Odd Mix Makes Good Chemistry

This appeared in The Chicago Tribune - January 17, 2006

Before kicking off the latest installment of the Secret Country Music Series, program curator Robbie Fulks sat down for a brief living-room chat with the evening's performers--country singer Marty Stuart and Chicago soul legend Otis Clay.

The pairing, which might appear odd at first glance, proved to be an inspired match: Stuart spoke openly of his love for gospel music and Clay reminisced about childhood days spent listening to the Grand Ole Opry, even exclaiming, "Hank Williams, my man!" as the three discussed their earliest inspirations.

That spirit of kinship carried over into the first of two Sunday shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Stuart, in the midst of a creative outburst that has seen him release three albums in a seven-month span, delivered 14 songs in a well-paced and extraordinarily intimate 60-minute set.

Borrowing the look of friend, mentor and one-time father-in-law, Johnny Cash, the singer was dressed head-to-toe in black with only his gray hair, swooped skyward like David Bowie's 'do in "Labyrinth," breaking rank.

Encircled by his stellar three-piece band, the Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart opened his set with a casual, back porch run-through of "Streamline Lover." Taking full advantage of the venue's exceptional acoustics, Stuart and Co. rarely raised the volume above a conversational level.

Drummer Harry Stinson, whose kit consisted of a single snare drum and cymbal, abandoned his brushes only once, tapping out a gentle beat with his fingers on a solemn "Wounded Knee."

The low-key approach allowed the focus to remain on the sharp song writing and the obvious chemistry between the four musicians.

In fact, the Superlatives--Stinson, bassist Brian Glenn and guitarist Kenny Vaughan--didn't so much back Stuart as share lead billing, trading off vocal duties and enriching the tunes with staggeringly soulful harmonies.

The evening's biggest surprise may have been the range and depth of voices on stage, each singer bringing a different emotional shade to the proceedings--much the same way the Band did in its heyday.

Vaughan's singing on the playful "Walk Like That" nearly matched his finger-cramping acoustic picking. Stinson delivered a pair of songs, the mournful "Slow Train" and a shaking-the-rafters take on "Working On a Building." Even the boyish Glenn displayed the booming voice of a Southern preacher in his quick turn on the microphone.

When Stuart wasn't looking to the heavens for inspiration or displaying his virtuosic skills on the mandolin, he was doing his best to honor the legacy of the man he casually referred to as "John Cash."

On "Dark Bird," a solemn eulogy penned for his lost friend, Stuart's voice hovered just above a whisper--as if singing any louder could lead to an emotional breakdown. Even better was a cover of Cash's "The Wall," Stuart searching out the bruised heart of the song's battered outlaw.

Otis Clay, in fine voice and backed by a funky and versatile seven-piece band, turned his five-song, 45-minute opening set into a rapturous soul revue.

With Stuart in house to handle the evening's spiritual side, Clay was free to revel in the heartbreak and deception of day-to-day life; his flawed characters--from the philanderer in "Sho Wasn't Me" to the broken (both mentally and financially) man in "Nickel and a Nail"--culled from the same tradition that inspired country artists from Williams to Cash to Stuart.

By the time Clay got around to "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," the Joe South-penned plea for cultural understanding, it was apparent this evening was less about breaking down musical barriers than revealing there were never any there in the first place.

By Andy Downing

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