Michael Garrie is going to appreciate this review. Not everything was perfect. But the music was.
This was the third day (Sunday, August 9) of my three-day insanity. The plan, originally, was to go to Skipper’s Smokehouse to check out Uproot Hootenanny and see Under the Willow again. Because my schedule had been so stupid, I realized after the fact that I had seen Uproot Hootenany before, at the Home Team New Year’s Rally (and hold onto your hats, or whatever, because rumor has it that this year’s edition will be mind-blowing).
Then the opportunity arose to see Justino and the Difference again, after the Skipper’s show. So that would make three nights, six venues, and ten bands. I cheated, though, because I hit Skipper’s twice and Della’s After Dark twice. Still, it was an awesome weekend.
Before we get to the music, this weekend was significant — for me and my anal-retentive database of shows. I got my 10th Flat Land show, 20th by Holey Miss Moley, and 30th from Serotonic. But who’s counting?
Uproot Hootenany is an excellent quartet who play “roots, folk, Celtic, bluegrass, and whiskey-fueled fun.” Everybody sings, great harmonies, superb musicianship, amusing lyrics. I arrived several songs into the set; they were knocking out “Broward County Line.” David Welch, banjo; Rolando Willimann, bass; Brian Bolen, guitar; and Brian Trew, fiddle, left to right. It happened that this was the 20th anniversary of Jerry’s departure, and they played several Dead songs in his honor, including “Deal.”
Drinking was a favorite subject, with “That’s Why I Drink,” “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and “One Shot of Whiskey.” The Deerfield Beach four also delivered several excellent Irish tunes, the great title track to most recent album Way Out, then “Same Shit Different Day” and “Seminole.” Ever member was strong instrumentally, but violin player Brian Trew shone supernova-bright and was a blast to watch as well. During one of his great solos, the other three, including Willimann with the double bass, all gathered around him on the right side of the stage. It was a great set: bluegrass and Celtic music with clever lyrics and great enthusiasm. The closer, “Best Be Movin’ On (Border Train),” was a great finale.
Under the Willow is a folk/bluegrass quintet from Chicago who wintered in Florida last year. I was afraid they were going to melt, coming south in August, but they seemed to be OK and glad to be back in Florida, briefly. This band centers around the vocals of Erin Donovan and Hayley Skreens, the two young ladies who play fiddle and mandolin, respectively. Add Pat Donovan on guitar, Joe Lenza on banjo and more recent addition bassist Trevor Clark, and you have a band that touches you musically and emotionally; their lyrics are very socially conscious. Their accurate self-description: ‘treegrass.’
Their set included “Our Nature,” “Shady Grove,” and “Take My Time,” a tune where the band members trade instruments (not Erin or Trevor). After “The Light,” UtW played one of its signature tunes, “The American Dream:” “Just another marketing tool…”
During the band’s appearance at Skipper’s in January, the group had just added bassist Clark, who didn’t say much that night. He’s out of his shell now. He did a lot of cool mouth percussion. “Always So Much Better Than It Was” and “Reaching Out” closed out their energetic set.
Music, as noted, was great. The sound? Not so much. Mixing a variety of genres can be challenging for a sound engineer. Skipper’s usually has good sound, but this man just cranked it up. For Uproot Hootenanny, with Skipper’s less than half full, the sound felt like it was punching you, totally unnecessary. The vocals were distinct, however. That would NOT be the case for Under the Willow, where the message in their music was largely negated with the vocals buried underneath the music. You can’t win ‘em all, but that was not satisfactory. See, Garrie?
Justino and the Difference were scheduled to start at The Mandarin Hide in St. Pete at the same time Under the Willow was finishing. I obeyed most of the speed limits and arrived just before the band began their first set. Justino Lee Walker is the guitar player and singer, playing with a band that just might be the best in Florida. Seriously.
The first tune was huge, a song about trouble mitigated by Justino’s sweet voice. John Richardson (also with Infinite Groove Orchestra) took a great electric piano solo, followed by two from Justino. The next instrumental was also a knock-out, and they continued with “Sleep Deprivation.”
There was a young female vocalist in the house who joined the group for a pair of songs, including “All I Do.” Bassist Juan Santana blew this one up, and Richardson tossed out another great electric piano solo. They followed that up with a pair of covers I had heard them do several weeks back at the Blueberry Patch. The first was a slightly different arrangement of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s cover of Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown.” The second was Jeff Beck’s “Led Boots,” again a bit different from the one at the Patch, still amazing.
The young lady, Giana, came back up for another tune, and then Justino and Richardson led the band into “Linus & Lucy” to close out the first set. You may have observed that I have not yet mentioned drummer Jonathan Thomas. I assure you that heaping amounts of JT were evenly distributed throughout the performance. He has flair, style and power: a one-man tour de force.
Great music again, the sound balance was not. Alas.
Set two kicked off with a brief Nirvana tease before settling into Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” Just-ino doing the song just-ice. “Push Pull Tear,” another vocal tune, was next, and suddenly a kick-ass country-isn song emerged! Giana came back up for another tune, followed by Stevie’s “Sir Duke.”
Justino explained that “Signals” was “inspired by some sounds my car makes.” Then it was a spot-on cover of “In the Kitchen.” Jeff Beck surfaced again in “‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” as did Stevie Wonder in a superb cover of “Contusion.”
Wonderful music. Hampered a bit by sound that could easily be improved. Assuming you trust my ears, that is.
Three days. Six venues (sort of). Ten bands. Happy me.