Xavier Rudd, Exit/In, Nashville, TN- 1/23
Long before Xavier Rudd appeared on stage at the sold out the Exit/In, the place was packed and excited for his tour-wide opener Mishka. Bearded and wearing a tall cap to cover his dreadlocks, the reggae troubadour stood humble and alone on stage where he softly and simply strummed islands rhythms on his guitar. Surrounded by heaping mountains of equipment covered by brown sheets only made him seem smaller than he already is. Until he started to sing that is. His voice comes from deep down inside a collective past. He sings of the pain and the joy of his community. He sings for his people. The crowd was very enthusiastic and appreciative of his deep, accented voice and thoughtful, conscious lyrics. A very short set break followed.
Music came over the PA. It was the unmistakable tone of the didgeridoo, the world’s oldest wind instrument. There were video clips playing on fragmented screens in the background. Suddenly members of the crew began removing one of the sheets from a giant heap of equipment. There stood a drum set, complete with hand drums, and someone then took the stage. That someone was Dave Tolley. A longtime collaborator of Xavier’s, having played on two of his past albums, Tolley was dressed in his LA chic, complete with sunglasses, a brown t-shirt and a three day beard. He jumped behind the kit and began playing along with the syncopated rhythms of the didg. Then the other curtain fell and Xavier emerged. He had drums, cymbals and percussion of many varieties all comfortably within his reach. He had pedals at his feet and toys all around ready to be grabbed and worked into the set at any point. Three didgs sat in front of him, ready to be played at a moment's notice. He had clearly put much time and thought into his stage setup, which surrounded him like Fred Flintstone wore his Stone Age automobile.
The two man band, both seated comfortably well above their audience, started hard. The groove had a heavy hitting, 70’s rock band feel that subsided only rarely throughout the course of the night. Xavier started on a slide guitar, but quickly switched to various lap steels and dobros for the majority of his time on stage. His hands worked the strings, his feet different cymbals and pedals, his mouth switching between vocals, harmonica, and of course, the didgeridoos lined up in front of him.
Tolley left the stage at one point and the show took an interesting turn. Xavier started with ambient noise from his didg. He started playing with the sounds, while also keep the drums going with his hands and feet. He let it bounce and move, sometimes in surprising directions. I have seen guitar players with less tone and melody than Xavier had coming out of his hollowed woodwind instrument. Then suddenly, the screen behind turned to orange flames and the sound got dark, while Xavier played drum and bass with a raw, organic fury. When he was done, he flashed the peace sign at his fans, who reciprocated. Dave retook his seat and they played together again.
At one point, Xavier slowed down the show and dedicated a pair of songs to his “country mate” Heath Ledger. He was clearly moved by Ledger’s passing and you could hear it in his voice and in his music. When he played “Let Me Be,” the crowd sang along. After a set that must have lasted close to two hours they thanked the crowd and said goodnight.
The two came back for an encore that that could have been counted as a second set. It started with the two of them back on stage, playing with a metal fury that could have been old Iron Maiden as easily as a rocking Ben Harper. Then, Xavier came to the front of the stage for the first time throughout the evening. He strapped on a six-string guitar for the first time of the night, and introduced a member of his crew. His name was James and he stepped up carrying a plectrum banjo. A plectrum banjo only has four strings. They both fingerpicked their instruments while Dave played a fitting country rock drum beat. Although James had his Aussie accent, he fit right into the Nashville scene, swelling appropriately when he should and soloing tastefully over the song. At one point, the three of them let the song fall apart. They toyed with it and pushed it around, Xavier laughing like a madman throughout. Then they pulled it right back in and finished it out.
James exited one side of the stage and Mishka came on from the other. Xavier was back in his pod, but this time he picked up an electric four string bass guitar and he pushed the trio throughout the fifteen minute piece. After singing for a while, it was Mishka’s turn to take the mic. He tried and there were technical problems. He got nothing but love from the audience though as they howled each time he started singing unplugged to the still-packed house. They got his mic working eventually and he got his chance to say his piece. It was an energy-packed and interesting show throughout. Xavier incorporates sounds from many locales. His message comes out less in his lyrics than in his presence. He is socially conscious, he is happy, and he lifts people up to his level wherever he goes.