Stella//James, Ruston Kelly and Rick Brantley
3rd and Lindsley, Nashville, TN
August 25, 2015
Reviewed by: Patti McClintic Photo’s: 90 East Photography
Every once in a while you just end up in the right place. An extended bout of bronchitis almost sidelined me for this show, but a magic shot of steroids in the morning had me just about cured by late afternoon. I have never been so grateful for an injection! Missing this one, would have been a colossal mistake.
The evening kicked off with the soulful sounds of Rick Brantley. What I love about him is the simplicity with which he presents himself. He walks out with his guitar, no fancy wardrobe, no funky gimmicks. He looks like any guy that might be sitting at the next bar stool, cool enough to shoot the breeze with. Judging books by their covers has always been frowned upon, and Rick Brantley is one book you need to open. The voice, the songs, all much, much bigger than what you’d expect.
Brantley was flying solo tonight. He opened with “Claudette”, a very cool ballad, which makes me want to pick his brain to find out exactly what inspired this particular song. It intrigued me that much.
His next number “Tumbleweeds” was a grown up expression of his childhood dream to be a cowboy. . Now, the only similarity to the Toby Keith hit, “I Shoulda Been a Cowboy”, was a reference to “Matt Dillon”, the sheriff with a whole lot of Old West mojo from the 60’s TV show, “Gunsmoke”. Beyond that, this was not a country song. This was a heavy number that really dug in. He didn’t just WANT to be a cowboy, he IS a cowboy, stuck in the body of a regular man. It needs radio play. Somewhere. Please.
For his final song, he chose “Hurt People”, the heaviest of the heavy. Not fast, not crazy, just heavy. Not that it was planned, but the darkest song started off on a rather light note. Just as the first note was played, Brantley stopped and said, “I got a little sniiffle here. Most serious song and I just fucked it up.” Definitely got a laugh, but not for long. This song is pretty deep.
Brantley’s new record is set for release Friday, August 28th. Look for it. Buy it. Really.
Next up, Ruston Kelly. He came out with a full band, and unfortunately, with the exception of his sister, Abby (backing vocals), he introduced them all so fast, and didn’t say who played what, that I can’t credit them here. I tried to find out via that thing we call “Google”, but fell flat. I’m feeling a little frazzled, because they were THAT good. They really deserve individual shout outs. I’m hoping they’ll connect with me and I can credit them in the future, and with that bit of housekeeping taken care of, on with the show…
Rick Brantley joined Kelly for a song they cowrote, called “The Truth”. Moving harmonies and the cold hard lyric, “There’s a story we tell to ourselves, and then, there’s the truth.” I want this song right now.
Most often, when we see a new artist for the first time, we eventually, if not instantly, equate them with an another artist that we’re familiar with. I got a Gavin DeGraw kind of vibe from Kelly, maybe mixed with a little Daughtry, but without question, a whole lot of Kelly himself. In any case, it was good. Very good – and his band, again, just rock solid. I haven’t seen many bass or keyboard players so completely animated and lost in the music in a long while. Reminded me of shows I saw way before these guys were even born, and I don’t mind dating myself, because those were some memorable events.
After these two opening acts, I was even more excited to see what Stella//James was going to come up with. All I knew, is it had to be something special. It wasn’t just special. It was downright MAGICAL. Yes, I used THAT word. MAGICAL. I had the pleasure of chatting with this trio before the show and I immediately loved them as human beings. I got the feeling they were brought together to play music for reasons that are far beyond any of our understanding. They are friends. Very good friends, which can really go two ways. Complete disaster, or, yes, I’ll say it again, magical.
All three are songwriters and they met, more or less, just that way, writing songs. The trio consists of Rachel Bradshaw, Ty Graham and Sarah Davidson. Bradshaw originally hails from Keller, Texas, Graham from Tyler, Texas and Davidson, is a native of Valdosta, Georgia. They are managed by Rusty Harmon of HARMON Music Management, and in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, he says this band “is out for world domination.” I say, “sort of” tongue-in-cheek, because I think he knows this is something different, something, oh, why not? Something MAGICAL.
Graham explained that their new song, and the one they closed the show with, “The Highway”, was a number co-written with Ruston Kelly quite a while ago, an “imagery based” song, that they reworked and made it fit for Stella//James. It was a great closer, and tells a story about how they all feel about life – individually and collectively.
In a bit of an unusual, yet very welcome way, Stella//James has released their music on their website, stellajamesband.com, FREE to their fans. Davidson told me they “want to get it out and let people in from the beginning of the process” – that’s a bold move and a smart one too. This band has to make it to arenas. They just have to. Their music is also available on Soundcloud.
When asked how they came up with the name of the band, it was so refreshing to hear all three of them pipe in at the same time, offering their own explanations, which might have used different words, but all said the same thing. I think Bradshaw said it best, when she told me, “Stella”, (the song they opened with) is a Femme Fatale song.” Together, they got the point across that Stella is the muse in all women. We all have a little bad in us, which drives us to do good things, if that makes sense. At least that was my interpretation. “James” is the James Dean in all men. Again, a little bad, but, oh, what an impact he made! They chose the perfect name for this band. After seeing them perform, I am positive of that.
I was glad to have this time to talk with the band, because when they hit the stage, I realized I really do have good intuition for what might happen. In the green room, I sensed something about them, but I didn’t say a word about it. I wanted to see what happened once I heard what they had. I’ll elaborate on that shortly.
As the show began, a video was shown overhead as the band came out. Pure class is all I can say about the wardrobe choices. Bradshaw and Davidson wore matching dresses, sheer from the thigh down, almost 1940’s vintage with a hint of… no, I’m stopping there for now. Graham, all in black, looking stylishly cool. As I said before, they opened with “Stella”, which I would call their “signature song”, and oh, is it sassy! I was in love with it from the first note, and those ladies have all the right moves, without being the least bit trashy, they did not miss a beat when choreographing this band. They know what works, and they really do work it! The song makes me think of an old time saloon, and if Mae West could be in a band, I think she would have written a song just like this one.
Stella//James plays with a full band as well, most notably, with Andrea Young on fiddle for most songs. They are a totally cohesive band, and I’m hoping to learn all of their names to credit them in future writings as well.
I believe it was song number three, that nearly made me lose all sense of decorum. “Red Flag” was the most outstanding live performance by any band, which I have seen anytime recently. It was a complete team effort and if the building wasn’t so structurally sound, it would have come down into a giant pile of rubble. I don’t have words for it. Download it, watch the videos online, better yet, go see a live show and see it in person. It was at this moment, that my intuition kicked into high gear, and I was certain, I had nailed what made this band so special, but enough of that for now…
The next one that really caught my attention, and I’m having trouble finding the title, references my hometown several times in the bridge, with “boarding a plane to Buffalo” – that was just cool and fun and not many people even think about Buffalo, but a band like Stella//James putting it into a song? Wow. Instant super fan now. I enjoyed that, on a personal level, but the song was outstanding, even if they chose to insert “Baltimore” or “Tupelo” or some other three syllable city.
“Songbird”, the very first song they wrote together on a back porch, is a beautiful intertwining of harmonies that’s undeniable. These voices belong together. Period. Oddly enough, another song with the same title was written and recorded by Christine McVie, on Fleetwood Mac’s wildly successful “Rumours” album back in the 70’s. I felt a connection between the two songs immediately. Same title, very different sound, yet there was just something…
Then it happened. It all just came crashing down on me. They did a cover. Davidson introduced the song, by simply saying it was one that was done, “probably by one of our biggest influences”, a Fleetwood Mac song. They rocked the classic, “Go Your Own Way” flawlessly! Every note, every word, it was, MAGICAL. I felt that Fleetwood Mac aura the minute I walked into that green room. Somehow, the crazy success of Fleetwood Mac is channeling right through Stella//James. You feel it even before you hear them play. I JUST KNEW IT!
Fleetwood Mac has always been my favorite band and I’ve followed their every move since I was about 11 years old. My husband and I had the profound honor of meeting with Mick Fleetwood, cofounder and drummer for the band, last October in Ottawa. I asked him what song was his favorite one to play. He said, without hesitation, “Go Your Own Way”. His reason? “It requires the most power to play. I will know when I can no longer play it with that power, that it’s time to hang up my sticks.” I will never forget that answer, and when I heard Stella//James pound out that song today, I knew that “Stella” might be the muse for all women, but I think Fleetwood Mac is the muse for all of Stella//James. They don’t mimic them, they have found a way to infuse them and make this band the very best mixed gender band since Fleetwood Mac, in my very humble opinion.
In closing, this show was a bit of a game changer for me. I met some truly wonderful people, down to earth in every possible way, yet talented beyond measure, AND I found my new favorite band. Ever. They had better keep making music and start filling arenas, because they need to share this MAGIC with the world. Go grab their FREE songs now, and BUY them when they are no longer free – and for the love of God, go see them live. I am nobody. I can’t do them justice in words.