Singer/songwriters and roots music artists by definition live a life of service. There are more lucrative ways to spend one’s working hours to be sure, so these are people for whom reaching out, changing a life, uplifting a heart is a job description. And when called on to bring that ethos to a community in pain, artists of all kinds jump to attention, asking where to be and when to be there. We felt that ethic vividly across an epic show Tuesday night at the City Winery, when WMOT hosted All Hands On Deck!, a tornado relief show that raised funds for the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
The ebullient (and newly married) Steve Poltz was the first artist out on stage and one of several emcees for the night. He put his cards on the table by telling the audience “I’m an optimist. I believe in humanity and the way this came together.” And Poltz was in fact a key producer of the show, having invited a good segment of the twenty-plus artists from his East Nashville community. His opening songs called on some of his actual neighbors, creating lush and lovely harmony with Lindsay Lou and Phoebe Hunt.
Grant Lee Phillips shared a story of solidarity with those who lost homes. His was a victim of the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles. “You never really get over it, but you sing and it helps you heal,” he said as he lit into “Mockingbird,” a song inspired by that experience. That gave way to Ron Pope, who brought a five-piece bluegrass band out for three songs off his new album Bone Structure. “I love this city with all my heart,” he said.
Several other artists during the evening had new albums as well. But Sierra Hull didn’t offer songs from her new 25 Trips, which came out Feb. 28. Instead she and husband Justin Moses offered a short set of creatively chosen tunes, including a wild opening instrumental (a Justin original) that featured unusual chords and solos trading between her mandolin and his acoustic guitar. They duo sang keening bluegrass on Larry Sparks’ “Slow Train” and the prayerful, relevant “Hard Times,” with Hull’s voice sounding serene and stoic.
Other dynamic performances followed from Los Angeles transplant Tony Luca and the swinging, retro husband and wife team of Dominic and Rachael Davis and then a glorious trio with Lindsay Lou, Phoebe Hunt and Maya de Vitry. These are all commanding individual artists and in collaboration they made up a supergroup with stunning voices and twin fiddles. Lindsay Lou’s new song “Silence” written with Hunt in the days after the tornado, very much a catharsis, was my personal high spot of the night.
WMOT Program Director Jessie Scott introduced Rhett Miller, the songwriting frontman of The Old 97’s who is in town making a record this week. His 26-year-old song was made immediate with a set up story that involved a hilarious exchange with Waylon Jennings. Miller joked about following virtuoso musicians but he’s certainly a presence, with flying hair and a keen wit. He closed with a song his band recorded in 2016 with Brandi Carlile called “Good With God.”
Along came more in a cavalcade of artists: An acoustic version of Deer Tick, followed by Vanessa Carlton, who is John McCauley’s wife besides being a star songwriting artist; Langhorne Slim sounding graveling and grave singing about a lost family member; Josh Rouse, backed by a crack Nashville ensemble, playing silky pop vibrations; Aaron Lee Tasjan at the piano looking like a young Elton John as he did “Little Movies” and “My Whole Life Is Over”; and Jaimee Harris doing plaintive country music.
As things hit the home stretch, Mary Gauthier lent a blessing to the room with “Mercy Now.” Then it was Buddy Miller who brought out the biggest band of the night to do “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” channeling the very heart of the Nashville Americana sound through the City Winery’s delectable sound system. In the band was Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley who did their amazing guitar/dobro duo thing, playing a free-wheeling cover of “Friend Of The Devil.” And the wild four-and-a-half-hour show ended with two badly needed anthems by the McCrary Sisters: “Amazing Grace” taken at a stately pace and a super-jam on “I’ll Take You There.”
“I’ve always heard that disasters bring out the best in people, and I’ve never seen anything like this before” Maya de Vitry said during one of her turns on stage. “It’s like the way we’ve always longed to be in some ways. It’s some of the most hope I’ve felt in a long time about humans. I’m full of hope and gratitude right now.”