BLUEBIRD CAFE MAGIC STILL ALIVE AND WELL
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
On any given night in Nashville, magic can happen, legendary songwriter (and my friend) Marshall Chapman often says. This certainly was the case during a songwriter in-the-round show at the famed Bluebird Cafe on Oct. 26, featuring singer-songwriters Robby Hecht, Mary Bragg, Jillette Johnson, and the duo Freddy & Francine.
I had not attended a show at the Bluebird in several years, since many of its shows began to sell out months in advance, thanks to the popularity of the place, spurred by the long-running TV drama, Nashville. Previously, I'd popped in for several shows a year, whenever I'd visit Music City.
I was glad to see magic still happened here, despite the crowds. Nashville's Mary Bragg opened her part of the show with “I Thought You Were Somebody Else,” a classic-country weeper from her newest album, Violets as Camouflage. (See the video below, and my more complete story on Bragg in this review of her performance earlier this year with Nashville artist Kyshona at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Ga.)
Robby Hecht, our host for the show and whose folk-influenced songs, delicate voice and poetic lyrics conjure shades of James Taylor and Richard Thompson, touched me with “The Sea and The Shore," which feels like some ancient poem. (See video below.)
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Performing her first show at the Bluebird, Jillette Johnson’s intricate piano skills and surprising melodies and lyrical turns were distinctive for sure, but hearkened at times back to the classic-pop sounds of Carole King and even Nashville’s Beth Nielsen Chapman. Some of her lyrics take a dark turn, recalling Stevie Nicks and Fiona Apple, on the funny “Graveyard Boyfriend” and the bizarre, stunning “Bunny." (See video below.)
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Freddy & Francine stole the show, honestly, in their first Bluebird performance, with their folk-influenced, soulful vocals--although the same could be argued for each of the night’s artists. The husband-wife duo known in real life as Bianca Caruso and Lee Ferris, moved to Nashville this year after a long musical life in Los Angeles. The couple sang so soulfully, in the vein of The War and Treaty and Buddy and Julie Miller, on their song “Meet Me Halfway,” that I blurted out loud, “You should record at Muscle Shoals!”
The duo also mixed passion and humor on their song "Slow Down," which featured Steve Cropper-like guitar licks: “Girl, I wanna slow down with you,” Ferris sang. (See a video of another of their songs, below.)
Mary Bragg shared her poignant, more pop-oriented “Fixed,” defending young girls and women from a technology-driven culture that often values appearance over strengths more than ever. On Hecht’s “Soon I Was Sleeping,” Bragg slipped comfortably into her role as duet partner, in what could be a honky-tonk romp. “When you lost your heart to that bottle, I lost the man you used to be,” she sang.
Bragg and Hecht also sang their powerful track “Fight,” a heavy, gorgeous tune about a love tumbling away, from Bragg's latest record.
One of my friends at my table was moved to tears by her first hearing of Bragg’s “The Right Track." (See video above.) Bragg spoke of her grandmother as inspiration for the memorable “More Than You Do,” which includes the beautiful line, “Spend every day doing what you’re meant to do.”
Freddy & Francine finished the show with another terrific, soulful cut, “By No Means.” The well-traveled duo noted they were raising funds for their next album.
These performances show why Nashville’s songwriting continues to thrive, even as the music industry changes more swiftly now than ever before (and that's saying a lot). I can only imagine a world in which popular music, not to mention country music itself, in which these songs and artists and others like them were dominant. How much richer would our lives (and the sounds from our car radios) be?