William Tyler Band and Friends Make Themselves at Home at Drkmttr
Outstanding guest performances, a tribute to David Berman and more mark Tyler & Co.’s post-Thanksgiving hang
By P.J. KINZER
Over the past couple of decades, “Friendsgiving” parties have become commonplace around the Turkey Day season. It’s a manifestation of the idea that friends are the family you choose, and who choose you. Communing with loved ones, whether they’re relatives or not, is a crucial expression of our need for kinship with other human beings.
Saturday’s William Tyler Band and Friends show at Drkmttr was about celebrating the buds who you can see in person, even if only on rare occasions, as well as those you can’t. Besides assembling an outstanding cast of musicians (some of whom play all too seldom), the show also benefited a good cause, with proceeds going to The Recording Academy’s MusiCares program, which has raised millions of dollars to support musicians and other industry folk who need medical assistance or other help that they don’t have ready access to. That fundraising effort was in honor of David Berman (the leader of Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, and a longtime Nashvillian) and Neal Casal (who was close to many Nashville musicians), both of whom died by suicide this year.
Tyler, a Nashville native who’s been part of the local music scene since he was a teenager in the late ’90s (as a sideman, solo artist, indie label runner, club co-proprietor and more), moved to the West Coast two years ago. But it seems he still has a deep-rooted connection to a communal spirit of creativity in Music City. It feels like Nashville’s growth — away from smoky dive bars and meat-and-threes, toward bland high-dollar real estate and a neon glow that attracts bachelorette parties like moths — has made it harder to tap into this spirit. At Saturday’s show, Tyler & Co. proved how durable the connection is while they helped nourish it.
The all-ages club on Dickerson Pike was full to the brim by the time the show kicked off at 8 p.m. I squeezed myself into a corner near the back for opening act Rayon City. Named for a neighborhood near Old Hickory Lake that was built as the DuPont chemical plant expanded in the 20th century, the band offers up extended jams like you might expect from White Light/White Heat-period Velvet Underground, with some tinges of Crazy Horse grit and krautrock drive. At the head of the group is Jemina Pearl, with husband, Third Man Records co-owner and Plant Life Records founder Ben Swank on drums. The group has only been together a few months, but the lineup of good friends and associates — Sam Hoffman and Luke Schneider on second and third guitar, Jessica Wilkes on bass and Christina Norwood on keys — gave them a full, rich sound without sapping the raw energy.
Right around 9 p.m., Tyler mounted the small stage with longtime associate Schneider on pedal steel and Silver Jews bandmate Brian Kotzur on drums, plus bassman Jack Lawrence (home on a break from The Raconteurs’ tour) and Margo Price’s keymaster Micah Hulscher. The intimacy of the room, especially the minimal separation between performers and audience, reminded me (and probably many of the familiar faces in attendance) of an all-ages show at the fondly remembered Lucy’s Record Shop during its run in the mid-’90s.
Though this was the first show for this WTB lineup (and the first WTB and Friends show since Tyler left town), the connection between the players made it feel like they’ve been touring for years. The band’s first set, which featured mostly original instrumentals, launched with “Highway Anxiety” from Tyler’s 2016 LP Modern Country. Kotzur showcased a creative ferocity shared by few drummers in this town, while Hulscher’s organ-and-synth soundscapes served as an express lane from the soulful sounds of Muscle Shoals, Ala., to the space rock you could once hear coming from Conny Plank’s studio in Cologne, Germany. Tyler kept pushing forward, occasionally glancing at his fingers with a childlike look of amusement, as if he was just as amazed by his playing as everyone else in the room. The hypnotic six-song run ended with a cover of Neu! co-founder Michael Rother’s solo piece “Karussell.”
The band returned after a 15-minute break for the “and Friends” portion of the show, which meant backing up a shedload of singers. I claim-jumped a spot near the side of the stage in time to see Country Westerns frontman (and Duke’s and Babo co-owner) Joey Plunket lend his signature rasp to .38 Special’s “Caught Up in You.” That began a parade of top-shelf Nashville singers. Adia Victoria dedicated her breathy version of Cream’s “World of Pain” to her mother. Tristen reworked Magnetic Fields’ “I Don’t Believe You” in a way that recalled Linda Ronstadt. The perfect beauty and fragility of Caitlin Rose’s voice carried Silver Jews’ “Black and Brown Blues,” the first of the night’s tributes to David Berman. Lambchop honcho (and co-owner of the building housing Drkmttr) Kurt Wagner made like an enraged country preacher, barking the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s relatively recent song “Long and Wasted Years” with fire and brimstone. Pearl emerged again for a rafter-rattling rendition of Flamin’ Groovies’ “Yesterday’s Numbers” — a perfect song to sing when you’re pissed off, as Pearl pointed out.
Then came some moments moment you’d expect to be powerful, but took on a bit of extra weight. Songsmith Cassie Berman, Berman’s widow and former Silver Jews bandmate, took the stage with an acoustic guitar that didn’t seem to want to be amplified. While the sound crew worked to root out the gremlins, tension built in the silence. Lambchop keyboardist Tony Crow happened to be nearby, and after a quick huddle with Hulscher, he took over the keyboard station, soothing the murmuring crowd with waves of Tangerine Dream-like synth chords. Another onetime Silver Jew, Peyton Pinkerton, set up almost unnoticed near the back of the stage, marking the first time this many members of the band had appeared onstage together since their farewell show in 2009.
With Cassie Berman’s acoustic guitar wrangled into submission, the whole group fell in with Crow for a rendition of Silver Jews’ “Suffering Jukebox.” There wasn’t any banter addressing it explicitly, but the performance of country-leaning tune channeled all the cathartic joy and gratitude of a good homecoming, along with grief for the loss of David Berman. Once the applause died down, Kevin Guthrie — an artist, illustrator and longtime friend of David Berman’s — joined the throng on the tiny stage to lead the final song of the night. That was the raucous Jews tune “Punks in the Beerlight,” a perfectly appropriate tribute to a fallen leader and comrade.
The song culminated in rising chants of “I love you to the max!” and the music disintegrated into hugs and smiles. It was a warm and tender moment, the way that Thanksgiving — or Friendsgiving, or whatever you celebrate — is supposed to make you feel.