Don’t you love a call in the middle of your day telling you someone’s playing a gig tonight, can you come cover it? My automatic response is, “You sure you couldn’t’ve given shorter notice?” Then, “I gotta get back to work.” Nerve of some folk. This call came, though, from Bitter Roots‘ guitarist/vocalist Jamey Whatton.
I’d found out about the band when, the week before, they were supporting New Primitives at the Cabooze. They threw down with some serious noise. I caught three songs. This gig was at the Fine Line. Short notice or no, I was on this one. Besides, the weather had warmed. All the way up past sub-zero.
Don’t much care for downtown Minneapolis at night. Too damn many noisy you. Except for the Fine Line. I’ve always liked this room. The staff, for years, is about is a brand of professionalism you can’t beat with a bat. Bartenders, table servers don’t just take your order. They extend hospitality—personable demeanor and skill at the job. Importantly, no request for a round is unreasonably delayed. So, anyhow, I’m there and, courtesy of Whatton, promptly thaw the night chill with mother’s milk: double-Jack-rocks.
I’m not all that early for Bitter Roots’ headlining set—but still, it’s too long to sit through supporting act Final Mix Show Band. You want to talk pretentious pap? You want to talk lame? Talk Final Mix Show Band. They palm off a paint-by-numbers version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (now that the guy’s dead, vultures all over include supposed tributes in their set lists). They do a pathetic approximation of Prince’s “Kiss” waxing faux falsetto. I’m in agony a river of Jack Daniels couldn’t ease. Stuck (it’s warmer, but not enough to wander outside), I endure this lounge act—which, I kid you not, did an encore nobody asked for. Some tune that had fatback bottom going for it and little else. Before leaving, they made sure to turn their backs to the audience and give their behinds a jackhammer shimmy shake. Not once, in the few minutes I saw, but twice. I shake my head, nurse my drink, and wonder how in the hell their drummer—he is nasty—got hooked up with these perpetrators.
There’s a long load-out for Final Mixx Band. The set-up for Bitter Roots isn’t going altogether smoothly. Takes a minute, but whatever it is was gets ironed out. Jamey Whattan, Kristy Whatton (vocals), Brian Dent (guitar, backup vocals), Stephen Donaho (keys), Dan Kaping (drums), and Aaron Thielsen (bass), assemble, Kristy looking a little nervous until she and her big brother exchange words.
It’s a cliché, but it’s still true: they don’t make music like this anymore. Not bands that play genuine, old school San Francisco Rock. They even write in the genre. This will be one enjoyable assignment, I’m already convinced. Sure enough, Bitter Roots turn in a full, satisfying set that flies by all too soon. My highlight of the night comes when they break into “Somebody To Love.” It ain’t easy to sing that song without sounding second-best to Grace Slick. Kristy Whatton nails it—with, actually, the same kind of clear, sturdy chops Slick had. She’s got power and phrases well. She works a melody. Jamey Whattan’s pretty damned good, too. Jams tough. Works beautiful licks and sings well. Kaping brandishes finesse and power. Between him at Thielen’s lyrical bass-playing, you’ve got a tight pocket.
The set comprises a few covers of, along with Jefferson Airplane, the Allman Brothers, Ben Harper, Allison Krauss, and Robert Plant, and four originals: “Love of Mine,” “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson,” “My Kind of Woman,” and “Baby, Lay Back Down”—that last one being an especially strong dose of sweetened hillbilly rock. The one down point came with the classic “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” It was rushed and came off stiff. Most of the notes in the right places, but not much feeling, hardly any artistry—until Stephen Donaho saved the day. I’ve seen good keyboard and I’ve seen good keyboard in my time, but this guy is something else. Fingers delicate as a spider dancing on hot lead. And he pours pure feeling into a groove: fiery, nuanced, just plain move-out-the-way-freight-train’s-comin’-magic. Frankly, he burns Gregg Allman’s shoes off.
All said, Bitter Roots played one hell of a set. In fact—I made a point of checking—not one person who was in the crowd when the band went on left before the set was finished. Ask anybody who was there.
Bitter Roots’ next local gig is at the Whiskey Junction on February 18.