On a recent Friday evening at The 5 Spot, it’s 10 minutes past the start of happy hour and the joint is already jumpin’. Onstage, singer-songwriter-guitar slinger Tim Carroll and “an assemblage of true rock stars,” as one patron describes them in a post on Facebook, are just getting warmed up for 2 1/2 hours of arena-worthy rock & roll. “Best Happy Hour in town,” the patron concludes in her post.
It’s hard to argue with that conclusion. Carroll is backed by an all-star rhythm section: bassist Bones Hillman, best-known as a member of the popular Australian rock band Midnight Oil; and drummer Steve Latanation, who spent more than a decade manning the drum kit for California surf-punk pioneers Agent Orange.
“We’ve got a nickname there [at The 5 Spot],” Latanation says with a laugh a few days later. “Tim Carroll & Midnight Orange.”
If you haven’t heard of Carroll, you might wonder how he manages to get cats from famous rock bands to play behind him. Well, the answer is simple: Carroll is one of Nashville’s unsung rock heroes; a former major-label recording artist whose songwriting is so good John Prine covered one of his songs, and whose musical pedigree includes membership in the legendary Indiana punk outfit The Gizmos and the acclaimed New York City-based roots rock band The Blue Chieftains, as well as eight stellar solo albums.
On this particular evening, a special guest is sitting in with the band — über-guitarist Reeves Gabrels, longtime musical associate of David Bowie and newest member of legendary British rock band The Cure. Gabrels is fresh off a performance with The Cure in Napa, Calif., where they headlined the BottleRock Napa Valley festival before an audience of 40,000-plus.
The 5 Spot holds far fewer people, but the place is already almost half full and it isn’t even 7 p.m. yet. The audience is a mix of young and not-so-young, including musicians, hipsters, music nuts, and even a few members of the local media. Carroll and his band have been doing this gig for nearly a year-and-a-half, and the buzz is beginning to build.
“It can be a little hard to get a really cool gig going in Nashville because of the competition — there’re so many great guitar players and great bands and things to do,” Carroll, who moved to Music City in the ’90s, says after the show. “But right now, it seems people are starting to count on it for this Friday party, and people seem to be digging it on a deep musical level. So, there’s a real excitement about it right now, I think.”
Carroll had played some happy hour shows at The 5 Spot a number of years ago, but couldn’t really get into a groove and build an audience because he was on the road so much with his wife Elizabeth Cook, leading her band, which included Hillman. After a tour of Australia in January of 2013, Cook decided to take a break from touring to focus on writing and to explore her opportunities in television.
Shortly after returning to Nashville, Carroll recalls having a “light bulb” moment. “I was driving in my truck and thought, ‘That 5 Spot gig — I’d love to get back to doing something like that again,’” he says.
So he texted Todd Sherwood at The 5 Spot and asked about doing a regular thing again. Sherwood texted him back suggesting happy hour every Friday. Carroll started the gig the very next Friday with Hillman and Latanation backing him.
As on this night, the band occasionally has other musicians sit in with them, such as Todd Snider or keyboardist Tim Atwood. This is the second time Gabrels has played with them.
“I went to see Tim at happy hour one night about a year ago, and he said, ‘You should come play with me sometime when you have a chance,” The Cure axe-man recalls. Then a few months ago, just before he was scheduled to return to London, he took Carroll up on the invitation.
“I had a Friday night with nothing to do and I was itching to play, so I messaged Bones and asked, ‘Does that offer still stand with Tim?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ Next thing I knew I was playing for two-and-a-half hours.”
There’s an improvisational element to the performances, and Carroll introduces new material on the fly during the shows. “We really get kind of out there when we play,” he says.
“We’ve never rehearsed,” Hillman notes later. “We just feel it out, man. And I try not to play the same every week.”
Latanation loves it. “There’s an element every time we play … it’s that tension of ‘Oh, my God, what’s going to happen next?’” he says. “There’s always something that didn’t happen before. It’s a living, breathing dynamic.”
As the sun sets outside, inside on the bandstand Gabrels and Carroll are giving the audience a lesson in why Nashville is sometimes referred to as Guitar Town. Some of their interplay is reminiscent of the six-string sparring between Neil Young and Stephen Stills when they played together in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
“We tend to feel the music in a similar way, and that’s why we can play so well together,” Gabrels says of the interaction between the two. “It’s all a conversation.”
As the conversation continues onstage, a young man walks across the room, and exuberantly punches his fist in the air in time to the music. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see at a rock concert, not at a happy hour gig in a small club.