S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Festival – The Brewery (Raleigh, NC)
They really do grow up fast. It’s hard to believe that S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest, the Brewery’s annual two-night blowout featuring roots-rockers, country-rockers and other Merle- and Buck-conscious subspecies, is already three years old. Here’s a S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest diary; all times and recollections are approximate…
7-7:45: Hometowners Big Joe usher in early comers with loud ‘n’ catchy guitar-rock songs from their upcoming self-release while revealing just enough twang factor, a la Bare Jr., to have no one question their spot on the roster. Highlights are roaring versions of their “Evel” (yep, as in Knievel) and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Black Rose”.
7:45-8: Holding down the fort in the side room between acts is Eric “The One-Man Bluegrass Band” Royer; the immaculate contraption that enables him to live up to his billing truly needs to be seen to be believed. He treats us to a song he was once instructed to never play in a bar: “I Saw The Light”.
8-8:45: I prefer dead pig to Leftover Salmon, so it’s off to the side room and the barbecue buffet for most of the post-Dead jamgrass set from western NC’s Acoustic Syndicate.
9-9:45: Athens, Georgia, band Drive By Truckers mix high-octane electric guitar, pedal steel (alas, buried in the mix tonight), and four-part harmonies to give equal time to both halves of the “roots-rock” tag. The high point of a strong set is singer Patterson Hood’s moving “The Living Bubba”, written in memory of the late Greg Dean Smalley, who founded Atlanta’s Bubbapalooza and participated in the inaugural S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest.
10-10:39: Kenny Roby has unveiled some new songs during a couple solo outings following the breakup of his band 6 String Drag, performances that have revealed him to be equal parts Townes Van Zandt, Elvis Costello and Roger Miller. We now get to hear how those songs will sound in a full-band setting, with Roby supported by a group of local vets (original Whiskeytown bassist Steve Grothman, Tonebender David “Pops” Wright on Wurlitzer organ, and 6SD drummer Ray Duffey) who have dubbed themselves the Jugadors, Spanish for “players.” This batch of tunes picks up where the more idiosyncratic moments on 6SD’s High Hat left off; add Vic Chesnutt, Doug Sahm and Dr. John to the list above.
10:40: Emcee and pro wrassler Major DeBeers signals to Roby that the band has time for one more song. The fearless Roby replies, “You’re bat-shit crazy.”
10:41-10:52: Roby and company play four more songs, including the slippery-grooving “Book Of Time”, which with any luck will be the centerpiece of a solo debut Roby is recording for German label Glitterhouse. They finish with an estimable version of “Can’t Find No Love”, a little something from their “favorite Caribbean roots-rocker.”
11:15-12:30: A typically fine set from local honky-tonk heroes the Two Dollar Pistols. In classic hard-country fashion, the band’s originals all seem to have choruses that hinge on the twisting of a phrase, the emptying of a bottle, or both (“Me, Myself & Wine”). New cover: William “You Don’t Miss Your Water” Bell and Booker Jones’ “Everybody Loves A Winner”.
12:45-curfew: I quickly get over the Cigar Store Indians’ well-heeled groupies — including a swing-dancing pair who, during one tune, apparently jump straight from central casting to the Brewery stage — and allow the band’s energetic blend of early rock ‘n’ roll (“Heaven”) and danceable honky-tonk (“Little Things”) to win me over. There’s nothing better than a Bo Diddley beat late on a Friday night.
7-7:45: Charlotte four-piece Lou Ford kicks off their set with the rustic “How Does It Feel?” and a ringing-Rickenbacker pop song called “Why Can’t She Like Me?”, displaying their ability to move easily from country-rock to roots-pop.
8-8:45: Ruthie Logsdon, the pride of Takoma Park, Maryland, can sure enough belt it out; her bandmates, the Wranglers, are skilled players, and together they’ve penned a bunch of solid originals. Still, I find myself waiting for some covers, most notably “Harper Valley PTA” and Loretta Lynn’s feisty “Fist City”, both of which the band has recorded. They never arrive.
9-9:45: The Steam Donkeys, from Buffalo, New York, lean on their fine new disc, Little Honky Tonks, for the first half of the set, moving from hard country to western swing, while the latter half becomes Doug Moody time. The fiddler leads the way through a blistering medley of classical-music snippets, train songs and other things you never thought you’d hear together, and then lends vein-bursting harmonies to “Pothead”, which rises above its parodic origins thanks to an authentic Old West gallop. He sews up the MVP trophy with valiant lead vocals on a set-closing version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”.
10-10:45: Trailer Bride leader Melissa Swingle throws everybody by playing banjo instead of her trademark woozy slide guitar on the first two songs, causing a friend to comment, “Some night she’s going to come out playing synclaver.” The slide soon emerges — she even plays slide mandolin on one tune — and the charming “Porch Song” makes me smile as always.
11-12:25: Four hours into the night and eleven hours into the Fest. Things like professionalism and sobriety no longer are interfering with my writing, enabling me to profess that I’m wild about the Backsliders. The fact that the always entertaining Terry Anderson is among those joining lone original member Chip Robinson in this latest incarnation only adds to the wildness. Covers of Eric Ambel’s “Forever Came Today”, Alejandro Escovedo’s magnificent “Paradise”, and “Sway” (a cover of Escovedo covering the Stones) complement strong originals such as the Springsteenish “Angelina” and a Dan Penn-style roots-soul number titled “Two Candles” — both destined for the band’s next album, due out on Mammoth in late April.
12:26: The crowd demands an encore, but the band has run out of rehearsed songs. They finally decide on drummer Anderson’s “Battleship Chains”, taking a song that was already a garage-rocker and dragging it over to the neighbor’s basement.
12:40 until the lights come on: Prodigal roots-rocking son Phil Lee returns to Raleigh from Nashville and brings S.P.I.T.T.L.E #4 to a perfect close. There’s even a two-song reunion of Lee’s old band, the Sly Dogs. Lonesome Bob, one of the advertised “Nashville All-Stars” joining Lee, asks the musical question, “What Went Wrong?” Not a thing, Lonesome One.