Nightfall is back! Despite its relatively paltry budget, Chattanooga’s free summer music series at Miller Plaza has for 23 years brought bands of the caliber of Nickel Creek and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (just before both broke wide open), as well as stellar musicians like Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller, Loudon Wainwright III, the legendary Latin pianist Eddie Palmieri and dozens of others to town who might otherwise never have played in Chattanooga.
Many of the acts on this year’s schedule are young, still relatively unknown bands building a buzz. The opening show last Friday, for example, featured Alexis P. Suter, a young, Brooklyn-born, blues-rock-soul musician who caught a big break several years ago when the celebrated drummer, Levon Helm, began featuring her along with her band at his Midnight Rambles.
This week (Friday, May 18) the headliner is Seven Handle Circus, a seven-instrument band from Athens, Ga., that features the mandolin, violin and guitar—but isn’t exactly a bluegrass group. Asked to describe the band’s music, guitarist Shawn Spencer told an interviewer on WABE, Atlanta’s NPR station, “We tend to have the energy of rock, modern music and rap ... We actually throw in rap songs pretty frequently.”
In the past year, they’ve shared a stage with rappers T-Pain and Yung Joc and they opened for Mumford and Sons, who were apparently so impressed after hearing them in a restaurant that they invited them to play their opening act at the Fox Theatre earlier this year.
Listening to the songs on their just-released, six-song EP, Whiskey Stills and Sleeping Pills, it’s easy to understand the Mumford boys’ enthusiasm. The band’s music has the breathless energy and effortless melodicism that makes many of the songs on the Mumford’s first album so memorable. It’s folk music played and paced like pop, but with the drive and energy of a rock band.
They’ll be followed on Friday, May 25, by Elliott Brood, a three-piece band from Toronto. Like 7HC, the band is steeped in folk music, but they approach their Seeger-ish songs the way The Police played reggae: as a springboard for a stomping, punky pop/rock and folk that mixes The Byrds airy harmonies with the high-energy thump of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band. Mark Sasso is the band’s singer and guitarist. His partners are Casey LaForet and Stephen Pitkin, who used a suitcase for a snare until that proved (perhaps predictably) impractical. LaForet uses a foot pedal that makes his acoustic guitar sound like an electric guitar. A number of videos on You Tube show Sasso exhorting the crowd to join the band in a raucously enthusiastic sing-along. Miller Plaza will likely ring with upraised voices that night.
The first show in June (Friday, June 1) will be the last before the series takes a short break for Riverbend. Featuring the Honey Island Swamp Band from New Orleans, it promises to be the one of the best of the year. The band coalesced around singers and guitarists Chris Mule and Aaron Wilkinson, who also plays mandolin. Marooned in San Francisco following Hurricane Katrina, the two musicians decided to put a band together after meeting up with two other evacuees, bassist Sam Price and drummer Garland Paul. They all knew each other from New Orleans, and almost as soon as they began playing together they were offered a regular Sunday night gig at a club called The Boom Boom Room. They were a hit, and a local engineer offered to help them make a record. The resulting seven-song EP was so well received that they stayed together after moving back to New Orleans in 2007. After organist Trevor Brooks joined the band in 2010, they began working on their most recent album, Good To You, which became a big hit in their hometown thanks to regular airplay on WWOZ.
Their music is a mash-up of 1960s and ’70s sounds, including the rootsy blues of Beggars Banquet-era Stones, the chattering conga-driven pop rock of the early Doobie Brothers, and the swampy funk of vintage Little Feat. It’s a sound that’s both familiar and fresh from a band that will likely join that pantheon of performers who’ve made Nightfall a music lover’s delight for nearly a quarter of a century.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.