Monday, April 1, 2013

A Great Day To Be Alive

Darrell Scott, Live in Concert
The Listening Room (Masonic Hall), Hastings, NE
Friday, 29 March, 2013

Darrell Scott
It was impossible to miss all the longish grey locks spilling from under men’s Stetsons in the audience that night. An act like Darrell Scott attracts a certain audience, mostly older (pushing forty, I was roughly at the median age) and more discerning. Sure some men had paunches, and some women had jowls, but I couldn’t see one unattractive person in the crowd. Spirited music attracts spirited people.

The Talbott Brothers opened the show and set the evening’s tone. Actual brothers named Talbott, from Imperial, Nebraska, their physical look mimicked The Lumineers—not coincidental, I’m sure. But their tight sibling harmony and intricate twin finger-picking sonically resembled Nickel Creek, with ventures into John Hiatt and Pinetop Perkins. They played only six songs, but had the audience on its feet. Watch this space; I suspect we’ll hear more from this duo in the future.

But we’d come to hear Darrell Scott. Some of us had heard him on, or seen him play before; he has a long history with The Listening Room. Others probably only knew him at a few degrees’ remove. Though he’s netted Grammy nominations, it’s always as a songwriter. Brad Paisley, Faith Hill, Travis Tritt, the Dixie Chicks, and Kathy Mattea have all cut his songs. He may be the most successful Nashville songwriter you’ve never heard of.

And that’s a shame, because he came onstage unaccompanied, one man with his guitar, and proceeded to blow everyone away. I blush to admit, I don’t know Scott’s corpus that well, and while I enjoyed the first song, including his lightning-fast finger-picking, I couldn’t sing along, or quote the title. But I was too wrapped up in the spectacle unfolding before me to notice that I didn’t know this song. I certainly knew his second: “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive.”

It’s not often you hear an unaccompanied folkie on an acoustic guitar compared to Jimi Hendrix, but the comparison is apt. Not the Monterey Pop Jimi who smashed his guitar, but the Band of Gypsies Jimi, a seasoned artist whose absolute mastery of his instrument dwarfed his humble milieu. Though Scott held the stage alone, you never would have known, as his fingers flew over the fretboard with such intricacy that he sounded like three instrumentalists at once.

The Talbott Brothers
Scott has that remarkable facility, which no rocker but maybe Jeff Beck has now, to keep his thumb over the two lowest strings, giving himself the potent bass boom entire bands strive to emulate. His fingers stay in motion, never pausing even as he trades jokes with the audience, or launches into an improvisational bridge that covers the whole fretboard. Watching his hands, I realized: Darrell Scott doesn’t just know how to play guitar. He knows how to play his audience.

And he never let up. Even switching to piano for several songs, including “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” he maintained constant momentum, the consummate showman. I never knew he played piano, and he admits it isn’t his strongest instrument. But he has a Vince Guaraldi-like jazz quality, with an aggressive left hand bolstering close harmony with his voice. He doesn’t improvise on the piano, but then, he doesn’t need to.

Though known for Nashville hits, songs like “Long Time Gone” and “Hank Williams’ Ghost” trumpet Scott’s distaste for the current industry. It’s a distaste his audience plainly shares, as they applaud rousingly when Scott describes his sound as “real country: pre-Toby, pre-video, pre-mechanical bull.” Those of us who grew up listening to country before Garth Brooks emasculated the genre know exactly what he means. That’s what drew us here tonight.

The Listening Room’s current home, the Masonic Hall, has a good honky-tonk vibe, putting the artist front and center while keeping him close enough to banter with the audience. During his second set, Scott gave us permission to request songs, and my neighbors shouted titles I didn’t recognize: “East of Gary,” “Crooked Road.” Scott happily complied, rattling off closet classics from a fifteen-year recording career. If you need me, I’ll be browsing iTunes.

For his encore, Scott sat at the piano, which he admitted he does because he needs the rest, and crooned “Satisfied Mind.” I wouldn’t have chosen that as my encore: not only is it downbeat, Scott didn’t even write it. But that’s why I’m not the star. This slow semi-spiritual proved a perfect capstone for a perfect night. Tonight’s magic word is not “energy,” but “character.” That’s what makes Scott real, and what Nashville lacks.

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