back of the balcony.

After a switch over period that included music that was actually interesting, the Third Man suits vacated the stage, the lights went down, and the crowd went ape. This was it, the moment I had been waiting for since September '08. The Raconteurs took the stage and blasted into a noise bomb, which led to the beginning of "Consolers Of The Lonely", the title track from their second album. From then on, it was hit after hit as "Hands" led into my personal favorite, "Level". You could tell the boys were super stoked to be back, albeit a little rusty as Brendan Benson slipped up on the beginning of "Old Enough", but he recovered quickly with a huge smile. Nashville's favorite adopted son Jack White held the super charged crowd in his hands while he sang (in his own Jack White way) "Top Yourself", even letting us complete the big pay-off line, "DO IT TO YOU".

As the show set in, it was clear that the rhythm section of Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence was my favorite part of this band. Watching Keeler drum is like watching someone push a huge snowball from a wheelchair. He was just relentless, making me wonder how just one guy could make all that noise in songs like "Many Shades Of Black", and "Broken Boy Soldier", which has one of the sickest drum parts in rock history. And although he is small in stature, "Little" Jack's bass lines rival giants the likes of Johns Entwhistle and Paul Jones. These two combine to be the engine that drives the guitar train consisting of Jack White and Brendan Benson, each with their own unique style. It's not hard to see that these friends have been tight for years, long before the Raconteurs began, and even while on hiatus, playing with each other in various groups and projects.

They ended the set with "Blue Veins", the perfect bluesy number for "Big" Jack to freak out on guitar and really leave us wanting a strong encore. They did not disappoint. They hit us with "Salute Your Solution" and "Steady As She Goes" before ending with their epic saga "Carolina Drama", recounting the tale of Billy versus the evil boyfriend. Jack even played the last line, completely without amplification, having everyone in the crowd join in on "Go and ask the milk man." It gave me chills.

This show was as close as I've seen to a perfect 10. Granted, as I said before, it was my favorite band in the world and there were a few slip up moments, but the energy, venue, and band all combined for a concert that was just out of this world. And I say this having just seen Grace Potter just a handful of nights before. The energy and crowd-to-band relationship was right up there with The Flaming Lips, without, of course, the balloons and confetti. I felt privileged to be there and be able to one day tell the kids that I saw the Raconteurs at the Ryman, twice. With the mystery and randomness of all things Jack White, we have no way of knowing if it will be another open-ended aperture, or if we will see a new full record and tour. Obviously, I'm holdin' out for the latter, but history shows us that the best ones always leave us wanting more.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

First off, I have to wish Shows Big And Small a belated second birthday. It's been a great couple of years and I've seen some incredible shows, as well as some not so good ones. One thing that hasn't changed is my love for live music, be it in an arena, at a festival, or in a local club or coffee house. I love going to shows and I love giving my take on them, and I also love any debate that my opinion may spark. I realize that not everyone will agree with every post, and I'm always open for discussion. So here's to another year full of live music in Nashville, including the big 100th show, whatever it may be.

That being said, last night's Grace Potter show at the Ryman was one of those ones that became an instant classic, up there with Sir Paul, and The Lips. This was one of those shows where I went down and bought a ticket for full price, the day they went on sale, not wanting to gamble on a last minute sidewalk score. I had seen Miss Grace (as she will be henceforth christened) at Bonnaroo a couple of years ago on a side stage in the middle of the afternoon and I remember that set being one of the best of the weekend. I knew this was gonna be good.

I arrived at my aisle seat in the balcony as the openers were finishing their first song. I had seen the Carolina Chocolate Drops open for Old Crow Medicine show a couple of years ago and I remembered being unmoved back then. Last night however, I think I got just plain irritated. At least being paired with Old Crow put them in the right genre, as an old timey string band with tinges of bluegrass and ragtime. When I arrived ready to rock and was met instead with kazoo solos and some sloppy side mouth voice trumpet I was unnerved, and then when they started beat boxing, I shook my head and walked out. If I'm at the fairgrounds for a chili cook-off, then fine, bring on the Drops. But at a rock show like the Nocturnals, don't give me that crap. Next time they're on the bill, I think I'll just stay at the Honkey Tonk a little longer.

When the lights when down, I fully expected the band to come out and start playing before Miss Grace came out. I was pleasantly surprised to see the opposite happen. She came out alone with a white Flying V and played the intro to one of my favorites, "Nothing But The Water" before the rest of the band came out and finished the song. By the end of the first verse I had already moved to the walkway in the back of the balcony. I don't know if the Drops sucked the energy out of the place or if the Mother Church was still asleep from the previous night's gig, but I was already getting sneers for being the only one in the balcony standing up. This lack of energy continued until Miss Grace finally said "Come on, why don't y'all stand up" and everyone woke up and got into it.

I couldn't understand how anyone could sit still. The Nocturnals were smokin', much like what would happen if Heart and The Black Crowes had a rock baby. The dual guitar attack of Scott Tournet and Benny Yurco was flawless and the rhythm section shook the place with Matt Burr's power drumming and the sultry Catherine Popper on bass. Their onstage chemistry and feel for dynamics blended perfectly with Miss Grace's work, both on guitar and Hammond B-3. Whether they were crooning ballads like "Apologies" or rocking out on "Goodbye Kiss", they nailed it. Even when the rhythm section left the stage, the remaining guitarists played a moving acoustic section which included Gillian Welch's "Elvis Presley Blues".

After finishing the set with a blistering number I couldn't identify, they came back for the encore starting with ZZ Top's "Tush". Then, when she started talking about requests, someone yelled out "Tequila", referencing her duet with Kenny Chesney. She obliged, and just when I thought she wasn't a hundred percent perfect, she told the story of Chesney informing her of a CMA nomination only to reply "What the heck is a CMA?" So awesome. They finished up the show with two big hitters, "Paris" and "The Medicine", and left the Ryman in shambles.

I still don't think I've adequately described just how talented Grace Potter is. She didn't just play that organ, she laid down some of the funkiest grooves of the night. Her energy was incredible as she shook and jived all over the stage, and her voice, it was perfect from those low pitch croons to the high squeals and everything in between. Also, it didn't hurt that she had those legs in a dress that Tina Turner would call short. This girl, and band for that matter, is everything that is right in Rock and Roll. I know most of America won't pick up on these guys, but the ones who know anything about good music will catch on and The Nocturnals will become another one of those bands that keeps packing festivals and theaters and rocking those who are smart enough to be there.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Laura McGhee

A couple of nights ago I went down to Douglas Corner Cafe to check out a set from Nashville's rising Scottish songstress Laura McGhee. I saw her about a year ago, and I was excited to see how far she's come since then. I knew there had to be some progress, as I have seen her name more and more around town.

First off, I really like Douglas Corner. It reminds me a lot of The Pond in Franklin, with the exact same layout, only with a more Nashville-y feel and a greater sense of history. I also couldn't help but notice the hundreds of rolls worth of duct tape in its natural habitat, wrapped around the ducts. That made me smile.

Laura's set was rife with new material. Her songs ranged from country-pop, to Americana ballads, to traditional Scottish instrumentals, all of which showed a level of improvement that only a year in Nashville with your nose to the turntable could produce. The piece that stood out to me most was a snippet from the arrangement that McGhee herself composed chronicling the history of Scotland. It was a beautiful violin/guitar pairing that, upon closing my eyes, put me right back next to a loch in the bonnie land. Her accompanist, whose name I never caught, did a super job of pairing a handful of different instruments with Laura's guitar and fiddle. He added harmonica, some guitar of his own, and even some penny whistle, which in this case, was exactly the right whistle for its time and place.

While I was standing around chit-chatting, the next act started and immediately grabbed my attention. The best I could do to describe these folks would be like an off lower Broadway honky-tonk, chicken pickin' version of the White Stripes at about age 50. Boomer Castleman and the "fabulous" Lois Hess tore through a set of high speed country numbers, complete with "I wrote this song with (drop name here) intros. There was also some mention of Boomer winning some type of "fastest lick" award, which wasn't hard to believe with the way his fingers ran up and down that fretboard. And Lois, wow Lois. At first glance you might think ol' Boomer picked her up straight from her gig teaching glee club at the local middle school, but she could actually play. Not like Bonzo or anything, but she kept up the groove and even threw in a couple of solos. It was almost like a scene out of a Cohen brothers movie. The whole thing ended with a six minute tribute song in which Boomer would sing a two line verse about a guitar player, and then play a little solo in said guitarist's style. It was cool for about the first few verses, but it just kept going and going and getting more and more out there. He covered everyone from Chet Atkins and Ernest Tubbs, to Scotty Moore and Luther Perkins, and he even did Eddie Van Halen and Chuck Berry. It was interesting to say the least. All in all, it was a good night at an old Nashville spot.