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Published: 2005/03/10
by Chad Berndtson

Buddy Miller and Band with Ollabelle, Paradise Rock Club, Boston 2/20

As a vanguard country and roots musician a true highwayman, in the Haggard and Kristofferson senses Buddy Miller gets to wear a lot of figurative hats with the span of musical styles he covers. It's his literal hat, though, a signature frayed baseball cap, which adds as much to his warmly gritty mystique: a Nashville legend, long a trusty sideman for Emmylou Harris though hardly a slouch in his own right, you're not likely to meet a more comfortable or egoless badass. And he seems always to be among friends wherever he goes this night's blissful Paradise jaunt was filled with those who would laugh endearingly anyway at his chatty stories about life in Nashville and the Grammy Awards and self-deprecating humor even though they already know when to do so, and don't need to be told who "Julie" is as Buddy updates them on what his wife's up to with the closeness and detail of coffee house friends. It's just his way.

Like many of his peers, Miller is as much a historian and musical archeologist in his performances as he is a faithful, reverent, and fiery player and vocalist. During a sterling set of standards and obscurities tautened by some of the best nuggets from his own catalogue, Miller did the best he could introducing songs and name-dropping both friends and legends (who more than half the time, are both), but the best thing for the overwhelmed audience member to do was just to follow along, allowing the lived-in classics to cascade over in waves (the building, lifting Louvin Brothers classic "There's a Higher Power" was an early burst of clap-along beauty) and making quick mental notes of the lesser-known names gateways Miller was offering into wholly different (though in spirit, inextricably related) portals of music and musicians.

It's an obvious statement of Miller's protean abilities that he could weave his own, multifarious originals (the opening "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger" was a scorcher) in alongside equally deft renditions of bluegrass, country and gospel classics, and songs by the late Christian rock singer/songwriter Mark Heard (a transcendent "Worry Too Much"), the Everly Brothers ("Price of Love") and Roosevelt Jamison (a heavy "That's How Strong My Love Is") with nary a moment's detraction from the show's overall rhythm or tone. Two unquestioned showstoppers were "That's How I Got to Memphis" by Tom T. Hall (he of the untamed, almost Zappa-esque "thinking man's country"), and Jesse Winchester's rueful "A Showman's Life," fleshed of all its bittersweet charm, and sung with such sanguine beauty by Miller it was as if he was the last act on stage singing the last song on the last night of a soon-to-close rundown, but beloved honky tonk.

Through it all, his backing band was nothing short of compelling a threesome of veteran players all with Buddy's similar, coarsely warm appearance, leathered and slightly stoic, holding back when the music called for minimalism and pouring rust-colored, blues-drenched and sun-burnt sounds of the plains, the swamps and the country south of ballads and desperados. Bassist Denny Bixby was as adept a harmonizing vocalist as Miller was a lead, and drummer Bryan Owings combined rhythmic ideas and stretched Swisswatch-exact fills into what to the untrained ear would feel was frill-less time keeping his effects are so rich and quick, they stay out of the way as much as provide, and that's a definite compliment given how delicate some of this music is. Keyboardist Phil Madeira, who also offered up generous helpings of vocals and accordion, was an especially beguiling colorist and counterpoint for Miller's sinewy tones.

Even as far north as Boston can Buddy easily call upon friends and family in both the audience (his sister and her 7-year-old son could be seen sitting and clapping along up in the sound booth) and on stage. The band's sparsely integrated guest for this evening was one of our own: Massachusetts-born fiddler Jake Armerding, who spent some time in Nashville before deciding Boston was his true home (and who could blame him, really). Unfortunately, he seemed a bit lost in the sound mix and it robbed him of proper solo space until about two thirds of the way into the set when techs finally found the right balance. Sound problems, in fact, were the night's only major detractors though many of the blips and uncalled-for nips of feedback were negligible, the mix didn't seem quite up to accommodating the rapid shifts in instrumentation (Buddy played each of his vintage Wandr as well as a battered acoustic Gibson and a periwinkle blue electric mandolin), vocals, tempo and dynamics. Even the most subwoofery feedback bursts were ignorable, though, minor nuisances that only really materialized for the mid-tempo tunes, leaving the hard, driving rockers and set-framing slow ballads to come across intact.

Were it possible to isolate just one selection as the set's emotional centerpiece, it would be Miller's stunning version of Dylan's "With God On Our Side," which plays the same, tie-everything-together role on Buddy's latest album "Universal United House of Prayer" (2004). It's one of Dylan's tougher tunes, even for the most careful and nuance-attuned coverer; it's an angry broadside, no doubt, but more oblique than, say, "Masters of War," a more elegant piece of cutthroat lyricism that, in the right hands and voice, can be just as heartaching and nostalgic as it is a frosty indictment of the war machine. Miller's voice and arrangement a more controlled delivery, nearer to an Irish-folk dirge than a racing, anti-establishment sermon prove a perfect match, imbuing the tune with a more sorrowful, contemplative tone.

Miller graciously keeps his sets relatively free from political forum-izing, which shouldn't be misconstrued as his being a passive concerned citizen, it's just that his music and demeanor have no use for drawing blood, exemplified by his sort of cooled-off, let's-think-about-this take on the harsher Dylan. He was nearly goaded into a sermon, too a man shouted, "It's still true!" at the song's conclusion and Buddy stepped to the mic, the air thick with tension and the crowd hungry for some commentary but the elegant Miller offered all that needed to be said: "Yes, it is." And then after a beat, "It is still true."

Going into this show I was new to openers Ollabelle surely an auspicious group more worthy of their critical tonguebathing than any other of whom I'd had the introductory pleasure in a while. It took some time to get past the notion that here are young-timer folks that could have been dorm floormates during sophomore year who are trying to wring old-timer transcendence out of "Jesus On the Mainline," "John the Revelator" and assorted Carter family choices, but the band pulls it off with undeniable gravitas indeed, their slight callowness is as much inviting as it is concerning. It comes from a rock solid chemistry and an honesty about the music gorgeous harmonies, comfortable instrumentation that doesn't get overzealous during their songs' moments of religious and gospel uplift, and, in the case of one of their lead singers, Amy Helm, genetics (she's the daughter of former Band drummer Levon).

This was the New York sextet's final night opening for Miller, and after several nights of fruitful collaboration inevitable, for what an expert pairing of bands! Miller did them an even greater honor this night by saddling up as a sideman for their entire set. Not only that, he blended into their entire set, for many of their songs offering spare, gently nudging accompaniment instead of taking charge. He waited patiently for solo space and smiled knowingly at the group's magnificent harmonies, with the tightest coalescence of old school and new school coming during an exhilarating take of Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man."

Another exciting inevitability was a show closing foot-lifter with the two groups combined. At the end of a three-song encore, after Miller and his band honky-tonked their way through his Hank Williamsesque "Help Wanted," and before it, "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" (the folk-bluegrass staple and not the Garcia/Hunter "Deal," though the songs are remarkably similar) the members of Ollabelle climbed aboard to crowd the Paradise stage.

They had left audiences spirit-lifted and well-kept with "I'll Fly Away" on previous nights, but tonight Miller went a less obvious route, with the Rev. Dan Smith's "God's Radar (Is Fixed On You)." A triumph for the Dixie Hummingbirds on "Diamond Jubilation" some years back (incidentally, through the fact that Buddy sent them the song by way of the album's producer, Bob Dylan band stalwart Larry Campbell), "Radar" was a riveting gospel-rave up, served well here by two bands separated only by age and experience toe-tapping closure for a heavily spiritual, warmly celebratory evening.

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