ClashMusic heads to Nashville

Contrary to popular imagination, music journalism is predominantly devoid of glamour.

Most writers tend to spend their days opening envelopes, answering emails and taking phone calls asking why they haven’t opened their envelopes or answered their emails yet. Sometimes, a break is called for.

Flown out to Tennessee to take in a birthday show organised by Jack Daniel's, the chores of the office quickly fade into memory. The South is almost exactly as you would imagine it to be – incessantly hot, the endless blue skies eventually tumble over lavish towers and the faraway tiny points of the Tennessee forests.

Housed in Nashville, a walk into the centre of town finds a vast array of bars, boozers and bordellos snoozing in the mid day sun. Couched in an area known as Broadway, the venues are potted in between shops stocking cowboy boots, Stetsons and denim shirts. But this isn’t quite the tourist trap you would expect – sure, Nashville is catering to a foreign market but that depiction of city life closely mirrors its citizens. People here genuinely do wear cowboy boots and Stetsons, not just those who have stepped off of a nearby movie set.

The Jack Daniels Distillery itself is a compact, remarkably well preserved attraction. Situated in the curiously titled town of Lynchburg (we didn’t ask and don’t want to know) the area is almost entirely overshadowed by the spectre of ol’ Mr JD. Yet bizarrely Lynchburg is placed within a dry county, meaning that despite its scent reaching every corner of the town no one is actually allowed to sell the fabled whiskey.

Ascending the hill at the back of the distillery, the party of journalist find a converted wooden warehouse shrouded in light. Behind it, the sun is setting casting a deep red hue across the Tennessee landscape - as well as having a mean taste for whiskey, Jack Daniel certainly knew a beautiful view when he saw one.

Part of the annual birthday celebrations of its founder, Jack Daniel’s have recruited a varied cast for their one off show. The Silver Cornet Band – a reference to a real life town band formed by the distillery –are a group of crack soul and rock veterans, with dozens of seminal records between them. Hip hop newcomer K Flay is the first to take the stage, re-casting her limber productions for a full band set up.

To an extent, it works. The muscle of the live band adds support to her rhymes, with the diminutive brunette chucking in a few cut up samples over the screaming Hammond. The set is reminiscence of the Blakroc project, or even the hip hop experiments RL Burnside indulged. Tapping out the bass line to ‘Time Of The Season’ on her sampler, K Flay bravely chooses to cover the Zombies classic and manages to add something new to the perennial 60s classic. Dedicating her final song to a nearby Tennessee town, the rapper then completely turns ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ on its head – Glenn Miller this ain’t.

Of the three confirmed performances, the prospect of Warpaint rampaging through the classic soul / country songbook was the most intriguing. Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman emerge clutching guitars and a pedal board, intent on asserting their own identity on the band. The pair are quiet – even a tad shy – but opening song ‘Undertow’ is given a wonderfully respectful arrangement by the crack band. A tender Tenor saxophone solo teases out the song’s tumbling rhythm before Theresa Wayman takes a solo turn for ‘Do Right Woman’. An Aretha Franklin classic also covered by the Flying Burrito Brothers, Wayman’s voice wraps itself like a spider’s web around the well honed arrangement. The effect is devastating, sending every straight male in the venue all a-tremble at the knees. Sitting back in the chorus line, Emily Kokal then takes centre stage for a fun blast through ‘Jolene’ before a cover of The Shirelles’ ‘Dedication’ reveals a 60s Girl Group influence.

Plan B’s re-invention as a soul singer was one of 2010’s more unlikely success stories, swapping foul mouthed rhymes for blasting horn lines in the process; a concept album no less, ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ owed much to the Stax archive. It’s somewhat appropriate, then, that Booker T & The MGs legend Stevie Cropper is on hand to add a little authenticity to proceedings. Still instantly recognisable, his wonderfully clipped lines give a genuine Stax feel to ‘Knock On Wood’ before Plan B belts out ‘Soul Man’.

Lined up beside R&B greats perhaps does the English singer a dis-credit: Plan B is no Eddie Floyd, but he is an exuberant entertainer whose hip hop roots show through, pushing the music somewhere less reverential. Stevie Cropper takes to the mic for a respectful ‘Dock Of The Bay’ before inviting Plan B to take centre stage. Plucking out the familiar ascending riff, the Silver Cornet Band blast into ‘Big Bird’ – Eddie Floyd's (and the Stax family’s) tribute to Otis Redding.

Often seen as being a somewhat plastic reinvention, the circumstances, the band and the material suddenly make Plan B’s soul man guise seem rather more genuine. At the very least an earnest artistic gesture, his bravado fuelled stage presence gives a focal point, allowing the band to sit tight under his vocals. Ending with a flourish, the dark Southern night descends outside as the bus winds its way back to Nashville along the keening highways and past the neon road signs. Remember those slumbering bars, boozers and bordellos? Well they ain’t sleeping no more...

Words by Robin Murray

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