The Spin picked the perfect night to save a few bucks on parking. Our five-block amble to the Ryman, chilly enough to redden our little cheeks without opening the floodgates, was a nice wake-up stretch for our office-fogged brain. Sleepy befuddlement would have been the wrong state of mind for Wednesday night's benefit concert with Brendan Benson and Friends — by the end of the set, the genial Detroit transplant was joined by nearly everyone he's ever worked with, an impressive array of talent despite former Animal and War singer Eric Burdon's absence (he canceled due to exhaustion from heavy touring), and just keeping up with them all would have been more than we could handle.
Cataloging Benson's connections to each performer would take all day and fail to do justice to the show as a whole, but it's worth noting that they all donated their time for a worthy cause; all ticket proceeds went to the David Lynch Foundation, which will use the funds to serve veterans in the Nashville area suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a serious medical issue affecting thousands of people who've put their lives on the line for all of us, and we're glad the director of such distorted-reality features as Eraserhead and our beloved Twin Peaks is reaching out with more than damn good pie and coffee.
We took our pew a few songs into The Howlin' Brothers' opening set, which found them in the middle of a bigger stash of gear than we've seen in some recording studios. Besides a station at the back where strings and horns would appear later, we noted a grand piano, two drum kits and eight stacks of amplifiers and speakers. The bluegrass-inspired trio — which recorded their recent album Howl with Benson and released it on his Readymade Records — kept it old school, sticking to stellar harmonies and instrumental chops that would mostly be at home on the Grand Ole Opry. It was a little odd to see them smiling so hard during a song about riding the Yuma prison train; maybe it was the knowledge that they were being filmed (there was no mention of where we might see the footage later), or the giddiness that playing the hallowed Ryman stage can bring out in even the most seasoned performers on their first visit.
The Brothers took their bows at 8 p.m. on the dot, and after a short presentation from a Lynch Foundation representative, Benson took over as MC. Downplaying his role in the proceedings and keeping his speeches short, he plowed any nervous energy into his playing (having been here before probably didn't hurt). The top-shelf band, which adapted admirably to everything from vaudevillian bounce to soul groove to power-pop crunch, featured some players who backed Benson on his 2012 release What Kind of World, including guitarist Mark Watrous, bassist Bobby Lord, drummer Brad Pemberton and drummer/percussionist Travis McNabb. Bucky Baxter contributed tasteful pedal and lap steel licks to most tunes, and Fluid Ounces' Seth Timbs, who played keys on Benson's hot-off-the-presses LP You Were Right, stayed on piano most of the evening.
The Howlin' Brothers returned for the kickoff — "How Long Blues" in the style of Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Leadbelly, complete with falsetto — along with the evening's first guest, Ricky Skaggs, who added mandolin solos and dry wit. From there, the band began its many rotations, and the set list grew to cover most of Benson's catalog, from side projects to solo albums. Guests appeared all over the stage; Self's Matt Mahaffey subbed on drums for a few cuts, longtime Nashville rocker-cum-producer Jay Joyce and recent transplant Butch Walker took turns contributing fiery guitar work. Adriel Danae's take on "I Don't Wanna See You Anymore," an as-yet-unreleased track Benson wrote and recorded with Ashley Monroe, had more than a little Otis Redding in it, standing out among fine performances from guest lady vocalists Sarah Siskind, Jessie Baylin and Norma Jean Martine.
The set's early peak came when The Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow came out for "What Kind of World" and "Bad for Me," the latter of which featured the first surprise visit of the night: Big Star's Jody Stephens sat in behind the drums, adding more than just a historical pedigree to one of Benson's power-pop masterpieces. Not long after, Jakob Dylan appeared for The Rolling Stones' "Loving Cup." While the band gave one of the best performances of the song we've ever heard (with horns!), Dylan's laid-back delivery wasn't the best fit for their upbeat energy; it left us with a beautiful buzz anyway.
The crowd recognized Jack White's bearded guitar tech well before he took the stage, some responding by hauling ass down the aisles for a better glimpse. To his credit, the White Stripes/Third Man honcho focused on playing rather than hogging the spotlight, delivering some elegant solos from his mirror-finished six-string and adding vocals to his former bandmate's solo number "Good to Me" before tackling "Hands" from The Raconteurs' catalog.
Though it took until the end of the show for the guest vocalist mic to get balanced in the mix, we were impressed with the main set. Almost every song featured a different band than the one before it, but the players' cohesion was on a level with the most seasoned bands we've ever watched. Even more importantly, they know how to serve the songs they're playing, accenting Benson's talent for writing highly personal songs that speak to a wide audience. The pool of talent outdid itself in the five-song encore, which began with Benson's "Jet Lag" and "Tiny Spark," building up slowly from gentle and spare to full-band, pogo-dancing glory. Next came the obligatory "Steady, As She Goes," with White slyly fixing his hair in the middle of a gritty solo. And then, as if the cake needed more icing, a medley of Animals deep cuts capped it off, with Benson doing his best Burdon on "When I Was Young" and "Inside Looking Out."
All of the players who came out deserve credit for being generous with their time and putting on a hell of a show, but Benson's turn as affable ringleader is what made it all possible. The man knows how to pick the best people for a given role and give them just the right amount of direction to amplify their own strengths.
For a few years now, in-demand piano man Matt "Mr. Jimmy" Rowland's annual Christmas synth ensemble The Spaceship of the Imagination has attempted to do the holiday's best-known tunes justice with copious amounts of kitsch and analog synthesizer. This year, Rowland stepped it up several notches with a full-fledged pageant at The 5 Spot with a tone and presentation that landed somewhere between your parents' congregation's living Nativity scene, the most off-the-rails televised variety hour you've ever seen and a hobo holiday party down at the rail yard.
Given the local-centric live venue's meager accommodations (a limited number of mic cables and so forth), our early arrival meant watching Rowland and a cavalcade of local personalities throw this thing together before our very eyes. Not long after The Spin had been properly distracted in conversation while the cast ran through a last-minute dress rehearsal out back, Rowland and his Imagination — a six-piece circle of analog synths and electronic drums assembled in a makeshift orchestra pit next to the stage — were firing on all oscillators, starting the show with a jazzy, yuletide introduction that sounded like the best MIDI ringtone from 2002 that you've ever heard.
The evening's tux-clad MC, Sparkle City DJ and occasional public-access television personality David Bermudez, engaged comedian Chris "Christmas" Crofton in a routine just before Scene 1 commenced — Bermudez told holiday-themed non-jokes (the punchlines were mostly MIA) while Crofton served as a sort of de facto Scrooge. Starring Makenzie Green (one-half of vulgar folk duo Birdcloud) and Ri¢hie frontman Richie Kirkpatrick, a hilariously dramatic and characteristically foul-mouthed re-enactment of Baby Jesus' conception played out onstage just before Patrick Sweany — the first of many musical guests — favored us with a tune.
Next up, a dapper Bobby Bare Jr. crooned "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," Cortney Tidwell delivered a stirring rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and synth-pop princess Tristen put her personal full-voiced stamp on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Crofton returned to the stage to hit his sudden-change-of-heart plot point and turn in an honestly touching "I'll Be Home for Christmas" between intermittent installments of the Baby Jesus saga. Nearly all the performers assumed roles in the play, most trying their best to replicate the Middle Eastern fashions of the year 0 A.D. with bathrobes, bed sheets, towels and headbands to ridiculous but befitting effect.
Carter Routh's karaoke-like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman" medley made sure no one was taking the spectacle too seriously — as if any of us could after the up-close-and-personal interview between Bermudez and Santa Claus (portrayed by By Lightning's Joel "Dahl" McAnulty). Rounding out the evening was a duet betwixt Kirkpatrick and Green, who used Toto's "Africa" to drive home Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt.
All the while, "Mr. Jimmy" Rowland cued the band, corrected missteps onstage and kept the show on track as The Spaceship of the Imagination's ragtag collective of electro virtuosos remained the stars of the show. It was Christmas like we'd never seen it and aren't likely to see again — smoky, beer-soaked, foul-mouthed and largely improvised — at least until next year, when Baby Jesus willing, Rowland blesses us with his take on Christmas once again.
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