in performance: willie watson

willie watson.

willie watson.

“I know they like to play banjos in tune in Kentucky,” remarked Willie Watson before launching into a brittle bit of 1920s, Georgia-born folk-blues called Kitty Puss last night at Natasha’s Bistro. “So I’m just trying to fit in.”

Striking a bond with the audience on hand proved a modest task. While many patrons were likely introduced to Watson through his tenure with the revisionist string band Old Crow Medicine Show, he proved an amiable solo artist who created a distinct performance persona for the delivery of folk staples popularized over the last century by the likes of Ma Rainey, Utah Phillips, Rev. Gary Davis, Big Bill Broonzy and Woody Guthrie.

During this 80 minute unaccompanied acoustic program, Watson wasn’t interested in the idea of presenting such tunes as rustic museum pieces. His vocal delivery was bright, animated and immediate. On the show opening Take This Hammer, for instance, Watson sounded like Jimmie Rodgers with a monstrous vibrato. There were echoes of bluegrass-inspired high lonesome singing (which would flourish in a more thematic way on the hapless Mexican Cowboy that followed), but Watson’s clean and expressive wails were more akin to gospel.

Of course, rattling around in the folk attic sometimes means wrestling with songs that, by modern standards, seem decidedly non-PC. Watson was apologetic about the mildly misogynistic slant of James Alley Blues, which he defused by essentially playing it for laughs (or, at least, that’s how the audience seemed to take it). But on the far darker Rock Salt and Nails, Watson allowed an unease fueled by the song’s murderous starkness to surface.

That was one of several sobering tunes that quieted patrons that became chattier (especially between songs) as the show progressed. Equally effective in bringing quiet to the room was a beautifully expressive Tattle O’Day, a banjo infused take on The Cuckoo and a devilishly involving encore of See See Rider.

While half of the set was devoted to nine of the 10 tunes from Watson’s 2014 solo debut album Folk Singer, Vol. 1, the remainder highlighted, among other delights, the hilltop gospel of I Belong to the Band and the show closing glee of On the Road Again (the traditional tune refashioned by the Grateful Dead, not the Willie Nelson hit) that gave hope Vol. 2 is headed our way soon.

the blown up folk singer

willie watson.

willie watson.

A year ago at this time, Willie Watson was embarking on his most extensive solo tour since breaking ranks with Old Crow Medicine Show.

His mission? To establish himself as an artist apart from his former, famed band armed with a pack of vintage folk songs penned or previously interpreted by the likes of Leadbelly, Utah Phillips and Roscoe Holcomb. He fashioned 10 such unaccompanied tunes together on a Dave Rawlings-produced solo album called, aptly enough, Folk Singer, Vol. 1.

So as another summer commences, how well does the guitarist/banjoist feel his mission has gone?

“I think the record worked. The plan sort of worked. We just wanted to get me out there doing what I could do best. I just sing these songs. It’s such a simple sort of idea, but I think people have embraced it in the past year.

“There are much more spectacular concerts than what I do, but it’s having an impact on people. I appreciate that, for sure. A lot of people keep coming to the shows, so I keep doing it.”

And Folk Singer, Vol. 1? Does the record still stand up for him, as well?

“I put it on the other day for my daughter and I hated it,” Watson said. “Couldn’t bear it.”

Before you assume Watson is a complete defeatist, know he has felt the same way about every recorded work he has been involved with, from the banjo/fiddle driven albums he cut with Old Crow Medicine Show between 1998 and 2012 right up through Folk Singer, Vol.1, his debut solo album.

“It’s been that way with everything I’ve ever done. I put on those Old Crow records now and I can’t believe I was singing like that. I’m just very critical of myself. But, ultimately, what I think of the music is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. If that is the sound that’s making a lot of people happy, then so be it. But what I do is always changing. It’s always developing.”

Watson’s introduction to such folk staples as James Alley Blues, Rock Salt and Nails and Midnight Special came during his teen years.

“I was seventh grade when I first got into clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle music,” he said. “It grew from there. I was already listening to Woody Guthrie by then. I had done the Bob (Dylan) thing. I had done the Neil Young thing. I knew I liked acoustic music. But I liked rock ‘n’ roll, too. I was really into Crazy Horse and the whole grunge thing before all that. So it sort of went on from there.”

“There is a common simplicity about this music and the way the chords work that draw people in. It feels friendly. It makes people feel comfortable. That’s all over the place today, too. That’s happening with Americana music now. It’s happening with Mumford & Sons and those kinds of bands that have taken this whole structure of music and blown it up.”

Old Crow Medicine Show was among the first new generation bands to breakthrough with such a “blown up” folk sound. But Watson said his decade-plus tenure with the band was also a vital training ground for the life of a modern day traveling musician.

“That band did really well right away,” Watson said. “We were in the right places at the right times. That’s where I learned everything about what it’s like to tour and be a working musician. We got hooked up with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch pretty soon after we moved to Nashville. They really showed us the ropes about how to make records.

“Then we just got out there and played music. We did that for over 10 years with a bunch of guys. We just worked the road and let the road work for us.”

Willie Watson performs at 8 tonight at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Tickets: $15.

Call (859) 259-2754 or got to

happy trails, dave

david letterman's final "late show" airs tonight.

david letterman’s final “late show” airs tonight.

So it has all come down to this. After 33 years of stupid pet tricks, Top 10 lists and flying pencils, David Letterman will host his very last Late Show tonight. In all ways, a television era – perhaps the last of its kind – will end when the program signs off around 12:35 tomorrow morning.

As someone who watches very little TV (the local news, Modern Family reruns, that’s about it), The Late Show with David Letterman was a broadcast oasis presided over by an Olympian smart ass. He took shots at everyone, especially himself, and seemed to love nothing more than when a guest he had previously skewered (Bill O’Reilly, Martha Stewart, Dr. Phil) took the humor as exactly that.

He could be merciless when he sensed a guest was being opportunistic. Ages ago, when Jane Seymour was promoting a coffee table book designed as “a guide to romantic living,” he asked how the actress would encourage the romantic side of a garbage collector. The interviewed nosedived from there.

But when he was in the presence of greatness, he recognized it. One of the very few times Letterman was obviously star struck came during his NBC years when he interviewed a frail but feisty Bette Davis. His sentiments were similarly humble whenever he spoke of mentoring figures like Johnny Carson.

Then there was the humor. Sometimes the jokes were deliciously off center (my favorite Top 10 list remains “The Top 10 Amish Spring Break Pranks”). Sometimes it was unapologetically juvenile, like the dropping of everything from paint cans to pumpkins from the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, Letterman’s Broadway home during his CBS years. Best of all, though, was the way he turned stage hands, interns, costume designers, carpenters, the deli owner next door and, for a time, his own mother into comics just by having them act like themselves.

To this date, nothing cracked me up more than a recurring bit where a pair of deadpan New York stage hands would read transcripts from Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show. On the other hand, nothing he aired was more unsentimentally touching than a program-long interview/performance with an ailing Warren Zevon done shortly before his death from lung cancer and the singer’s reciprocal comment that Letterman was “the best friend my music ever had.”

All of this came together over the past six weeks or so as Letterman neared retirement. A bit as recently as last week where he interviewed Tom Waits while being handcuffed to George Clooney deserves placement in Letterman’s personal hall of fame.

I got to see Letterman tape his programs a half-dozen times in New York over the years. I got to witness a skateboarding dog, exasperated offstage staffers recoiling as Joan Rivers spewed obscenities, The Pretenders in glorious performance and some sharp verbal jousting with Robert Downey, Jr. But it all came down to Dave doing what he did in his historic theatre, ending his pre-show greeting to the audience each time with the promise that “we’ll have you out of here in time for happy hour.”

So cheers, Dave. Thanks for the laughs, the music and the company. Broadway and television simply won’t be the same without you.

in performance: ross hammond

ross hammond.

ross hammond.

The soundscapes that kept the Morris Book Store open a little past closing hour earlier tonight were part of the Outside the Spotlight Series of jazz directed improvisational music performances. But in reality, it was tough to peg the music Ross Hammond had on display as jazz in any strict sense.

Granted, the Lexington-born guitarist has established himself as a potent electric player in a variety of collaborative jazz projects on the West Coast for many years. But here at home, Hammond travelled an altogether different route. Over the course of an hour, he assembled six instrumental pieces for unaccompanied 12 string acoustic guitar that seemed to defy genre classification.

The distinguishing factor for the selections was Hammond’s recent folk and spirituals album Flight. But the record essentially served as a blueprint for even newer (and newly revised) pieces built around the rhythmic flow established by the 12 string. The lyrical appeal and the tunes’ overall spaciousness suggested European inspiration. But in several instances, Hammond briefly colored the music with slide guitar, which provided his playing with accents of American primitive music in general and revered guitar stylist John Fahey in particular.

But Hammond’s performance style was not nearly as brittle as Fahey’s. Songs like How Old is Your Face? and How Does a Monkey Write a Song? (with titles and inspiration suggested by the guitarist’s daughter) sounded largely meditative with only the slightest of melodies growing out of the 12 string’s richly orchestrated flow.

The comparatively pensive feel of For Miep Gies, however, opened the lyricism up to where it felt more in line with the patient, internalized playing of the great ECM guitarist Ralph Towner.

Consider Fahey and Towner more as references within Hammond’s music as opposed to strict stylistic influences. During a nearly unrecognizable reading of This Little Light of Mine, the tone and flow of Hammond’s playing answered to no one, sounding less like a rural spiritual and more like a pastoral folk-jazz reverie. Like the rest of this intimate, unamplified and beautifully immediate performance, influences were strictly support players for a sound that was serenely Hammond’s own creation.

in performance: dr. john and the nite trippers

dr. john. photo by bruce weber.

dr. john. photo by bruce weber.

“Does anybody need a Doctor?”

That was the cue from the stage at the Lexington Opera House earlier tonight that ushered in Mac Rebennack, the vanguard New Orleans pianist and song stylist known better to audiences as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and musical shaman Dr. John.

With that, the good doctor took a seat at the piano and offered a quick primer in his musical ancestry (Professor Longhair and Huey Smith were the most visible inspirations) by hammering out a medley of Iko Iko and Shoo Fly. The carnival had officially begun.

This was an evening of many surprises. To begin with, the concert was advertised as a tribute to Louis Armstrong, tying the evening into Rebennack’s 2014 Satchmo-themed album Ske-Dat-De-Dat. That wasn’t the case at all. In fact, the only tune offered from the record was a gospel heavy reading of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Even then, Rebennack re-assigned vocal duties so he could color in the spiritual bliss on piano.

What the 100 minute show turned out to be was, if anything, considerably more special – a detailed glimpse into Rebennack’s early years as Dr. John that excavated tunes from six of the seven groundbreaking albums the pianist cut for Atco Records between 1968 and 1974.

Some of the material was familiar, like the 1973 hit Right Place Wrong Time, the only tune of the night where Rebennack switched from piano to a small portable keyboard to replicate the tune’s ultra-funky clavinet groove.

Others were rich in New Orleans tradition, like Big Chief (from 1972’s Gumbo) and Mardi Gras Day (from 1970’s Remedies) that unlocked the second line syncopation of drummer Herlin Riley and a highly efficient five-member band.

But the show also went deep into the psychedelic voodoo side of the Dr. John persona for tunes that have long been absent from Rebennack’s shows. Among the rarities were the title tune to 1971’s Babylon, where musical director Sarah Morrow wildly refashioned the song’s electronic incantation for trombone, and Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya, where the 74 year old Rebennack sounded eerily like the young Crescent City medicine man that first conjured the tune in 1968.

That, friends, was just what the doctor ordered.

mac and satch

dr. john

dr. john

There is a tag Mac Rebennack – known the world over as New Orleans rock, funk and roots music patriarch Dr. John – loves to summon when his describing his music.

He uses it when referencing his band, his takes on the jazz gems popularized by Crescent City icon Louis Armstrong (which form the foundation of his current album and tour) and the entire gris-gris culture that sits at the heart of his stage persona.

The word is “slamming.” But under Rebennack’s soulful, unhurried New Orleans dialect, an accent so heavy one almost hears the humidity dripping from it, the word sounds positively incantatory.


“I think everything is slamming,” said Rebennack, 74, the veteran pianist and six-time Grammy winner, who brings the Armstrong-themed songs of his 2014 album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch album to the Opera House on Sunday. “I feel blessed about everything.”

For Rebennack, a love of Armstrong’s music was instilled almost at birth. Both musicians hailed from New Orleans’ famed Third Ward. But serious admiration began when the young Rebennack was introduced to Armstrong’s music at his father’s appliance store, which also sold records.

“My father’s shop was way out on Gentilly Road, which is far removed from the Third Ward,” Rebennack said. “Yeah, my pa played a lot of Louis’ records. He was considered traditional jazz, but I also heard bebop and a lot of the Afro-Cuban music. He had race records, too. That was rhythm and blues as well as blues. He had spiritual records and hillbilly records. Those were the kinds of records my father sold.”

Rebennack met Armstrong briefly in the late ‘60s as his own recording career as Dr. John was beginning and Armstrong’s was winding down. Both were clients of champion booker/manager Joe Glaser, whose client list had included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.

“I was blessed to meet Louis Armstrong in Joe Glaser’s office, and that was just, well, a very spiritual thing,” Rebennack said. “We jaw-jerked about him sitting on this rock in Bucktown, right outside of the port of New Orleans. That’s when my pa’s shop was out there.

“This was across the street from Ralph Schultz’s Fresh Hardware store. Louis Armstrong was telling me how he was laughing so hard about what went on at Ralph’s store. Ralph could marry you. He could sell you break tag stickers (for automobiles). Whatever he did, he just made Louis laugh.”

On Ske-Dat-De-Dat, the pure joy of Armstrong is translated with a New Orleans groove that rings closer to King Oliver and Professor Longhair than to Satchmo himself. An all-star guest list that includes Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, Arturo Sandoval, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Blind Boys of Alabama help out, as do two notables that will be part of Rebennack’s Nite Trippers band on Sunday – trombonist and Ske-Dat-De-Dat producer/arranger Sarah Morrow and veteran New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley (an alumnus of Wynton Marsalis’ famed ‘90s septet who played the Opera House last fall with pianist Marcus Roberts).

“I’m really grateful to have a slamming band like this,” Rebennack said.

Of course, no one on the guest list upstages the mighty Dr. John. While the psychedelic shaman pageantry that dominated his concerts and recordings through the decades is largely held in check on Ske-Dat-De-Dat, his sense of Crescent City soul thrives in the way his piano work madly mingles with horns on Dippermouth Blues and in how his singing leads a conga line reimagining of When You’re Smiling to conclude the record.

That kind of soul and rhythm isn’t just a fixture of Armstrong’s music or even of New Orleans culture. For Dr. John, it’s a component of everyday life.

“I think that no matter what you go through in life, you got to roll. You got to roll like a big wheel in the Georgia cotton fields.”

Dr. John and the Nite Trippers perform at 7 p.m. May 17 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $85.50. Call: (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or got to

in performance: dave rempis, darren johnston and larry ochs

clockwise from left: dave rempis, larry ochs and darren johnston.

clockwise from left: dave rempis, larry ochs and darren johnston.

The Outside the Spotlight series has been in action long enough that one of the great secrets behind its finest performances has become a given – dynamics. And last night’s trio performance by Dave Rempis, Darren Johnston and Larry Ochs at Dixieland Gardens sported a truckload of it.

For the uninitiated, OTS shows are jazz by definition but are better defined by the level of free improvisation involved. Last night’s concert was devoted almost exclusively to it. But despite regular forays into pure abstraction, the trio’s two sets sported improvisations that were almost respiratory in design.

The music would simmer within a variety of subtleties – like the cyclical rounds of sound that began the evening and the moments of whispery intensity that distinguished the second set – before boiling over with pure ensemble combustion. Watching these extremes build, deconstruct and reassemble at a pace that often surprised even the three artists creating the music was a serious thrill.

The trio’s novel instrumentation – two saxophones and trumpet – often played into the show fascinating dynamics. Rempis, an OTS regular that has played Lexington in nearly a dozen different band settings, initiated the fun with punctuated bursts on alto saxophone that sounded almost like aquatic percussion. Enter Ochs on tenor saxophone and Johnston on trumpet and the music tensed up for sharp ensemble jabs. There were respites from the fury, but the performance’s moments of solace were merely set ups that were quickly shattered so the trio could work itself into another lather.

The music allowed the three players to each shift between two instruments. Rempis doubled on baritone sax (his weapon of choice for a fascinating solo excursion during the second set) while Ochs moonlighted on sopranino sax (an instrument of compact size and a sound that fortified the evening’s boldest group exchanges). Johnston stuck to trumpet but augmented it a variety of plungers and mutes that wildly varied its sound. Clanging a metal bowl against the horn also furthered the trio’s percussive vocabulary.

The extraordinary acoustics this completely unamplified performance received within the brick walls of Dixieland Gardens and the wonderfully spontaneous moments of pure quiet that peppered the concert as the artists plotted their next move added to the fun while extending the music’s sublime dynamics.

b.b. king, 1925-2015

b.b.  king performing in 1999. herald-leader staff photograph by mark cornelison.

b.b. king performing in 1999. herald-leader staff photograph by mark cornelison.

“Hard luck and trouble seem to be my middle name,” sang B.B. King nearly 45 years ago in a typically elegant slice of orchestrated blues called Chains and Things. The song was part of a brilliant stretch of recordings issued between 1965 and 1975 that defined a titan musical life that ended yesterday at age 89.

For the better part of his career, King was synonymous with the blues. It’s hard to imagine an artist so associated with a specific musical genre. Casual music fans that knew little or nothing of the blues still invariably knew of King. As a musical ambassador for the blues, his influence and inspiration remain limitless.

To musicians, especially guitarists, his early recordings were like college textbooks.

“I got to see him record when I was a youngster — maybe seven years old,” ZZ Top guitarist Bill Gibbons told me in a 2013 interview. “My dad had an ‘in’ at the studio in Houston where B.B. and company preferred to record. That experience made a tremendous impression on me and, obviously, it’s stayed on all these years. B.B. King is now in year 63 or 64 of his career, and I’ve only been at it for maybe 45 years, so there’s a whole lot of catching up to do.”

But King was also a profound rarity among roots music musicians in that he achieved far reaching commercial and crossover popularity. Much of that stemmed from The Thrill is Gone, another sleekly produced, string-enhanced serving of the blues. It became more than a signature tune for King. It served as an anthem for the times.

The despondency of the song was obvious. So the was the clean, lean tone of his guitar work. But the patiently paced, orchestrated arrangement suggested pure early ‘70s soul. Everyone picked up on it – pop audiences, R&B audiences, all audiences. All of a sudden, King and his music were everywhere, even on such mainstream television programs as The Tonight Show.

The song also set the mood for the rest of King’s career. There were a few underappreciated recording triumphs after that, including 1970’s brilliant Indianola Mississippi Seeds (which contained Chains and Things), 1973’s overlooked To Know You is To Love You and 1978’s Crusaders-collaboration Midnight Believer. Mostly though, King became the face of the blues, changing forever its legitimacy as a popular music form.

His concerts were like old school revues, bolstered by horns, the odd novelty tune (How Blues Can You Get) and a stage presence as bright as the blues were solemn. Lexington was fortunate to have gotten several performance glimpses of King in action through ‘80s sets at the long defunct Breeding’s downtown to yearly festivals at the Kentucky Horse Park during the mid ‘90s.

King turned 70 during one of the latter dates, but the charm of his performance persona was still luminous. For King, the blues was an invitation to life, a look at its most sobering realities but, ultimately, a celebration of its most lasting joys.

phoenix rising

the black cadillacs.

the black cadillacs.

One of summertime’s new concert traditions reconvenes tonight with the second season of WUKY-FM’s Phoenix Friday concert series.

After a strong inaugural season last year, the series of free monthly concerts at Phoenix Park, W. Main and S. Limestone, will again bring together established local artists with up-and-coming national acts.

Tonight’s performance features The Black Cadillacs, a rock troupe formed in Memphis by cousins Will Horton and Matthew Hyrka. Now operating out of Knoxville, the band has released a self-titled five-song EP produced by Wilco alumnus Ken Coomer. The Other Brothers and Larkin Poe round out the bill.

The music starts at 5:30 pm and should wrap up around 9:30. Food vendors will be on hand throughout the evening.

The summer’s other three Phoenix Fridays shows will include Lexington pop cello stylist Ben Sollee (who made his series debut last August in the midst of a monstrous thunderstorm) with Humming House and Twin Lamb on June 19, the Nashville indie rock outfit Kopecky (which releases its new Drug for the Modern Age album next week) with J.D. Ghent and The Wags on July 17 and a fourth concert teaming an as yet unannounced headliner with The Vespers and Coralee and the Townie on Aug. 21.

Showtimes for those performances will also be 5:30 pm.

For more information, call (859) 257-3221 or go to

keeping track of dave rempis

dave rempis. photo by jim newberry.

dave rempis. photo by jim newberry.

A little over two years ago, Chicago saxophonist and frequent guest of Lexington’s long running Outside the Spotlight Series Dave Rempis discovered the best way to chronicle and share his numerous improvisatory and free jazz projects was to do it himself.

Indie labels were fine. But even in that company, Rempis could only release a fraction of his prolific musical output. So Aerophonic Records was born, a label that has issued 10 recordings of Rempis related music, including 2014’s Spectral, the debut of a double saxophone/trumpet trio that performs for OTS tonight.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to put out a much broader pallet of things that I’m working on,” Rempis said. “I’m free to put out whatever I want that I feel has some artistic merit to it. Aside from that angle of things, the label continues the connections I’ve made with fans, with writers, with other people who are all part of the music on an ongoing basis.”

The Spectral trio teams Rempis with two San Francisco Bay Area artists, trumpeter Darren Johnston and ROVA Saxophone Quartet member Larry Ochs. The band presents a novel configuration – three horns and no rhythm section. But the music the three create is both grounded in its sense of organization and open enough to encourage the level of improvisatory intensity that has distinguished all of Rempis’ myriad performance projects.

“We make very clear decisions and really consider the longer term ramifications of what we’re doing over the course of a piece of music,” Rempis said. “Some of the bands I play with will do a 45 minute set of improvising, which I certainly love. The tunes with this trio tend to be a bit shorter, anywhere from the five to eight minute range and are a little more tightly focused at times.

“But one of the most challenging things about this group is its untraditional instrumentation. So your role as an instrumentalist and as a member of the band becomes an opportunity to redefine what you do on your instrument and how you fit into an ensemble since there isn’t a drummer or a bass player. It creates a lot of openings for you to make decisions as an improviser and instrumentalist about what other roles could to play.”

The Rempis/Johnston/Ochs Trio performs at 8 p.m. May 15 at Dixieland Gardens, 110 Luigart Ct. Admission is $5. Call (859) 257-4636.

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