Prior to May 5th, I had only seen Marty Stuart play at the Opry or at his Annual Late Night Jam. I knew from those musical vignettes that a full show would be enjoyable. I was not expecting the amount of energy and excitement that the quartet laid on the crowd in Birmingham that night.
Friday night crowds can be dicey. Many are ‘exhaling’ from the work week and can reflect that exhaustion toward the stage with an almost tangible malaise. Fortunately, Sean McConnell opened for the Superlatives. He is a singer-songwriter from Massachusetts, now living in Nashville. Playing guitar and occasional harmonica, he had the audience by the 2nd song and held them for the rest of his time. Carrying a voice that was reminiscent of the power of Jason Isbell and clarity of Bono, McConnell’s presented well-crafted songs that rang in my mind and thoughts long after the music stopped. His songs set the crowd at ease and prepared them well for what was to come.
After intermission, Marty and the group attacked the stage. The Superlatives, wearing their bespangled lavender outfits in contrast with Marty’s all black ensemble were almost as visually energetic as the music. Among this group’s unique qualities is the ability to make their incredible work appear laid back. They are each much more than capable within their own sphere and the combination pushes each of them to continually up their game.
Their new CD is titled Way Out West. It is a love letter from Stuart to the American West and features everything from Native American ululating to trippy, psychadelic guitars (echoing the Byrds circa 1970) to a couple of straight ahead country tunes. Knowing that the new CD is a departure in many ways from what the group is known for and that the new material would be featured prominently, I wondered ahead of the show if the set would be fragmented. I should have spent my time thinking of something else. From the opening notes to the end of the encore, they brought offerings from Bluegrass, Rock n Roll, Country and Gospel with equal parts quality and exuberance.
Stuart has only been at this game for 40+ years, so he knows how to make a crowd willingly follow him where he wants to go. Starting the show with four out of six familiar tunes and one of the other two a straight ahead country song (though new) let the audience know they were in for a full throttle, non-stop ride.
The set began with the Blind Lemon Jefferson/Grateful Dead tune Rider, which Stuart has made his own over the past few years. Whole Lotta Highway is a great traveling song off the new project. It brought to mind the era of the trucker song and America’s love affair with the wide open road (think Route 66 era). The Don Reno/Red Smiley tune Country Boy Rock n Roll allowed Stuart & Vaughan to stretch their fingers a bit in another song that Stuart has come to own.
I don’t want to fill up the space with a play by play- you can read the playlist below and follow Marty’s craft at programming the music. I loved that each of the sidemen gets a turn in the spotlight, as they have much to offer. I’ll pause right here, however, and say that there are a lot of great guitarists in the world and many of them play country music. Of those people, there may be some that rival him, but I know of no one that plays any better than Kenny Vaughan. From surf to honky tonk and Grady Martin Tex-Mex to modern rock, Kenny is a master at every style. This tour/CD shows of some different facets of Kenny’s playing than previous projects. The segments when Kenny and Marty play in duet are simply astounding.
Marty is an old soul and this is well evidenced in music, print and deeds. Perhaps his versions of the Orange Blossom Special (his voice and mandolin alone) and El Paso cement that idea as well as anything. Marty shows us that it is possible to take these two signature pieces and either reproduce them faithfully (El Paso) or to add to them respectfully and with subtle innovation (OBS). While I would like to have these in some recorded format for posterity, those are the kind of songs that make live performances very memorable and special.
In my opinion, there is, simply put, no better country band touring today. Pick a standard and measure them for yourself. There may be some that people prefer for whatever reason. There may be some who are close and on a given night, equal Marty’s group. Night in, night out, however, my money would be on these four gentlemen.