Notes 

A dozen concerts that mattered

A dozen concerts that mattered

City of Nights

I missed David Byrne at 328. I missed the Indigo Girls at the Ryman. I missed all but the last half-hour of Jason & the Scorchers’ second set at the Exit/In last month, and that alone was enough to cure my cold. But I still saw a dozen shows this year that reminded me, for all the setbacks that bands and bookers and club owners face, live music is Nashville’s blessing, the salvation of its music-biz soul. Am I preaching? You probably are too, if you saw these 12 shows:

The Fairfield Four and guests (Caffé Milano) For the Live From Mountain Stage radio show, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, Lee Roy Parnell, Kathy Mattea, and other guests joined the Fairfield Four for two hours of testifying. The result was a soul-stirring, roof-rattling evening that wound the city’s many loose social and musical threads—men of the church and reformed heroin addicts, gospel and country, Christian and secular, historic and progressive, black and white—into one unforgettably joyous strand. The Lord’s music never rocked so hard; the devil’s music couldn’t rock any harder. My definition of a great place to live: a town where you can walk down the street late at night and see the Fairfield Four and Elvis Costello harmonizing in a parking lot.

BR5-49/Johnny Paycheck (328 Performance Hall) Just as playing to sailors and whores on the Reeperbahn hardened the Beatles into one world-dominating outfit, a year of constant touring toughened up the city’s honky-tonk heroes. Their training in rock bands surfaced in a tightness and aggression they’ve never shown before, and thus a lovably loose-limbed saloon band blossomed into a full-blown, bound-for-glory Headlining Act. Tell your kids you saw ’em back when. As for Paycheck—hell, Paycheck’s Paycheck, and that’s enough for any man.

Diana Krall (Caffé Milano) For 90 minutes last spring, the Canadian jazz vocalist/pianist transformed Caffé Milano into the Rainbow Room and her jaded Nashville audience into starstruck swells. With her flawless playing, insouciant phrasing, and impeccable taste in standards—not to mention a black miniskirt that left men and women alike agape—Krall made listeners hungry to hear more live cabaret jazz in a club setting.

John Fogerty (Ryman Auditorium) At which one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest, most underrated songwriters rediscovered something any 12-year-old kid with a radio could’ve told him: Over the years he’d written about 30 of the most fun songs anybody could ever play with a band. No bitterness, no false modesty, just one chest-tightening tune after another, as expansive, American, and full of promise and beckoning danger as the bridge across the Mississippi River.

The Spot (Upstairs at Bongo Java) Bohemian hip-hop, R&B, poetry, and jazz collided at a summer jam session in a sweltering room above Bongo Java. The music was electrifying, the vibes were galvanizing. Result: a revolution in the making. In 1998 you’re going to feel the shock waves from the initial blast. Count yourself lucky if you were at ground zero.

Magnetic Fields/Lambchop (Victor/Victoria’s) A perfect pairing of acts and venue. The difference between Stephin Merritt’s painfully beautiful Spectorian pop songs and Lambchop’s dreamy Salvation Army plaint is the difference between a wall of sound and a billowing, gauzy curtain. Under the Christmas lights and drag-bar seediness of the old Victor V’s, though, each band sparkled like a garnet in a tarnished setting. R.I.P., 113 8th Ave. N.

Billy Block’s Western Beat Roots Revival (The Sutler) For its special Extravaganza edition, the left-of-the-dial hoedown was utterly jubilant. Mandy Barnett had to follow Joy Lynn White; Phil Lee and John Sieger had to follow Mandy Barnett; Kevin Gordon had to follow Phil Lee and John Sieger. Then Lucinda Williams spun her legendary stage fright into fearsome catharsis, on a “Pineola” of pitiless intensity. As far as country goes, this was the real deal. Why doesn’t somebody slap that wretched “alt-country” label on those mashed carrots that Music Row’s been feeding radio all year?

Holtzclaw (Campus Pub) Forget the chainsaw, the piñata, the staged audience sacrifice, and the climactic shower of sparks and rubber snakes. What made this Murfreesboro gig by a rowdy troupe of theaterfolk-cum-art terrorists so memorable was the oversold crowd, which stamped, hollered, heckled, shouted requests, shimmied on tables, and alternated dirty dancing with fisticuffs. In short, they did exactly what an audience is supposed to do—respond to the challenge thrown down by the performer, and in turn challenge the band to kick ass that much harder.

Champion Records Reunion (3rd & Lindsley) Herbert Hunter, Earl Gaines, Al “Murfreesboro” Garner, and guest ringer Tracy Nelson sang like vocals were coal and they were stoking a freighter, while big Johnny Jones swung his axe as if he still needed to cut somebody’s head. Oh, to have seen these guys 35 years ago, in their furious youth. But this’ll do.

Mark Eitzel (The Church) A few songs into his hastily arranged show, the former American Music Club frontman made two discoveries: He didn’t need a soundman in the acoustically cozy room, and he’d had a little too much wine too early in his set. So he upended the bottle, walked to the center of the room, and balanced himself on a borrowed stool. Then he reared back his head and sang as if his heart would fly out of his mouth. Overhead, a mirror ball spun diamonds on the darkened walls. It was so quiet you could hear headlights shining through the window.

Los Lobos (328 Performance Hall) Three-chord garage slop-rock, honking R&B, big-band swing, and Mexican folk music all booming at once from the bass-boosting speakers of a window-tinted low rider. It was a thrilling rumble, and it hit everyone in the room somewhere between the hips and the gut.

Tito Puente (Caffé Milano) One of the most encouraging sights at any show all year: a roomful of buttoned-down industry types finally shoving aside tables and leaping onto the impromptu dance floor. Then again, “Oye Como Va” could put boogie in Al Gore’s butt.

Also noted with pleasure: Tricky at Starwood; CYOD at a mid-summer house party off Charlotte Pike; Harvey Sid Fisher at Lucy’s Record Shop; Girls in Action at Springwater’s Working Stiff Jamboree; the gig where Merle Haggard didn’t show up at Wolfy’s; Tom House at Douglas Corner.

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