When sublime jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval — who came from Cuba, a country where the music he loved was outlawed — was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this week, he remarked that he plays every show like it is his last. It's abundantly clear that Omar "Bombino" Moctar is equally driven. We've seen the guitarist — a Tuareg from Niger, where the government banned traditional guitar music as a ham-fisted means of maintaining order for years — melt faces on numerous occasions, and we're proud to note that his latest album, Nomad, was produced right here in Music City by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Needless to say, The Spin was sold as soon as Bombino's name appeared on Exit/In's calendar.
Opener Loney John Hutchins is a familiar face around town, known to most through his audio production work, his independent label, Cleft Music, and the growing Cleft Studios complex he recently opened in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood (no telling if the nickname "WedgeHo" will stick, but one can dream). We've also seen him play out with Tim Chad and Sherry, but this was our first taste of his solo material. "Solo" is slightly misleading, considering the band of ringers in his corner: Tim Chad's Brian Kotzur (formerly of Silver Jews) on the skins; indie session bassman and former And the Relative Eli Beaird; Matt "Mr. Jimmy" Rowland, master of all things with keys, on piano and organ; golden-voiced Carey Kotsionis on harmonies and percussion that were irritatingly difficult to hear; and Jonny Fritz co-conspirator Josh Hedley on the fiddle.
The rapid-fire set reminded us of two of Hutchins' best-known clients, Jonny Fritz and Lylas, with trad-country influences and self-effacing storytelling like the former, and the hints of Eastern European folk and macabre unease we sometimes find in the latter. There was also a twist of classic '60s pop for good measure. The conversation ranged from personal to grassroots-political; between numbers about breakups and hangovers, Hutchins introduced a song about gentrification and made a plug for Mayor Dean's embattled Bus Rapid Transit system, The Amp. There are still kinks to iron out in the arrangements — until a fast minor-key tune late in the set, it felt like Hedley was there mostly as a tree-like set piece — but we'll keep an ear on them for sure. Local acts on the make, take note: Ending your set with a Mattoid cover never hurts, either.
After a quick stage reset, it was time for Bombino & Co. to work their magic. Clad in caftans, the quartet took their places with an almost regal bearing, lining up across the front of the stage for an acoustic set. We were mesmerized pretty quickly thanks to the heartbeat made by the hand-drum patterns, while Bombino's gentle melodic playing, circling around the beat, revealed the deep roots of Delta blues. Though the guitar wizard showed meditative restraint during the acoustic set, he was ready to set off some fireworks once the electric guitars were strapped on, playing furiously and pouring sweat, but always playing with and reacting to the band, never setting himself apart.
Some groups excite us with raw energy, making us feel like the sound trying to burst out of them could tear the whole sonic landscape apart at any second. Bombino and band wield just as much energy, but it's focused in a completely different way, fusing all the elements together. It's like the difference between a closed fist and an open palm. This level of positively psychedelic interplay is what every jam band is looking for, and finds sometimes, but landing that balance feels as ingrained as breathing for these guys.
In conversation (and checking out the English translations on his lyric sheets), Bombino intends to spread a message of peace; in person, he could be singing the phone book, for all we know — his stage presence would carry it off for us (though there was apparently someone in the audience who spoke Bombino's mother tongue of Tamasheq). We're dead certain that his performance leaves us energized and refreshed, even after bouncing around with the beat for 90 minutes, and when he comes back, so will we.
The massive, sold-out George Jones tribute at Bridgestone Arena threw a warm glow of legacy from the heart of downtown on Friday night — it's a theme that seemed to permeate the rest of the city as well. Well, at least the two shows we attended.
From where we were standing at will-call booth, the man onstage at Marathon Music Works upon our arrival looked far too young to have founded legendary sad-bastard pioneers The Smiths. Turns out we'd regretfully missed opener Meredith Sheldon — blame our lethargy on the side effects of the sudden winter spell — but was there another band on the bill?
Our questions were answered with the unmistakable shimmer and twang of indie rock's most influential guitarist, the 50-year-old Johnny Marr, and the inimitable magic floating out of his ax. Given his extended post-Smiths career as a sideman, it was apparent his skills as a frontman have gone underutilized for far too long. His banter was succinct and sassy but endearing in the way only a sassy, seemingly tipsy Englishman can deliver.
The band jammed effortlessly through nearly all 12 of the tracks from Marr's first proper solo effort, this year's The Messenger. Marr's gently angsty riffs and honeyed croon made it all sound very Smiths-y by nature, but with a hell of a lot more muscle. When Marr casually and inevitably dipped into his best-known works — Smiths numbers like "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and "How Soon Is Now?" — the tempos were ramped up, with Marr eschewing former bandmate Morrissey's dramatic delivery for a dulcet snarl of his own. Still, the dreamy jangle and razor-sharp guitar chops alone were worth the price of admission. Seriously, we'd have paid just to listen to the guy noodle by himself all night. Even when "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want" and "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" (the set's closer) were executed with historical authenticity, it didn't feel like a tribute to Marr's own legacy — we were seeing the guy execute ownership of these works, which will long outlive him.
We also seized the opportunity to catch Misfits — or at least, the band that was billed as legendary horror-core originators Misfits, who were launching into their set just as Johnny Marr was ending — over at Exit/In.
The Spin takes it as a given that most people wouldn't walk into a 2013 Misfits show expecting the same cryptic magic contained on 1982's Walk Among Us. With this crowd, however, we had to wonder. OG punks, youngsters clad in leather jackets and bondage pants, and a few full-fledged Juggalos in clown-face regalia were all pumping fists as sole original member Jerry Only, former Black Flag (current FLAG) guitarist Dez Cadena and drummer Eric Arce (Murphy's Law) ripped through an extended list of the band's best-loved material. Only belted out the hits to the best of his ability, but his highs just weren't haunting, and his howl failed to inspire the kind of fear Glenn Danzig's lyrics were intended to create.
In fact, after having seen Only's brother Doyle Wolfgang Von Frankenstein perform just a few of these same tunes alongside original Misfits frontman Danzig in a controversial set at Bonnaroo 2012 — not to mention the countless cover bands that typically sprout in all directions come Halloween — The Spin has definitely seen better Misfits tributes. Honestly, we couldn't help but feel there might be someone more qualified to perform this stuff, even if they'd never spent any time in the band.