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Published on September 24th, 2012 | by Jared Booth


Mike Farris and Sadler Vaden Summon True Spirituality

Mike Farris w/ Sadler Vaden @ the Circular Congregational Church, Sept. 22

A few weeks ago, Awendaw Green’s Eddie White called singer/guitarist Sadler Vaden to see if he wanted to open for songwriter Mike Farris (formerly of the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies) at the Circular Congregational Church. White puts on the listening room series at the church with co-organzer Dan Henderson of Suncoast Promotions. Vaden, formerly of local rock trio Leslie, is currently a member of Georgia band Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ and based in Nashville. He immediately signed on for the show.

Vaden joked about it on Saturday night (Sept. 22) at their performance, saying, “You mean I get to play before him, and then I get to watch him? In a church? Oh yeah, I’m in.”

Sadler Vaden at the Circular Sound Series (photo by Andrew Walker)

Sadler Vaden at the Circular Sound Series (photo by Andrew Walker)

Vaden had been wanting to meet Farris for a while. What he didn’t know was that he would end up playing the second half of Farris’ set with him, fitting in effortlessly and creating a joint sound that seemed as if it had been rehearsed for decades. It was a special, emotional night that will live on in the minds of the audience members.

Early on in Vaden’s set, he told the crowd, “It feels really good to be back in Charleston, playing in this beautiful church. This is a song I wrote with Jay Clifford, another Charlestonian. It’s called ‘Failure is an Orphan.’” Vaden, who is usually seen shredding an electric guitar, finger-picked a beautiful melody on his acoustic and sang, “Success has a thousand fathers/But failure is an orphan.”

The crowd, sitting in church pews in the darkened, intimate space, enjoyed the vibrant acoustics of the sanctuary’s massively tall vaulted ceiling and cheered Vaden as he hooked up his harmonica to his chin and chuckled, “I’m going to play a new song. I haven’t finished writing it yet, so we’ll see what happens.” He then played a bittersweet song that certainly felt finished, crooning, “If I’m not here next year/It’s not because I didn’t love you/It’s just because I couldn’t hold on.”

At one point, Vaden said, only half-jokingly, “You don’t even need a microphone in this place,” and then he called mockingly called out, “Hello!” to hear the echo. “In a few weeks,” he continued, “I’m going to put out my first album as Sadler Vaden. I’m really proud of it. I played all the instruments on it, except for pedal steel. I couldn’t tame that animal.”

After picking up his electric and ripping through “Just You and My New Guitar,” Vaden confessed the origins of his new album’s title track, saying, “I used to date a girl that lived on Radio Road in West Ashley. There was a coin laundry there, and they played awesome music in there. They played Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ in there. So my new album is called Radio Road.” He then performed the title track.

Sadler Vaden at the Circular Sound Series (photo by Andrew Walker)

Sadler Vaden at the Circular Sound Series (photo by Andrew Walker)

Near the end of his set, Vaden created an emotional tone to the performance that remained the rest of the night. “Eddie [White] actually gave me the title for this song,” he said. “I called him once and asked him where he was, and he said, ‘I’m at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere.’ My parents met in Charlotte, and my dad was about to go California, so he asked my mom to go with him, and she said yes … hippies! They had such incredible lives. Both of them have passed on to the Lord, and that phrase Eddie said made sense to me, so I write this song for them. It’s called ‘End of the Road.’”

During an incredible extended solo on the song, Vaden’s guitar craftsmanship was as emotionally powerful as his words. Every note and closed-eyes shake of his head was a tribute to his late parents. He clearly believed his parents could hear him playing. He seemed to be showing off for them, sharing the unbelievable skill he had honed.

As Vaden wound down, he pulled out the electric once more and ripped through bluesy solos with easy ferocity. I found myself feeling very glad that he had picked up a guitar as a kid. The world doesn’t need more nine-to-fivers, it needs more guitarists like Vaden.

Mike Farris at the Circular Sound Series (photo by Andrew Walker)

Mike Farris at the Circular Sound Series (photo by Andrew Walker)

When Farris strolled on stage, his long hair fell over his face and sunglasses covered his eyes, but his famous voice, which White correctly dubbed “a vocal instrument,” was as pure and powerful as ever. Vaden took a seat in the audience and giggled like a schoolboy as Farris, also based in Nashville, exhorted the crowd, “Y’all ready to celebrate life?” After a mid-volume response, he said, “Let me say that again. Y’all ready to celebrate life? We’re going to get some Southern gospel going.”

Farris sang sitting down, hunched over his acoustic guitar, tapping his left foot and looking at the floor with his eyes closed, as if in a trance. The microphone was there, but he rarely used it (and certainly didn’t need it) moving his effortless gospel-style voice farther away from it whenever he really opened up his vocal chords, which was a lot.

On his opener, the traditional “Mary Don’t You Weep,” he alternated extreme volumes with extreme softness, displaying the mighty emotive power of the human vocal chords. It was as if an 80-year-old black woman was trapped in this middle-aged white man’s body. He was Aretha Franklin.

“How ’bout Sadler? I’ve been wanting to be in Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ since I was 16,” Farris said just before launching into “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down.” The collective jaw of those in attendance was on the floor. Folks stared across the aisle at each other and shook their heads in disbelief, acknowledging the shared moment and knowing there would be no way to adequately relate this experience to others. It was especially powerful in a church, where this music was born and will always reside.

After singing “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again” to devastating effect, he went into “Servant Sit Down,” leading a call-and-response and telling the audience with a chuckle, “If you know the words, please sing along — unless you can’t sing. Then maybe you should get the rest of us some water or something.” Most people sang, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet, including Farris, who ended the song with an a cappella foot-stomping session that felt like the Sunday mornings white kids like me never got to experience.

Before the show, White had told me, “This will change the way you think about music.” I assumed it was the usual positive spin from the always enthusiastic White. But after just a few songs, I was a believer.

The thing is, people just can’t do what Farris was doing up there. To be blessed with the ability to open your mouth and have pure beauty come out is rare. I’ve never seen a vocal performance with anything close to that amount of power. Frankly, until I heard it, I hadn’t known it was possible. His voice didn’t seem to belong to a human, in fact, it didn’t even seem to belong to him. I felt as if this gift could not be one man’s property, that it belonged to us all and he was just its generous vessel.

When he invited Vaden to join him onstage, Vaden had no idea that he would remain there for the rest of the show. Farris said to him, “We’ve never played together, but you’re a rock ‘n’ roller, you’ve got this, right?” Vaden fit in with him effortlessly, proving that he was undeniably a “rock ‘n’ roller,” but also exhibiting an exceptional level of musical intelligence, shredding solos while never stepping on Farris’ toes, weaving in and out of the singer’s magic with ease.

Farris told a long story remembering Levon Helm and dedicated the Etta James classic, “I’d Rather Go Blind” to Helm and James, both of whom passed away this year. As the song began, I closed my eyes and heard Etta James singing. I felt lifted to as high a place as music has ever lifted me. It was the ultimate expression of humanity, of what separates us from animals; it seemed to prove the existence of the soul.

After taking it home with another stomper, “This Little Light of Mine,” the guys left the stage to a more-than-deserved standing ovation. When they returned for an encore, Farris added to the emotions of the evening, saying, “My dad passed away Friday, so it’s been a crazy few weeks. So I just want to thank everyone here and everyone who made this possible. This is a new one that will be on our new record, it’s for my daddy.” He then started the first lines of “Mercy Now,” singing, “My father could use a little mercy now.”

Building to a vocal tornado, Farris did what he had done all night; slowing it down to a whisper that was just as powerful. In the last moments, he stood up for the first time of the night, and as everyone in the crowd repeated the words, he waved his arms like a conductor, leading the congregation like the soul preacher he is.

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Photos provided by Andrew Walker.



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About the Author

Jared Booth

is a Charleston-based freelance writer focusing on the local music scene. He is sometimes funny, often serious, rarely objective, and always honest. When he's not at a show or at the beach, the Virginia native can usually be found on a lawn chair in someone's backyard, sipping on a cold Tecate and belting his heart out to George Jones.

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