Friday, April 10, 2009

Blackness at the Bull Run

I was hanging out around 11pm on a Friday night in Boston in the basement of the Good Life where my good friend and mash-up artist DJBC was spinning. It’s the end, officially a week past the end, of what has been a very long winter. He’s got a crowd of young financial district types, some of whom have been home from work and some of whom haven’t. The place is crowded, and I’m just kind of huddled up in a dark corner because I can’t hear much of anything over the din.

That‘s when one of our friends asks me, “What are you up to these days?”

I say, “Well, I’m driving out of the city to see a country bluegrass cover band.”

He asks “What king of music do they cover?”

I say, “Country and bluegrass, you know with a guitar, and a bass, and maybe a fiddle or mandolin or banjo or something like that.”

“Yes, I get that,” he says, “but what type of music do they cover?”

I give him a look and say “country and bluegrass.” And I want to say “both types” like the guy in Blues Brothers (that guy was into country and western, for the record, in case you are confused too). I also want to say “roots” but I know that’s not going to help.

But he just keeps asking, “Do they cover classic rock songs, or punk, or techno, or hip hop, or …” I see that he doesn’t have it in his head that someone in a roots band would actually play country or bluegrass music.

And so I try to close it out with, “You know Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers….” I can see on his face he’s still not getting it. “… Allison Kraus, Gillian Welch.”

“Yes,” he says, “she’s great. That will be great.”

Obviously he’s seen the Coen brothers movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? I make a mental to always start there when talking to a hipster about roots music. I want to say something about who I’m actually going to go see but it seems hopeless. I just retreat to my darkened corner.

So on Saturday (March 28, 2009) I drive out to Shirley to the Bull Run Restaurant. It was a cloudy night and as the sun set the darkness settled in. In the city it never truly gets dark. Out in the Johnny Appleseed country past Route 128 and past 495, it gets dark. Pitch black. But that was OK because I had come out to see Amy Black & the Red Clay Rascals.

Amy Black brings an authenticity to roots music that belies her Concord, Massachusetts upbringing and her high tech day job. It turns out she is a preacher’s daughter, with grandparents in Alabama. She and the great band she has put together played a long set list that included:

Hound Dog (Etta James version)
Last Fair Deal (Robert Johnson)
Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)
Big Road (Bonnie Raitt)
Big River (Johnny Cash by way of Rosie Flores)
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings)
Darling Cory (traditional folk)
Love Me Like a Man (Bonnie Raitt)

Other notable songs performed included Move it On Over (Hank Williams), The Angels Rejoiced (Louvin Brothers), Folsom Prison Blues (Keb Mo version of the Johnny Cash classic), Rueben (Be Good Tanyas), and Orphan Girl (Gillian Welch). Amy’s little sister Corrie Jones is billed as an “occasional Rascal” on background vocals. She did more than that. What I would give for an .mp3 of Corrie singing I Still Miss Someone, one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs.

I don’t want to give the impression there are few authentic roots musicians from New England. Fiddle player Rich Hamilton from Jaffray, NH opened the show with a great 45 minute set. He played the old time mountain music like he was from Appalachia. Now that I think about it, the Appalachian Mountains do run through New Hampshire. Rich also played with the Red Clay Rascals through much of the show. They did a great version together of Man of Constant Sorrow.

The Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley is a historic tavern on the old road from Boston to Albany, New York. If you believe the locals, minutemen mustered from here for the Battle of Lexington and Concord. And there may have been a bar fight during the Civil War as to whether the North or South would win the Battle of Bull Run. You can tell from the worn floor and the old fireplace that the stories might not be true, but they’ve been telling them here for a long, long time.

The music venue is in separate building, there are actually two music venues. The bigger one is one the first floor. It’s a large hall filled with at least of score of large round banquet tables that don’t even begin to fill the space. We were seated with some guys from New Hampshire, who talk like they know all the Cambridge roots venues – Toad, the Lizard Lounge, Club Passim, the Cantab– better than we do. The regulars told us they come to the Bull Run for the music. We thought the food was good too. It was easy to have a conversation.

The drive back to the city went quickly. But the fog had settled in, and we couldn’t see the city lights until we got back into it.

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