The Black Lillies, a five-member Americana band from Knoxville, Tennessee, played a walloping two sets at the ArtsCenter, another landmark show in director Art Menius’ river of music programming showcasing a wide range of American musics. Led by Cruz Contreras, a versatile songwriter and arranger, Black Lillies plays his songs and select classics from the country side of life. Contreras shares the singing with the big-voiced Trisha Gene Brady; together they make beautiful harmonies, sometimes including instrumentalist Tom Pryor, but Brady can belt it out all on her own. Pryor plays electric and acoustic guitars, as well as a heart-piercing pedal steel. Robert Richards plays stand-up bass or electric as the music demands (he’s hot on the electric), and young drummer Bowman Townsend, who joined the band this year, keeps powerful thumping time.
The songs and the music are both smart and sophisticated. Contreras and the band draw deep from the wells of music scattered across the Americana landscape, then pour the waters together into a contemporary recipe. You can hear the influence of so many greats, from the Carter Family and Johnny Cash and Hazel Dickens, to Memphis Slim, Bessie Smith and Patsy Cline, Gram and Emmy Lou; Levon Helm and Bob Seeger and Bruce Springsteen; Waylon Jennings and other hard-riding touring musicians like Janis Joplin. There’s some Texas sound, and a little Cajun inflection here and there, with some barrelhouse blues and a hefty dose of swamp rock, but the stronger influences are good old Tennessee country, Appalachian old-time and beer hall boogie. It is a hell of a blend. Contreras crafts his songs so that they seem like you’ve known them for years—love songs, somebody done somebody wrong songs, with whisky, women, trains and trucks—all the familiar tropes captured and referenced in a line or two, or in a musical phrase. Yet these are not mere mash-ups or rehashes. If you were speaking of the songs in craft terms, you’d say they honor their materials, even while working them into a fresh context.
One example of this is “The Fall,” the third song in the concert and the first on the band’s newest album, Runaway Freeway Blues. It begins “I am not a rich man,” which sounds like it could have come from an old English ballad. Contreras sings, accompanying himself with some beautiful flat-picking while Pryor strums his red and pearl electric guitar above Richards’ rumbling bass line. Then the vocal switches to Brady — and the guitarists switch off on the picking and strumming, the electric notes now zinging off Brady’s rich swelling voice, while the acoustic strum supports it from below. When the singers go into close harmony above Bowman’s solid drumbeat, they find the pitch that resonates between one’s ribs. It’s a simple song, but the aural textures and harmonics are complex.
Surprises continued throughout the show. The did a great old song, “Ramblin’ Boy,” originally recorded by the Carter Family, but re-arranged by Contreras with an anthemic approach that had the band giving it the full Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band treatment. The second set kicked off with several fast-rocking tunes before suddenly downshifting to an a cappella vocal by Trisha Brady on Hazel Dickens’ “Hills of Home.” Then the crashing question was “Are You Ready for the Country?” and the audience answer was a resounding yes! But to close out the set, the musicians stepped away from the microphones, to the outer edge of the stage, for a lovely mournful tune by Contreras, inflected with that old-time religion, and a haunting refrain: “Say goodbye to your loved ones; by the wayside they will fall.” Then turning on another dime, they sent one out to the women on the dance floor and sang “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” like a lullaby, with mandolin frills.
Not satisfied with a sweet finish, the crowd roared until the musicians came back full bore with the high-energy 1970 classic written by Robbie Robertson for The Band, “The Shape I’m In.” With that, the crowd consented to let them leave. After all, the musicians did still have to load the van and drive on down the line, to get in shape for the next show in some little joint where people they’ve never seen will treat these troubadours like near friends, and sing along with the honest tunes of the Black Lillies’ new American songbook.
Note: The Black Lillies will appear Aug. 6 at The Crossing at Hollar Mill, in Hickory, NC.