Fiddle music filled the “musician’s living room” Thursday night as two acts took to the Cafe Nine stage to offer an evening full of love, joy, and veneration.
The show featured Jake Blount. the Providence, R.I.-based musician and vocalist who made his mark on the scene last year with the 2020 release of his album Spider Tales, which featured songs from the deep history of Black and Indigenous roots music.
Opening for Blount were The Moon Shells, a locally based group whose original tunes are steeped in the traditions of roots and old-time music as well.
The Moon Shells — Maggie Shar on vocals and banjo, Laura Murawski on bass, Molly Merrett on guitar, Charlie Shaw on drums, and (in the interest of full disclosure), the Independent’s own Brian Slattery on fiddle, vocals, and guitar — came to the stage first. Slattery told the crowd that the band had met Blount through fiddle festivals. “Fiddle music has very deep roots on Black music,” Slattery added. “We have the very cool pleasure of a new reckoning in this country, and we get to explore with the rhythms this music is based on.”
As Shar switched between banjos and Slattery between his guitar and fiddle, the two also took turns with Merrett on lead vocals while also partaking in three-part harmonies that rang true with sweetness. They took to instrumentals only for “Burnt Swamp,” which could be called a barnburner, as it got the crowd immediately swinging and swaying in their seats. The band played other songs from last year’s release, House of Air, including “Ready,” a joyous tune that highlights not only the band’s harmonies and musicianship, but their hopefulness and camaraderie.
New music was also introduced, as Merrett spoke about the band’s upcoming December release, Earth, with the songs “Fingerprints” (“this is our acknowledgement of Indigenous stolen land we’re all occupying,” she said) and “Boat Song” — which “is about a boat,” said Merrett. “Shocking,” answered Shar with a smile, after which Merritt clarified that it was about a boat in the Hudson River, sailed by her brother, who is trying an experiment in zero-emissions sail freight.
Laughter punctuated the entire set as the band enjoyed themselves and took the crowd along with them. In less distanced times, there may have been a floor full of fans dancing along, but for now, the smiles and cheers were indicative of their invigoration.
Blount came to the stage with George Jackson on banjo and fiddle, Isa Burke on guitar, and Nelson Williams on bass. They dove right into an instrumental tune with Blount on banjo, which he traded in and out during the set for fiddle. Over the course of the evening Blount paid homage to a wealth of old-time music performers and their songs, noting that one was “new — like from the 1940s — that’s downright progressive,” with a smile. He peeled back some history, too, bringing to light, for example, a fiddle tune that bluegrass legend Bill Monroe learned from a Black man.
“All of the stuff we do is from Black fiddle players,” he added, after that song, which was titled “Poor White Folks Ain’t Treating Me Right.” Though he added in a song by “an amazing Black singer named Alberta Hunter,” addressing “a common problem we have” regarding interracial romance, called “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark.” Blount sang and snapped his fingers along to this one, and each member of the band had a chance to shine with a solo as well.
Blount and Jackson began a medley of two versions of the fiddle tune “Grey Eagle,” one from Cherokee fiddler Manco Sneed and the other by the Lawless Kentucky Boys. While the songs were described as “old timey” by Blount, they also seemed fresh, played with an exuberance and a reverence for those who originated them.
The two also talked about Jackson’s forthcoming album, which features a couple of songs the two recorded back in February 2020. One was “Three Shoes,” by Judy Hyman, who Jackson noted was “a great fiddler.” This song featured Blount on banjo and Jackson on fiddle.
More songs were featured from Spider Tales, including the final song on the album, the Josie Miles tune “Mad Mama’s Blues,” which again saw Blount putting down his instruments so he could snap along, singing “You can try to bring me down, beat me black and blue, but these bones are rising and I’m coming back for you.”
The crowd loved every minute of it, the applause rousing and the cheers echoing through the venue. Blount and the band received it all with smiles and gratitude.
“This is our release tour,” Blount noted after mentioning that Spider Tales came out in May 2020 during the pandemic. Jackson added that they would be playing “10 days of gigs” heading to New York City and a variety of other cities, ending up eventually in Chicago, “so if you know anybody send them along.”
“Come out to an old-time bluegrass jazz show,” joked Blount. And when he ended this incredible night that not only reimagined but honored music from the past — thanking everyone “for being here to bear witness” — it felt like we had all been bearing witness to the future.
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