The last time Jimbo Mathus played the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour was as one-third of the all-star South Memphis String Band, a trio devoted to the Hill Country roots music inspirations he grew up with in Northern Mississippi.
His return last night to WoodSongs at the Lyric Theatre was nowhere near as specific. On his own (with ¾ of his Tri-State Coalition band supporting him), Mathus wailed with a potent R&B moan that regularly drifted into a coarse, country blues wail. There were obvious traces of the blues, but they seemed to mingle in and around pre-bluegrass country music. His compositions – specifically, four new tunes from his forthcoming Dark Night of the Soul album – reflected a quietly anthemic, late ‘70s Dylan feel (Shine Like a Diamond and the new record’s title tune) while accents of pedal steel, acoustic bass, piano and Mathus’ own primitively brittle guitar work formed the sort of country-soul bounce that to brought to mind the early ‘70s music of Van Morrison (Casey Caught the Cannonball and Tallahatchie)
All of this reflected the sort of roots music dichotomy that has always been at work within Mathus’ songs. When he is part of a collaborative band project, Mathus is a solid, focused craftsman. Last night, he obviously relished the stylistic wanderlust. The boundaries were less defined and the sense of performance abandon was heightened into a loose, restless sound that was 100% Jimbo.
This WoodSongs program was contrasted by the very distinctive New York banjoist Cynthia Sayer. Hailing from New Jersey (“the land of banjos”), Sayer flat picked on four string banjo against a jazz inclined trio that included reeds and upright bass. The result was ‘30s-era jazz heavy on Euro leanings that used a sound very reminiscent of clawhammer banjo as its focal point. Though intensely percussive in design, Sayer’s music was undercut with a strong sense of performance whimsy. One of her more mischievous vocal tunes, You Talk Too Much, took honors for ingenuity by rhyming “torrent” with “abhorrent.”
The show wound down with both artists jamming alongside each other. First, Sayer added rustic banjo runs to Mathus’ cover of I’ll Fly Away. Then Mathus played Django Reinhardt to the Eastern European swing that drove Sayer’s take on Dark Eyes. Both tunes abounded with a playful but very learned renegade spirit.