Most of the band leaders who play Roots and who ply the highways and byways of the Americana scene are singer/songwriters who may or may not have extra flair as an instrumentalist. But Michael Cleveland is so powerful and so seductive on his fiddle that he’s got enough firepower to lead Flamekeeper as a picker first. The extremely talented Josh Richards does most of the lead singing in the band and on its new album On Down The Line. But it’s Cleveland’s beacon-like passion for hard-edged, traditional bluegrass music that makes Flamekeeper a must-see act.
One week after a night dedicated to the legacy of Nashville soul, R&B and gospel, we return to our regularly scheduled eclectic Americana, including Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper debuting the new CD just a day before a big release show at the world famous Station Inn. We’ll also welcome back two of our favorite songwriters – Susan Werner and David Olney – as they prepare for big leaps into the world of theater. And Michaela Anne, a newcomer to our stage but not esteemed stages of roots music, will show us the country sound she developed in Brooklyn before her very recent move to Music City.
The first time I saw Michael Cleveland (back around 2000 with Rhonda Vincent) was one of those revelatory moments you get in bluegrass. He was too young to be so good. He was uncannily original in a musical niche with plenty of models and relatively narrow parameters. And then there was the fact that he was blind and had obviously not had a predictable or easy path up the bluegrass mountain. Yet here he is in 2014 with nine Fiddle Player of the Year awards from the IBMA. But then he was spotted early on as prodigy destined for something great. He was part of an early version of the Bluegrass Youth All Stars and he was invited to play on the Opry with Alison Krauss. He was called on by legends like J.D. Crowe to join him on stages and records. He became a band leader in 2006, and ever since he’s thrived.
The new album, Flamekeeper’s first for Compass Records, kicks off with the kind of high, fast hair-curler you’d think came from the pen of one of the legends. But that double take you did is because “Too Late For Goodbyes” is a Julian Lennon hit from 1984, bluegrassified at the suggestion of Josh Richards. But if Cleveland dips his toe into McCoury-esque rock covers with that one, he closes with his version of the warhorse “Orange Blossom Special,” because dang it, he can. It’s the most explosive and popular fiddle feature of all time, so a fiddler as great as Michael simply had to get a version on the record.
When last we saw the warm and wondrous Susan Werner, she was singing songs of farm life from her album Hayseed. Her performance on that occasion of “Plant The Stars” was one of my most emotional moments at Roots, and the track still gets me verklempt when I call it up today. Besides being heart-tugging, Werner is witty, endearing and inventive. Her voice is burnished brass. She’s one of the most outstanding stage talkers we know as well. So it’s going to be a treat to welcome her back. Especially since I have so many questions about her newest venture, writing the music to a major new musical version of the great movie Bull Durham. This is hometown terrain for me, folks. The story of Crash Davis, Annie Savoy and Nuke LaLoosh was set in my city, at the ballpark where I saw Chipper Jones and Ryan Klesko play as minor leaguers on their way to my beloved Atlanta Braves. I loved the movie and I have to think Susan’s wry lyrics should be a perfect match for this tale of lust and baseball. Whether she’ll be singing any of the show’s material is an open question, but I sure hope so.
Also bound for the theatrical stage is our pal David Olney. Nashville’s amazing founder of the X-Rays and a writer of songs for Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt (among others) has written new music for the Nashville Shakespeare Company’s new production of As You Like It. And when it premieres in Centennial Park on August 14, Olney will play the role of Amiens. We’ve seen how perceptive and intense Olney can be delivering classic verse in his video concept project reciting the Rime of the Ancient Mariner on YouTube. And we well know the drama baked into his exceptional songs. His newest album (it’s been hard to keep up with his whirlwind pace lately) is When The Deal Goes Down, just out last month. Dave’s press calls it “a wild ride of emotions from love and hope to fear and despair, all the while being entertaining as-hell.” It’s true; Olney is ageless and courageous. LA Times music guru Robert Hilburn wrote that Olney “may be the best songwriter to have released nearly a dozen albums without making the Top 200.” But hey these days are topsy-turvy so maybe Deal will be his first. You, Roots Nation can make it happen.
And rounding out the bill, Michaela Anne should be a treat. Her backgrounder says she was a frustrated jazz student in NYC who got bit by the folk and country bug. She collaborated with the city’s guitar guru Michael Daves (partner of Chris Thile). He says on her website, “I love her knack for blending pop sensibilities with deep, Old Americana. I know we’ll be hearing a lot more from her down the line.” And after developing quite a spot in the competitive Brooklyn club scene, she hit some top flight festivals, most recently what appears to have been a lovely weekend at the iconic FloydFest.
So fire up your vehicle or your radio. Because Wednesday night at the Factory its Flame On.