BLUES & BEYOND: A family affair
The tenth Holiday Hootenanny promises to be the best yet
Christmas music … bah, humbug you’re thinking?
Thankfully, roots music fans have alternatives to the usual stodgy December holiday fare. Locally based annual Christmas themed performances from Michelle Malone’s Hot Toddies and Jeffrey Butzer’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” provide an edgier experience than you’ll get at the Fox watching “The Nutcracker” (Okay, now “The Hip Hop Nutcracker”) or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” for the umpteenth time.
One of the season’s best and highest profile shows is the Holiday Hootenanny. This year, HH auteur TDawg (aka locally based promoter Thomas Helland) has corralled a stellar collection of Southern based artists for a tenth anniversary edition that promises to be the best, and most celebratory, one yet. Circle Dec. 19 on your calendar and set a reminder to be at the Variety Playhouse — it’s a must see event.
While calling it the tenth isn’t exactly correct (it’s actually the ninth), no one will complain when they eyeball a lineup headlined by some of the most recognizable names on the roots scene. Randall Bramblett’s band and longtime friend Nashville based Jim Lauderdale top the bill that also includes Jeff Mosier, Matt Slocum, Tommy Talton, Grant Green Jr., Jeff Sipe, Jason Carter (from Del McCoury’s band), Delta Moon’s Mark Johnson, Diane Durrett, Donna Hopkins and a full horn section. Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall backstage for this? The evening’s poster is even created by local graphic design icon Flournoy Holmes. If the name Col. Bruce Hampton comes to mind when seeing this lineup, that’s no accident. More on that below.
This Hootenanny is particularly enticing because it honors three significant Atlanta musicians — percussionist Count MButu, keyboardist Ike Stubblefield, and Delta Moon frontman Tom Gray — all veterans influential in the jam and roots community that we lost in the minefield of 2021.
There are three sets. The first features Lauderdale with the ATL Allstars (Mosier and others) followed by the tribute to Stubblefield and a percussion jam dedicated to M’Butu with the final third section a rousing, one-off closing Capricorn Jam featuring Bramblett and Talton. Special guests are likely and the lineup remains fluid until the lights go down.
It’s a big, bold, sprawling experience managed behind the scenes by Helland (he got the TDawg nickname in college and it stuck), who has plenty of practice delivering musical memories that will last until next year’s Hootenanny. “It’s going to be a pretty wonderful, emotional but positive concert,” he says. That’s something we can all use around this time of year, especially after the last 18 months that have been iffy, at best, for live music.
Helland started booking live music at age 30 in 1998 with the Harvest Fest (later the Blue Ridge Harvest Fest which continued until 2005), in Fairburn, GA (South Fulton County). He wasn’t new to the industry, having done freelance production work and later employed as the booking coordinator for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics for two years. “I figured if I could manage 12 million dollars in accounts and handle all the minute details (for broadcasters at the Olympics), I could do anything,” he laughs. He also attended a lot of music festivals. “The two came together and created the pathway that I took on my own.” Producing a series of various artist Back Porch Hootenannies got things underway for the entrepreneur in 2006, ultimately yielding 19 of those fests through 2018, all at Cherokee Farms in Lafayette, Georgia. He now works for Atlanta Botanical Garden, coordinating music for them from May through October, and has also been involved with Jerry (Garcia) Day Atlanta, another annual presentation at Terminal West, for the past eight years.
But the Holiday Hootenanny is his baby.
Hampton was a close friend of Helland and integral in the initial concept. “When I dove into the music business to begin with, I sat down with him first. That musical energy transferred into the Holiday Hootenanny.” Starting in 2011, the first few were at the Variety Playhouse. The initial go-round had Hampton, Durrett, Stubblefield, M’Butu, Mosier, Sipe and others. It then downsized for four years to Terminal West but has returned to its original space since. “It started bigger than it should have been. I then got my feet under it and brought it back to the Variety when I knew it could work.”
It takes nearly six months of prep to pull something of this scale together, Helland maintains, even though most of the work started in September. The theme of this year’s gig was also Helland’s. “We lost a lot of great musicians and they were all a big part of my shows. I feel it’s the appropriate way to tribute to these guys who had such a big impact on Atlanta. They were such amazing, inspiring musicians to watch and such genuinely nice people. I took it upon myself to pay tribute to them or else I don’t think it would be happening.”
Even better is that it’s a benefit for Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, for the eighth year running.
Interestingly, even with all these players, there are no rehearsals. Most of the participants return from previous iterations which helps. “People work on the music on their own and we all come together and make it happen.” But the thread that runs through all of the Holiday Hootenannies remains Hampton. “Bruce was a part of every Holiday Hootenanny before he passed. His 2015 show was just mind blowing.”
Even if Jim Lauderdale isn’t based in the city, Helland wanted to keep the 2021 edition homegrown. At this point, he considers the Holiday Hootenanny a family affair. “I decided this was the year to stay local with it and showcase what is Atlanta with these wonderful musicians we lost. I wanted our family to step up and do the music.”
The Holiday Hootenanny, Sunday Dec. 19, at the Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Avenue. Show at 7 p.m.
Billy Strings, The Eastern — Give the Michigan-bred Strings credit for playing multiple nights at this relatively intimate venue rather than going for one show at a larger place. Not yet 30, Strings is one of the shining young stars of bluegrass, a genre whose boundaries he pushes in a way similar way to the Avett Brothers. He sure can play, too, and his lightning fast fret shredding is both crowd pleasing and nimble. He’s a solid vocalist as well, writes memorable songs, and respects his storied Americana genre’s past without being beholden to it.
Taylor McCall, Eddie’s Attic — Singer songwriter McCall leans to the darker side of folk, preferring an ominous and mysterious sound that’s personal and authentic. He will feature material from his terrific new Black Powder Soul release which incorporates a Lucinda Williams/Steve Earle styled vocal intensity that plumbs powerful musical and lyrical territory.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, The EARL — Few events herald the holidays in Atlanta more these days than Jeffrey Butzer and T.T. Mahony’s annual walk down Vince Guaraldi’s Peanut’s Christmas classic lane. So popular that it has expanded to a three day run, the production gets a little bigger and better each year, adding other cool yuletide tunes — and props — to the program. If you haven’t experienced it yet, make this year your first. You will return.
Wood Brothers, Variety Playhouse — Oliver Wood may have moved to Nashville, but he has plenty of friends and fans here who remember his King Johnson years. Lots of water has gone under the bridge since then, especially after joining with brother/bassist Chris and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix as the Wood Brothers band and releasing a handful of terrific albums that blur the lines between folk, blues, country, swamp rock and gospel in all sorts of creative ways. Through hard work and endless touring, they have become full blown Americana headliners. The best way to experience their often caffeinated, always soulful music is live.
Midland, The Roxy — The California-based, traditional C&W three piece hits town on “The Last Resort” tour, playing tracks from the titular 2021 EP along with others that have put them on the playlists of roots music lovers who like their country melodic but not too slick. Those unfamiliar with their sound just need to push play on 2020’s Live From the Palomino to hear how the trio’s twangy and catchy tunes connect with a crowd in concert.
Julian Lage, Vinyl — Child prodigy guitar master Lage is best known for his tasty and intricate jazz work, but he also touches on show tunes, classical, American Songbook chestnuts and even country. His acoustic playing is just as impressive as his electric skills but the rock club atmosphere of this gig might push him more to the plugged in style. It’s likely every jazz guitarist in town already has this on their schedules.
Danielle Nicole, Vinyl — Give the bassist some. The Kansas born and bred bassist/singer/songwriter first came to prominence with her guitar slinging brother Nick Schnebelen and drummer Kris in the Trampled Underfoot band. She now has two solid, well received blues rocking albums to her credit as a solo artist. Nicole’s husky voice, soulful delivery, strong songs, gutsy bass playing and professional stage presence hones through hundreds of shows pushes her to the top of the few female fronted blues acts on the road. Not to be missed.
Tommy Emmanuel, Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, Variety Playhouse — There aren’t many solo acoustic musicians who can hold large crowds spellbound with as much effortless charm as Tommy Emmanuel. The award winning Australian guitarist has been doing just that for the better part of 30 years, mixing creatively rearranged covers — his inspired Beatles work is a genre unto itself — with originals and a humble yet magnetic stage presence. His wildly eclectic repertoire spans folk, country, jazz, blues and just enough rock to keep you guessing. Openers Ickes (dobro) & Hensley (guitar) trade impossibly nimble acoustic licks on mainly country-based fare and hold the audience in the palms of their four hands.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, The Tabernacle — Few expected ex-Drive-By Trucker Isbell to connect quite as effectively with an audience when he left that band in 2007 for a solo career. But through a clutch of literate, rocking Americana albums and a grinding tour schedule with a great band in tow, he has become one of the top draws in his rootsy singer/songwriter field. Better still, this four night stand will feature music from his new Georgia Blue album, a tour-de-force of diverse covers from artists originating from the Peach State ranging from R.E.M. to Gladys Knight, Drivin N Cryin and even Cat Power and Vic Chesnutt.
Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters, Eddie’s Attic — Asheville’s Platt recently played here as a solo act but now returns with her full band. She has a gorgeous, compelling voice and some fine organic Americana folk/country tunes that connect due to sheer song craft. Low key and lovely, request her soulful version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.”
Rising Appalachia, Variety Playhouse — Atlanta raised sisters Leah and Chloe Smith have fronted and crafted Rising Appalachia’s unique blend of world beat, Southern indigenous and folk music from around the globe, creating an enticing, unpredictable and inclusive mélange that has expanded their boundaries to national and international tours. They are also activists whose many projects include social, racial and environmental justice. Their albums are wonderful but are no replacement for the live experience that adds dance and often surprising, exciting visuals to their musical stew.
SUSTO, Rose Hotel, Terminal West — The band members may have changed through the years, but SUSTO remains the project of singer/songwriter Justin Osbourne who has maintained a comforting, pleasant if somewhat faceless blend of folk, rock and jam band music. Arrive early for Atlanta’s Jordan Reynolds whose band’s dreamy combination of psyche-folk (her bio’s words) and songs from her 2019 debut intriguingly titled I Will Only Come When It’s a Yesare worth catching.
Tenth Annual Holiday Hootenanny, Variety Playhouse — see feature above.
Widespread Panic, Fox Theater — Would it be an Atlanta New Year without Athens’ most famous jam band export? Ring it in for four nights as Panic returns after a year off with their extended shows, long winding improvisations, sprawling bluesy Southern rocking, and bulging catalog of originals and covers. New music has been scarce (only two studio albums since 2010), so there will likely be fresh tunes to introduce. No two performances are the same and all are guaranteed to sell out, get tickets early.
Bloodkin, Vinyl — The recent passing of Bloodkin co-founder Danny Hutchens has left his lifelong friend and Bloodkin co-founder Eric Carter (they met when each eight years old), and musical partner in a difficult situation — especially since the twosome had just released their stunning David Barbe-produced Black Market Tango double album and hadn’t had a chance to fully tour behind it. Making music together since around 1994, Carter has decided to press on, though Hutchens’ presence will be missed. The music lives on through a new batch of talented band members backing Carter, who is ready to display its roots rocking charms and lyrically inventiveness in songs like “John Coltrane in Nagasaki.”
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Terminal West — The challenge for extraordinary tenor saxophonist Karl Denson (at last look he was also holding down one of the horn spots in the Stones’ touring ensemble) is to write quality songs that feature his fiery playing, giving his band room to roam. But even if the hooks and his vocals aren’t of James Brown or Prince quality (whose are?), he sure can generate a funky groove and that’s all that matters with a packed room of fans dancing to his scorching jazz/rocking soul.
Indigo Girls with The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall — It’s always a love fest when Atlanta’s favorite folk duo return, even more so when they play their hometown on New Year’s Eve. This isn’t the first time they have played with the ASO, but it’s still a special event. The orchestra lends additional gravitas to Amy and Emily’s songs. The duo is as powerful now as when they first started performing almost 35 years ago. Theirs is an impressive run — with no signs of slowing down.
Michelle Malone, Eddie’s Attic — Even Malone has probably lost count of how many New Year’s Eve shows she has performed at this storied Decatur venue. But it’s always a hoot and one of the highlights of the year. With a new album in 2022, fans will get a taste of what’s to come as they raise their champagne glasses and welcome in the next trip around the sun with one of Atlanta’s finest singer/songwriters. —CL—
Please send upcoming blues events to consider for CL’s Blues & Beyond concert calendar to hal.horowitz at creativeloafing.com.