The conversation about “Old Nashville” and “New Nashville” — discussion about how things like gentrification and lots of people moving here have altered the character of the city — has been going strong for about a decade now. Some of what has been thought of as “new” doesn’t feel all that new anymore, and it’s not a huge surprise; change, after all, is constant. And while change certainly is not always good, every development isn’t for the worst, either.
Friday night’s show at Drkmttr, the all-ages space that set up shop in its third and hopefully permanent home on Dickerson Pike in 2019, was a prime example of respecting what’s good about old traditions while exploring new territory. The event was an in-person celebration for three recent releases from Centripetal Force, a relatively new independent label run by Mike Mannix, who also hosts the show Psych Out! on community radio station WXNA. Said releases were Scene contributing editor Jack Silverman’s Live at The 5 Spot (a recording of the release livestream for his studio EP Now What, which came out early this year via also-local indie YK Records), the vinyl edition of Lou Turner’s Songs for John Venn (released digitally in 2020 via Spinster Sounds) and Nashville Ambient Ensemble’s Cerulean, which Centripetal Force released in March.
Ahead of Silverman’s opening set, the small room was flooded with fog and light from the Crescent Sun Lighting rig, which was brought in for the occasion. The murmur of friendly conversation blended with the meditative drone of the music playing over the P.A., and the band — Silverman along with Rob Crawford on drums and Brook Sutton on amplified upright bass, a trio version of the five-piece group that played the release stream — seemed to materialize onstage. “Crime jazz,” the descriptor Silverman has given to his recent solo material, feels accurate if not complete. The guitar-based instrumental pieces play with complex harmonies that scan as ominous, giving a noir-ish impression that’s accentuated as ghosts of his spiraling melodies chase after him through the rolling and shimmering waves of sound from his effects devices.
But chord progressions can resolve in lots of ways, including not resolving at all — some very old-school ways to convey emotion — and that felt like the jumping-off point for exploration throughout the 45-minute performance. The trio weaved around the beat, changing textures and rhythms with subtlety and drawing strength from their ability to play off of each other while improvising. There were some jammy moments here, to be sure. But jams get boring when you can feel the players get lost or start to navel-gaze; these three players seem to know where the doldrums are, and they steered clear.
About half of the full house stepped out for a little air (and perhaps a break from the masks that seem like they’ll be a fact of life for the foreseeable future) while Lou Turner and her band took the stage. In the past, she’s performed live backed by her fellow songsmiths in Styrofoam Winos, who have played around town a few times this year following the release of their excellent self-titled album. This was the live debut of a new backing band for Turner; as usual, her Winos bandmate and life partner Trevor Nikrant played bass, with Anson Hohne on drums and Andie Billheimer (who would play a little later with Nashville Ambient Ensemble) on synth and a second guitar.
The Winos songwriting universe brims with rock- and folk-leaning tunes that groove and amble as they seek out the soul of a world that is frequently harsh and often unpredictable. Turner displayed a special knack for this on Songs for John Venn, whose name comes from the 19th-century priest-turned-mathematician who came up with the idea to use overlapping circles to represent what entities have in common, and the music resonated brilliantly in person. The emotional peak of the set was the one-two combo of the choogling “Flickering Protagonist” and the spoken-word piece “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” In “Circle,” Turner has dinner with visual artist and musician Peggy Snow, known for her long-running experimental folk group The Cherry Blossoms and for painting buildings around Nashville that have been slated for demolition. The conversation the two have in the piece offers an enlightening look at finding spiritual sustenance in an environment that seems bereft of it. Sometimes when a crowd gets quiet, it feels like we’re holding our breath; you could feel the stillness in the room during that performance, but it was a different, more open kind.
After another short break, it was time for Nashville Ambient Ensemble, a group led by composer and synthesist Michael Hix that seems on paper like it shouldn’t work. Ambient pieces tend to be about conveying an atmosphere, painting an emotional landscape with sound. Even when more than one person collaborates on an ambient piece, as in Nashville duo Hammock, the source of a given sound tends to be obscured by design. How the hell do you pull that off with seven people onstage?
You don’t, exactly, but Hix and the group followed the theme of the evening, pushing at the boundaries of the tradition to create something new while honoring the past. The lineup on Friday was somewhat different than on the Cerulean LP, but each player still worked with the others to create a unified expression. Hix and Kim Rueger, alias Belly Full of Stars, generated clouds of harmony with their synthesizers, as Silverman and Billheimer played melodies and made textural accents that alternated between interlocking and reflecting off of each other. Bassist Sarah Saturday created a foundation and drove most of the glacially paced changes in the music, while Scott Mattingly occupied the highest ranges with ethereal sounds he coaxed from pedal steel and electric mandolin (occasionally using a violin bow or a screwdriver, as one does). Vocalist Deli Paloma-Sisk, who recently left Nashville for New Mexico but was back on a Yuletide visit, sang so gently that it felt like voices in my head.
At this reflective time of year, it’s good to remember what has come before. In the case of our collection of music scenes, which are coping with rising costs of living, the ongoing pandemic and more, that’s finding a sense of connection and belonging that cultivates the creative work that keeps inspiring people to listen — and to move here, in more than a few cases. It’s going to take more than just this year to recover from a pandemic that is clearly not over yet. There is no guarantee for what the landscape of the music business in general or our scenes in particular will look like going forward. But the ingenuity and resilience of so many of the players, label heads, venue folks and more who are out there doing the work makes it feel like there’s a chance to make something even more equitable and inclusive than before — to borrow Lou Turner’s metaphor, to widen the Venn diagram — as we try to fill the spaces left by the loss.