in performance: the bad plus

The Bad Plus. From left: Dave King, Orrin Evans and Reid Anderson.

According to one of the producers of the Origins Jazz Series, the only problem in presenting the acclaimed jazz trio The Bad Plus in concert Sunday night at the Lexington Children’s Theatre were assumptions from unfamiliar patrons that the performance was going to somehow be a jazz program for children.

Sorry, kids. You were more than welcome to stay up and join the fun, but this was very much an evening of grown up jazz, a courageous and immensely listenable 90 minute set that delighted in deconstructing the standard design of the piano trio and, to a lesser extent, the very structure of The Bad Plus itself.

The show opening “Seams” set the evening’s battle plan quietly in motion by beginning with a slow, pastoral pattern from Orrin Evans. The pianist replaced Bad Plus co-founder Ethan Iverson at the onset of 2018. The contrasts between the two players were immediately placed on display. The “Seams” intro established a sense of dynamics the trio didn’t always choose to enforce in the past. Yes, Evans lacked a smidge of the wildness of his predecessor. Frankly, though, the earthy grace and general playfulness he brought to the performance, as suggested by the way his intro gradually brought bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King (the band’s other founding members) into the tune before letting the whole ensemble feel gently implode, more than compensated.

These quieter moments were quite striking, whether they came during the equally reserved sway of “Kerosene II” or the more ominous melodic flow of “Hurricane Birds.” But “Safe Passage” had the new Bad Plus offering a blast of vibrant ensemble energy punctuated by bright staccato stabs on piano from Evans and a percussive rumble from King that seemed to play tug of war with the melody. After three-and-a-half exuberant minutes, the tune said its peace and unceremoniously concluded.

All of these compositions came from the band’s newest album, “Never Stop II” and were penned by Anderson. But the cross-generational lexicon of The Bad Plus that won the Minneapolis band such a devout following with college-aged audiences (and largely filled LCT on Sunday) was addressed in very moving terms at the end of the evening with a cover of “Flim.”

The song, in its original form, was a relative obscurity pulled from a 1997 EP by Aphex Twin. But The Bad Plus made the tune its own on the 2003 breakthrough album, “These are the Vistas.” Evans remained faithful to the lyrical fancy of the “Vistas” arrangement, playing it almost as a children’s lullaby (what a coincidence, given the setting) with King adding a coda on a small, percussive wind-up toy.

But it was the lyrical innocence at the heart of the performance that was so gently overwhelming. It was a slice of welcoming comfort signally The Bad Plus had grown older but not entirely up.

in performance: alabama/ricky skaggs and kentucky thunder/the kentucky headhunters

Ricky Skaggs.

“It’s bluegrass time,” proclaimed Ricky Skaggs on Friday night at Rupp Arena, affirming not only his status as patriarch of the string music sound that has been the Lawrence County native’s lifelong calling, but also the home court advantage he and the co-billed Kentucky Headhunters held over headliner Alabama.

It would be easy to go all jingoistic and root for Skaggs’ current career resurgence, largely triggered by his recent induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the electric blues-country matrix of the Metcalfe County-rooted Headhunters simply because they are neighbors of sorts. But such favoritism wasn’t needed. The country-pop vets of Alabama were on very shaky performance ground last night and proved no match for the Kentucky acts they invited onto the bill.

For starters, only two of the four members that made Alabama a yearly sellout attraction at Rupp during the early ‘80s were on hand. Drummer Mark Herndon was not invited to take part in the extended reunions that followed Alabama’s initial disbanding in 2004, while co-founding guitarist Jeff Cook, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2017, is absent from the band’s current tour. That meant the Alabama lineup that performed with such ease as a four and five piece unit three decades ago was paired down to a duo backed by six support players.

What was left on Friday simply wasn’t a surefooted performance enterprise. Lead vocalist Randy Owen looked and sounded noticeably tired (he referenced having the flu during some between song banter). He presented relaxed and whispery readings of ballads like “Feels So Right” and “Lady Down on Love,” but ended most songs with reprises where he simply let the audience sing the chorus. Curiously, it was bassist Teddy Gentry – essentially, a silent partner during the band’s ‘80s heyday – that seemed to keep things together by taking on much of the stage chat and band interaction.

Interestingly enough, the song that seemed to finally pull the band together was a spirited reading of the pop-inflected title tune to 1983’s “The Closer You Get” album, a work penned by Central Kentucky songsmith and longtime Exile skipper J.P. Pennington. In many ways, that cemented the Kentucky presence that began to take hold at the onset of the evening.

During a brief, half-hour opening set, the Headhunters did what they have always done naturally – establish a rural country voice for heavily electric music that owed greatly to blues and blues-rock. Most modern country acts, in spot-checking their influences, don’t go much deeper than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Headhunters referenced blue guitar giant Freddie King by way of a suitably soulful take on the chestnut “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” with guitarist Greg Martin ably channeling the song’s ageless blues muse. Ditto for the Chuck Berrry-style makeover of “Oh, Lonesome Me” and the band’s hit reading of “Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine” that owed more to “Honky Tonk Women” era Rolling Stones than it did to the song’s originator, bluegrass forefather Bill Monroe.

Speaking of bluegrass, that’s where Skaggs came in. Having been part of a neo-traditionalist movement in the mid ‘80s that helped dethrone bands like Alabama from country hierarchy, he now seems quite comfortable in his role as a scholarly string band elder.

Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder ensemble was more of a battalion than a band, armed with three guitarists, a monster fiddler (Mike Barnett) and a rhythmic command that was as strong as oak. That provided a very solid base of operations for nuggets like “How Mountain Girls Can Love” and “Black Eyed Suzie,” which bookended the 40 minute set, as well as bluegrass-modified arrangements of such vintage Skaggs country hits as “Highway 40 Blues” and a brief gospel segment highlighted by the homey testimony of Red Smiley’s “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer.”

Nothing, though, matched the impact of watching the Rupp crowd of 7,500 on its feet, singing along with the chorus to the Monroe-penned standard “Uncle Pen” and then have Skaggs tear through the song’s melody on mandolin with warp speed accuracy. It was a brilliantly executed (and received) tribute from a Kentucky legend now in the midst of a hearty career renaissance to another Bluegrass inspiration that more than once made his presence known during this Rupp summit.

in performance: brand x

Brand X: Chris Clark, Scott Weinberger, Kenny Grohowski, Percy Jones and John Goodsall.

The term Brand X has long been the tag affixed to almost any form of faceless competition, a purposely inferior black sheep entity that all marketable commodities are contrasted to – favorably, one hopes.

Those qualities aren’t totally lost of the band Brand X, which was born at the height of the fusion era with a hearty enough pedigree in prog music to make it an orphan of sorts to the jazz world. It didn’t matter that the ensemble’s founding drummer was Phil Collins, who was just starting to take the reigns of Genesis in the wake of Peter Gabriel’s departure when Brand X recorded its debut album, “Unorthodox Behaviour,” in the fall of 1975. During the five year period that followed, when Brand X recorded all of its key studio albums, the band was an anomaly that earned mostly cultish followings but little lasting respect from the jazz community.

On Thursday evening at Ludlow Garage in Cincinnati, where a reconstituted Brand X made it first regional concert appearance in four decades, it was tough to determine if audiences had fully dialed into its work as the venue boasted more than a few empty seats. The band’s repertoire hasn’t been updated (no compositions post 1980 were played). Neither has its sound, which remained a proudly prog-ish offshoot of fusion. What has changed is the band’s sharpness and agility. With two founding members – guitarist John Goodsall and fretless bassist Percy Jones – manning a crew fleshed out by a trio of younger players (drummer Kenny Grohowski looked to be a full generation removed from the elders), this current Brand X lineup displayed a level of technical precision, physical drive and performance dynamics the older groups, even the ones with Collins, couldn’t match.

Credit much of that the orchestrations of keyboardist Chris Clark, the wildly rubbery sound Jones created on bass and the variety of power chords, sinewy solo lyricism and vibrant musical colors Goodsall continually added to the two set performance. Grohowski and percussionist Scott Weinberger nicely propelled the resulting ensemble sound but also teamed for a brief, boisterous percussive dialogue during the extended, suite-like “The Ghost of Mayfield Lodge.”

In terms of specifics, all of this translated into a blend of interactive playfulness and Latin-esque expression that broadly recalled the music of Chick Corea during “Disco Suicide” and the mad dashes between tropical accents and warp speed melody lines that bolstered “Not Good Enough, See Me.”

But it was during the “Unorthodox Behaviour” favorite “Born Ugly” that all of Brand X’s tricks, new and vintage, coalesced. Jones began the tune with a plump bass line that triggered a mounting funk attack. But half way through, the tune radically shifted course, allowing a recurring keyboard riff by Clark to temper the tune and frame some of Goodsall’s most patient and expressive guitar work of the evening.

Will any of this signal a wider, more generous audience in the future for Brand X? Hard to say. But it was undeniably inspiring to hear such complex, uncompromising and, quite often, uncategorizable music being played by a cross-generational band with even more ingenuity and spirit than when it was first created.




in performance: richard thompson electric trio

Richard Thompson.

Four songs into a tireless two hour Wednesday performance at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville, Richard Thompson asked a favor of the elders in the audience.

“Keep living,” the veteran British guitarist and songsmith requested. “We need your demographic to keep rolling for a few more years.”

Such a remark might suggest Thompson, 69, was viewing himself as unfashionable to the pop mainstream, which he probably is. Then again, as this astonishing performance asserted, his music’s balance of British folk tradition and vintage American rock ‘n’ roll vigor has never made for charttopping material. It has been always too alert, too human and, as often was the case Wednesday evening, too combustible for most commercial tastes.

Fronting his trio of longtime drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk with occasional rhythm guitar support from Bobby Eichorn, Thompson remained an artist of his own time during this predominantly electric outing. That meant rolling out new tunes from his “13 Rivers” album that shifted from the jittery introspection of the show-opening “Bones of Gilead” to the percussive Celtic-flavored foreboding of “The Storm Won’t Come,” which demonstrated both the efficiency of his trio and stylistic adaptability of his guitar work.

Thompson, of course, is a properly heralded instrumentalist. But on Wednesday, it wasn’t the sheer drive and drama of his playing that astounded (although the extended guitar rampage that ignited the forgotten 1988 gem “Can’t Win” rightly earned an ovation). Equally intriguing were the short electric blasts that punctuated the “13 Rivers” tune “Her Love Was Meant For Me.” Hearing Thompson dispense his performance smarts in such contained but potent outbursts was one of the program’s many delights.

Some of the songs strayed into yesteryear in ways both artful and playful, as on “Guitar Heroes” (from 2015’s “Still” album), a self-deprecating slice of fan worship that allowed Thompson to mimic such inspirational guitar forefathers as Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry and Hank Marvin. Others were rooted in a more restless sense of nostalgia, such as the jazzy and acoustic “They Tore the Hippodrome Down.” Then there were the two songs pulled from the deepest corners of Thompson’s own past – specifically, a pair of 50 year old works he penned for Fairport Convention, “Meet on the Ledge” and the impossibly obscure “Tale in Hard Time.”
The show ended with the evening’s lone cover, a rumbling reading of the 1966 Sorrows single “Take a Heart.” Despite its history as a slice of vintage Brit pop, Thompson’s reading worked as an ominous duel with Jerome, whose percussion fills proved a cunning foil for the guitarist’s varied electric adventures throughout the evening.

in performance: john hiatt

John Hiatt. Photo by David McClister.

John Hiatt’s finest music always seems to center around family – his adoration of it, his curiosity towards it and, in some cases, his unabashed escape from it.

On Tuesday night before a modest sized turnout at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, Hiatt recounted how his first visit to his hosting city came as a teen fleeing his Indianapolis homestead to sleep in an abandoned downtown building that was “cold as (expletive).” That single-evening truancy sent him back to the family and, presumably, planted at least some of the seeds for his songs.

Though this solo acoustic performance was among Hiatt’s final tour dates promoting his 23rd studio album “The Eclipse Sessions,” the family theme resurfaced in the revival of an astonishing 1990 composition, “Seven Little Indians.” A largely autobiographical tale that outlined Hiatt’s childhood as the second youngest of seven children entertained by their storytelling father through an incantatory tale draped in Native American imagery. Spoken and recited and much as it was sung, Hiatt served the tune up as a childhood remembrance told from a decidedly adult (and subsequently parental) perspective.

The newer tunes from “The Eclipse Sessions” were perhaps less familial but no less fascinating, from the disenchanting Nashville portrait “All the Way to the River” to the plain speaking (and almost apologetic) spiritual confessional “Poor Imitation of God.” In both cases, the darker turns of the lyrics were matched by the low, often whispery tones of Hiatt’s singing.

At 66, there are mild signs of age in Hiatt’s performance profile. Aside from the more sobering nature of his songs, his voice is slightly thinner and his general persona less animated than in years past. None of that was distracting, however. In fact, age brought a sage-like demeanor to tunes like “Crossing Muddy Waters” as well as vintage fare that included “Is Anybody There?” and “Feels Like Rain.” Even the formerly whimsical rocker “Perfectly Good Guitar” took upon an air of scholarly sadness in this unaccompanied setting.

That’s not to say Hiatt didn’t get into party mode when he chose to. The evening’s most ribald entry had to be “Memphis in the Meantime,” a saga of down home decadence that has, over its three decade-plus history, always referenced a currently en vogue country artist and their unwillingness to “ever record this song.” When the song first appeared in 1987, the artist in question was Ronnie Milsap. On Tuesday, it was Blake Shelton.

The tune didn’t stray far from home, ether. It was first featured on the album that essentially broke Hiatt as a solo artist. Its title? “Bring the Family.”

in performance: bob dylan and his band

Bob Dylan.

Go away from my window; leave at your own chosen speed.”

That famous lyric, the lead off to “It Ain’t Me Babe,” comes from a staple of Bob Dylan’s catalog and performance repertoire. The song popped up No. 2 in the batting order of the master songsmith’s otherworldly sold out performance at the EKU Center for the Arts on Sunday evening, serving as – depending on your perspective – a greeting or a warning of what was to come. That’s because Dylan, 77, has long taken his songs at his own emotive, lyrical and rhythmic speed. Such asymmetry explains why some tunes sounded like crooners, other like pop carousels and more than a few like vehicles for, unfathomably, surf inspiration.

Seated at a piano for nearly the entire 1 ¾ hour concert (he quit playing guitar onstage years ago) with a functional four member band that was mostly backlit to make their music even more atmospheric, Dylan presented a set list rich with classics as well as comparatively newer works (meaning songs cut in this century). As we have come to expect from a Dylan show, every song sported drastically altered arrangements that often shifted the music’s entire rhythmic structure. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” as a crooner? “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an encore lullaby? “When I Paint My Masterpiece” as a dizzying meditation? Those were the altered portraits Dylan put on display with varying shades of his death rattle vocals as a tour guide along with piano work that purposely blotched the musical canvases like spilt ink.

The newer works obviously intrigued Dylan more than the hits. As such, several presented some startling surprises, including an incantatory “Scarlet Town,” the first of four tunes pulled from 2012’s “Tempest” and the only complete song Dylan sang without using the piano as protective armor. Equally arresting was “Cry A While” from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” which was transformed into an electric hullabaloo of sorts thanks to guitarist Charlie Sexton’s Dick Dale-like guitar riffs (seriously, this arrangement had “Rumble” written all over it).

Also, if you were especially attentive and could make out actual words from Dylan’s corrosive singing, you could catch him toying with his own lyrics. A change I detected popped up in the set-closing “Gotta Serve Somebody” (“Maybe you’re hallucinating, you think you’ve seen a ghost”).

Curiously, it was the evening’s lone cover tune, which closed the evening, that served as the most faithful entry in the program to the song’s original incarnation. On a slow, somber version of James Brown’s immortal “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” Dylan focused his singing in a manner that approximated the clarity of his recent standards albums. Fiddler and BR549 alum Donnie Herron even provided a startling one-man take execution of the original’s potently elegant string arrangement.

How does such a song fit into one of the most socially timeless catalogues in popular music? Who’s to say? Then again, Dylan debuted the cover on Nov. 7 – the day after the election. In Georgia. For a program so thoroughly rooted in the Dylan mystique, this nightcap was a startling return to earth.

in performance: “the joni mitchell tribute: both sides now”

Joni MItchell attending a tribute concert on Wednesday in Los Angeles, one of several worldwide concerts this week honoring her 75th birthday. Photo by Vivian Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Cente.

On paper, staging a Lexington-based tribute performance to the music of Joni Mitchell would seem a logical second act for the artists and organizers that presented immensely popular and well organized programs of Leonard Cohen songs last year and last spring. Both artists have musical legacies that extend back to the 1960s, both have had their works interpreted by countless disciples representing myriad genres and both have evoked a sense of lyrical and poetic adoration from successive generations. Mitchell even trumps Cohen for timeliness (this year, at least), as Friday’s “The Joni Mitchell Tribute: Both Sides Now” at First Presbyterian Church came in tandem with a wave of international celebrations honoring the songstress’ 75th birthday earlier this week.

But stylistically, Mitchell has proven a greater thrillseeker than Cohen. To that degree, such variance was showcased at Friday’s showcase to an effect that was sometimes thrilling, sometimes lopsided, sometimes both.

Those taken with songs fashioned from Mitchell’s earliest recordings as a folk princess of Laurel Canyon had plenty to luxuriate in, beginning with a crystalline reading of “Cactus Tree” (from Mitchell’s 1968 debut album “Song to a Seagull”) by Louisville folk stylist Julia Purcell, whose expressive soprano best approximated Mitchell’s multi-octave singing. Several other artists, though, nicely shifted the vocal temperament to their own range, be it through two stirring solo piano accompaniments by Beth Scherfee (“For Free”) and Melissa Snow-Groves (a more classically inclined “Blue”) or the beautiful mother/daughter harmonies of Diane Timmons and Claire Rose during The Partisans’ take on the 1969 “Clouds” obscurity “Songs to Aging Children Come.”

The program’s attempts to follow Mitchell’s music as it morphed into more progressive shades of fusion, world beat and jazz were impressive in their daring but more problematic in execution. Kevin Holm-Hudson and Jim Gleason get bonus points for the evening’s biggest gambles, even if the resulting sound and mix buried their vocals. Holm-Hudson assembled a team of 14 percussionists (including local innovators Tripp Bratton and Dave Farris) to recreate the Drummers of Burundi’s incantatory beat on “The Jungle Line,” while Gleason delved into the “Mingus” era swing of “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.” There were also some audacious interpretive choices, including Doc Feldman’s transformations of the spacious “Refuge of the Roads” and “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” into denser, Grateful Dead-style excursions.

But the biggest delight came near the program’s end with chamber-like transformations by Nevi’im of “Amelia” and Mitchell’s brilliant 1982 mash-up of the original “Chinese Café” with the pop classic “Unchained Melody.” Aided by pianist Raleigh Dailey, cellist Benjamin Karp and violinist Margie Karp, the vocals of Marilyn Robie and Kim D’Amato played out with patient, poetic grace in a setting that was distinctive yet profoundly respectful of Mitchell’s stylistic and lyrical genius.

in performance: christian mcbride’s new jawn

Christian McBride. Photo by Anna Webber.

Having put his fellow members of the New Jawn quartet through the paces, either with generous solo passages or ensemble skirmishes that continually juggled elements of swing, blues and playfully scattered bop, Christian McBride stood alone on the stage of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center last night with his longtime musical weapon of choice – the double bass.

An inventive composer, bandleader, sideman and all around jazz entrepreneur, this was what his storied career boiled down to – a few incredibly wondrous minutes by himself creating a solo full of classically designed depth, compositional drama and even a bit of artful showmanship, especially when his hands met and crossed each other on the instrument’s neck as the solo gathered momentum.

But what defined McBride during this brief passage wasn’t his technical command or even his improvisational prowess, although both were in remarkable form. No, the secret was how the solo was really a catalyst, a set up, for “Brother Malcolm,” a spacious McBride original from the aptly named “Christian McBride’s New Jawn” album that was released on Friday. As the bass subsided to join forces with drummer Justin Faulkner’s rumbling backdrop, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Josh Evans let the tune unfold like a meditation, much like a vintage John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders album might. As a result, this sublime blend of intro solo and ensemble prayer didn’t just highlight McBride the soloist, but McBride the band man, as well

The rest of the one hour, 50 minute performance – a major booking coup for the Origin Jazz Series’ second season – utilized the same formula but with a slightly different batting order. Strickland, for instance, switched to bass clarinet several times during the evening. He created an especially lustrous blues accent on the instrument that colored the Thelonious Monk-inspired “The Ballad of Ernie Washington” before switching back to sax to directly honor Monk with a suitably playful reading of “Misterioso.”

Sometimes the feel and tempos stayed cool and blue as on the McBride original “John Day.” In other instances, the bass and brass came in more punctuated stabs, as on a lively take on Wayne Shorter’s “Sightseeing.”  In the end, though, it was McBride who got in the last word with a woozy bass line during an encore tune that would drive, jerk backward and repeat. The bandleader told the audience the line was designed as a sort of drunken stroll. The tune’s name? “Walking Funny.”

in performance: chris stapleton/marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives/brent cobb

Chris Stapleton performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

“I met 1,200 people tonight who claimed they were your cousin,” said Marty Stuart to Chris Stapleton onstage last night at Rupp Arena.

The Lexington-born Stapleton, in town for his first headlining performance as a solo artist, simply motioned to the sold out crowd of 17,000-plus before him and replied, “They’re all my cousins.”

One has to suppose from such a remark that this four-hour, three act country/Americana summit was, in fact, a family affair. Certainly, Stapleton, Stuart and show opener Brent Cobb did their utmost to uphold such a feeling. The lineup had the potential to be the strongest top-to-bottom country bill Rupp has hosted in years, maybe even decades. The good news? All three artists made good on the promise and then some by eschewing the pop-laden concessions and excesses that have, sadly, become standard fare at arena country shows for a roots music mix that upheld tradition without staying anchored to it.

Stapleton’s set was a true embarrassment of riches, beginning with his band, which last night boasted such all stars as guitarist/producer Dave Cobb, steel guitar great Paul Franklin and longtime Willie Nelson harmonica ace Mickey Raphael as well as the return of the singer’s wife Morgane Stapleton as harmony vocalist. But in the end, it was still Stapleton’s ability to craft a sound that struck a hearty balance between country tradition and Muscle Shoals-style soul, whether it was through his own expert songs or a generous roundup of interpretations and covers, that commanded the evening.

Opening with a chunky, electric take on “Midnight Train to Memphis,” Stapleton’s two hour set was a lesson in dynamics. Late into the evening, the program ran through, in succession, a playful cover of “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” with Stuart, a lone duet with Morgane on “Where Rainbows Never Die” (an unexpected nugget from Stapleton’s bluegrass days with the SteelDrivers), a riveting and unaccompanied reading of “Whiskey and You,” a country-folk flavored “Broken Halos” and a riff-heavy and rockish “Second One to Know.”

That each revealed varying shades of Stapleton’s glorious, soul-scratched vocals is probably not big news. What was surprising, though, was how the show also revealed Stapleton to be a monster guitarist. Cementing that assessment was a lengthy revision of the “From a Room, Volume 1” country torch lament “I Was Wrong.” Performed as a trio piece by Stapleton, bassist (and Elkhorn City native) J.T. Cure and drummer Derek Mixon, the tune and the extended jam that grew out of it sounded less like traditionalist country and more like the kind of elemental psychedelia conjured by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

Though not an extensive talker onstage, Stapleton made clear his excitement at performing at the same arena where he saw Bon Jovi perform in 1987.

Fabulous Superlatives guitarist Kenny Vaughan and Marty Stuart onstage at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

Stuart, rightly dubbed a “steward of country music” by Stapleton, preceded the headliner with a 45-minute set that operated as a roots music primer, via expert covers of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard staples, as well as an Americana mix that touched on bluegrass, rockabilly and, remarkably, surf music.

The country veteran sounded fully in charge when on his own, as shown by a riveting take on “Orange Blossom Special” played not on fiddle, but solo mandolin. But what ignited the set was the resourceful and joyous sound of Stuart’s longtime Fabulous Superlatives band. Whether it was through the twin guitar sound created when Stuart locked horns with Kenny Vaughan on the set-opening “Lesson in Love,” bassist Chris Scruggs’ high tenor pleading on an apropos “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or drummer Harry Stinson’s faithful update of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Stuart and the Superlatives served up a vital history lesson on country roots essentials. Hearing him egging the Rupp crowd on to sing along on the band’s version of “Ring of Fire” gives one a sliver of hope for the music’s future in a Florida-Georgia Line world.

Brent Cobb during his opening set at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

Cobb’s half hour opening set was a blast, as well, from the a capella intro to “Diggin’ Holes” through the rural comeuppance of “Down in the Gulley” to the country-funk conclusion of “If I Don’t See Ya.” The Georgia songsmith had no problem playing on Wildcat turf, either. He honored his host audience with a fiery version of Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars Cadillacs,” a wonderful channeling of one country roots generation by another.

in performance: brent cobb

Brent Cobb.

After easing out of “King of Alabama,” a rootsy but vivid remembrance of songsmith Wayne Mills, who was shot to death in a Nashville bar/barbeque joint, Brent Cobb wound down with guitarist Mike Harris bringing the tune to a wiry electric conclusion. “That’ll do,” Harris remarked. Yes, indeed. It did nicely.

As a warm-up for tonight’s sold out Rupp Arena performance with Chris Stapleton, Cobb offered a nine song in-store set with Harris this afternoon at CD Central that will likely prove, given the modest stage time opening acts are afforded at arena shows, as long as his Rupp outing.

Cobb packed a lot into his 35 minutes at CD Central. The expected priority of in-store shows is to promote new product, which he did with five songs from his splendid 2018 album, “Providence Canyon” that ranged from the hangover prayer “Mornin’s Gonna Come” to a plain-speaking warning to rural intruders called “.30-06.” But the program, brief as it seemed, was loose and unstructured enough for other fine surprises to surface.  Among them, a rewind to “Down in the Gulley” (a wild account from 2016’s “Shine On Rainy Day” of Cobb’s grandfather’s pump house being mistakenly raided as a moonshine distillery), a suitably rustic cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Swamp Music” and even a soundcheck snippet of the oddly nostalgic “Back When Daddy Smoked,” a tune Cobb said he composed the previous evening.

The advantage of an in-store show over an arena outing? In Cobb’s case, it was a chance to examine the striking rural sentiments within his narratives, especially in ballads like “Lorene.” But it was also a kick to hear Harris lightly unload a solo full of blues-savvy soul at the end of “.30-06” that underscored the tune’s rebel heart as well as Cobb’s acoustic accompaniment and Muscle Shoals-style singing.
All in all, a fun, intimate and insightful view of an Americana original. Now, on to the big house.

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