in performance: robert earl keen

robert earl keen.

robert earl keen.

The peculiarity of a songwriter long associated with the musical ways and means of Texas approaching the string music traditions of bluegrass in a Central Kentucky concert hall was not lost on Robert Earl Keen.

“What we do is Ray Price,” he said last night at the Lyric Theatre, referencing to the late Lone Star-born country giant. “So to be doing Bill Monroe up here is a little strange.” With that admission behind him, Keen and his six man band slid into the Monroe classic Footprints in the Snow, one of the cross-generational bluegrass standards featured on his recent Happy Prisoners album. Sure, the show was advertised as a bluegrass event. Yes, the record the concert was promoting was a scrapbook of string music standards spanning multiple decades. But to paraphrase an overworked saying, you can take the bluegrasser out of the Texan, but not the other way around. In other words, Keen’s usual plethora of Lone Star inspirations – the sweeping country melodies, the bittersweet narratives, the suggestions of swing – were all still very much in evidence.

That hardly proved detrimental to the performance, however. In fact, it was refreshing to hear exclusively acoustic instrumentation frame Keen’s songs. Pedal steel guitarist Marty Muse played dobro all evening, guitarist Rich Brotherton and bassist Bill Whitbeck reverted to the unplugged cousins of their usually electric instruments and drummer Tom Van Schaik (“You probably can’t find bluegrass drums in a Kentucky dictionary,” Keen remarked) cooled the percussion artillery to just a single snare and the train-style rhythms it triggered when brushes were applied. Mandolinist Kym Warner and fiddler Brian Beken nicely augmented the troupe.

But the Texas accents were far too pronounced– from Keen’s raconteur-like stage manner to the emotive leap frogging his songs took – for this performance to pass as bluegrass. Luckily, that proved to also be one of the show’s great charms. Keen has always possessed a knack for flipping, often abruptly, the sentiments of his songs with remarkable ease. Last night, his take on Jesse Fuller’s 99 Years (and One Dark Day) transformed the often-covered murder/prison ballad into a surprising chipper acoustic romp capped by an especially spry bass solo from Whitbeck. But the Keen original Not a Drop of Rain was so rich in melancholy, resignation and ghostly ambience that it could have been a product of the Dust Bowl era. Of course, Keen couldn’t help but preface the song with a whimsical reflection of his childhood in the Texas holler known as Bandera (“where any male over the age of 15 had no visible means of support”).

Keen’s most popular works similarly danced along the generous borders the performance established between bluegrass and Texas Americana music, as was the case with Copenhagen (an ode not to the city but to the chewing tobacco) and the woozily dysfunctional sing-a-long Merry Christmas from the Family.

The performance took the red eye back to Lone Star country for the show-closing encore of The Front Porch Song, a tune that still reveled in extended yarn-spinning between verses. With bluegrass now fully at bay, Keen was free to champion the high times and lasting friendships of his college years. Not surprisingly, it was all delivered with the almost romantic candor of an elder song stylist and the honest cheer of a scribe still proudly young at heart.

critic’s pick 301: weather report, ‘the legendary live tapes 1978-1981’

weather report“Legendary” might be a bit much to describe The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981, a new four-disc assemblage of previously unreleased concert recordings from the glory years of jazz-fusion juggernaut Weather Report. But the music, gathered and produced for release by the band’s then-drummer, Peter Erskine, is nonetheless remarkable. Promoting quartet and quintet lineups of the fabled ensemble, it presents fusion music that drives with the bluntness of a rock outfit and swings with the unshakeable groove of a jazz combo but also thrives in the exciting, nebulous areas in between where global and prog inspirations play key roles.

The performances captured on The Legendary Live Tapes come just after group founders Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, along with electric bass renegade Jaco Pastorius, found crossover success with their Heavy Weather album and its unexpected instrumental hit Birdland. Erskine was on board by 1978, when the band temporarily whittled itself down to a quartet.

The quartet performances here are thrilling, from the way the neo-disco groove piloted by Pastorius for River People grows out of the rubbery bass clang of Continuum (on the second disc) to a 1978 version of the pre-Jaco Scarlet Woman (on the fourth disc) that operates as a sonic playground for keyboardist Zawinul’s arsenal of outer space synths and the eerie cosmic starkness of Shorter’s saxophone.

The first and third discs represent the true gems of The Legendary Live Tapes. By adding percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. in early 1980 to re-establish Weather Report as a quintet, the band ignites concert versions of works from two of its most underrated albums – 1979’s 8:30 (a double-vinyl concert record that devoted one side to new studio works) and 1980’s Night Passage.

The 8:30 tune Brown Street (on disc one) avoids the space travel of the rest of the set with a worldbeat groove that has Zawinul chattering away on keyboards under a tenor sax lead by Shorter that sets up a summery profile of Weather Report at its most luminous.

The third disc is devoted exclusively to Night Passage songs, mostly from London concerts in November 1980. All are full of startling variety. Zawinul’s synths blast away like a horn section under the rich swing of Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm while the 18 minute Zawinul original Madagascar is Weather Report at its most ingenious and volcanic, rising from Asian-esque chatter of percussion to a bouncy groove full of crafty runs by Shorter, monstrous fills by Pastorius and wonderful ensemble dynamics.

The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981 doesn’t represent fusion music in any conventional sense. It instead offers powerfully panoramic music indebted to jazz tradition but with ears keenly attuned to the voices and times of the world.

texas bluegrass

robert earl keen.

robert earl keen.

The bio material sent out ahead of Robert Earl Keen’s new bluegrass-based recording Happy Prisoner described the album’s 15 songs (make that 20, should you splurge for the vinyl version) as “untraditionally traditional, Kentucky-by-way-of -Texas music – Lone Star-grass, if you will.”

Now before you start busting up your mandolins over the notion of a cherished Texas songsmith taking a step into the regionally sacred terrain of bluegrass, know that string music has been an integral part of Keen’s evolution as a champion Lone Star song stylist. Sure, his loyal fanbase may know him for such Texas-sized reveries as The Road Goes on Forever, Gringo Honeymoon and Five Pound Bass – songs offering a distinctive slant on Texas-bred honky tonk and Americana that place Keen in the pantheon of such Lone Star giants as Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely and Townes Van Zandt. But one of the seeds to his sound is bluegrass, even though the music wasn’t a secure fit with all the other Texas inspirations that played into his music.

“Actually, it didn’t fit at all,” said Keen, who returns to Lexington for a Thursday performance at the Lyric Theatre. “I just liked it. I was a lone wolf on that deal. I stumbled into bluegrass just from old records that my mom had, like Bill Monroe records and stuff. Then when I went to college, I ran into people that were fiddle players and mandolin players and we dug more and more into bluegrass music as we started playing because country, in that acoustic way, doesn’t speak out as well. So I just became a big fan of the music.

“I think my best story about this, really, comes from when I was16. I got a date with this girl in my neighborhood. It was maybe my first official date and I took her to a bluegrass festival, which was weird. But I always thought there was something important about this music other than the fact that the girl wasn’t so crazy about it.”

More than the rustic acoustic instrumentation, more than even the strong narrative nature of many bluegrass songs that strongly appealed to his songwriting instincts, what appealed most to Keen about bluegrass was the heavily social atmosphere in which it was (and still is) created.

“What I love about it is that you can sit down with a total stranger and they’ll say, ‘Let’s play How Mountain Girls Can Love and five or six other people will chime in, ‘Great. What key do you play that in?’ And you start playing. It’s an incredibly communal music. I can’t think of anything like it other than, maybe, bridge. You get together with people that you don’t know and from many parts of the country. You start playing different songs and people just know them. It’s just a wonderful way to get connected musically and friendship-wise.”

That spirit not only informs the far reaching repertoire on Happy Prisoner – which runs from vintage favorites such as Flatt & Scruggs’ Hot Corn, Cold Corn to comparatively modern fare that includes the Del McCoury via Richard Thompson hit 1952 Vincent Black Lightning – but Keen’s current performances. His Lyric concert this week will be presented in an acoustic bluegrass format with his longrunning road band augmented by mandolinist Kym Warner (from the Austin-based bluegrass/Americana troupe The Greencards) and fiddle player Brian Beken.

“I got to a point where I wasn’t sure if my own songs were relevant or making a difference anymore. So I did this project. Now I have a whole new perspective on my own thoughts, my own playing and how we present our show. It’s been a completely rejuvenating adventure.”

Robert Earl Keen performs at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets: $44.50. Call: (859) 280-2218 or go to Tickets for the originally scheduled July 22 date will be honored.

in performance: the robert cray band

robert cray.

robert cray.

Robert Cray isn’t much of a talker onstage. Last night at the Lyric Theatre, he packed 17 songs from 13 different albums into a very businesslike 100 minute performance that left little room for chat. The concert’s framework didn’t vary much from his other regional outings through the years, either. The guitar tone was spotless, the singing sounded remarkably unblemished by age and the overall sound remained a vital hybrid of blues and Memphis flavored R&B. In short, it was business as usual – which with Cray, was just fine.

Still, Cray slipped a curve ball into his encore with a work titled What Would You Say. It was an original composition from his 2014 album In My Soul (a record dominated by vintage R&B covers) that spoke directly to the here and now. Cray didn’t elaborate on its inclusion in the setlist, but it was difficult not to view the tune as a prayer for peace in light of the Friday terrorist killings in Paris.

“What would you say if we quit waging war and children felt safe?” Cray sang the verse with the soulful delicacy of Otis Redding in one of his more reflective moods. Redding’s spirit popped up several times last night. You heard it in the dub-like drive of Poor Johnny, the Otis Rush-style blues cool of the show-opening I Shiver and the solemnly paced soul affirmation of I Can’t Fail. But on What Would You Say, Cray’s singing was especially comforting. It serviced a moment of pause and reflection that was almost medicinal considering the events of the day. That the song was given such an inconspicuous presence in the performance made it even more powerful.

Outside of that, the show’s emotive highlights centered on Cray’s way with blues ballads. He usually delivers one mammoth ballad per show. Last night, he served up three – I’m Done Cryin’ (where pain was centered not in romantic betrayal but in less glamorous, real life losses of a job and home), The Last Time I Get Burned Like This (a 1985 gem that shoveled betrayal by the bucketload) and Time Makes Two (a smoldering epic for voice and guitar).

Dependable as ever, Cray didn’t disappoint. While a few of the decimated hearts populating his songs were dealing with a more worldly pain last night, Cray’s musical comfort proved as resolute and effective as ever.

critic’s pick 300: billy gibbons, ‘perfectamundo’

bill gibbonsDigging into Billy Gibbons’ debut solo album Perfectamundo is akin to driving down deep Southern highways during the wee hours when the car radio is apt to pick up multiple stations on the same frequency.

You hear ‘50s and ‘60s rhythm and blues rooted in the B3 organ grooves of Jimmy McGriff. Intruding on that is the blues, but the structures sound all funky as they get criss-crossed with Latino jazz and Afro-Cuban percussion. But just as soon as you think the mix is decidedly retro, in pop accents of hip-hop, dance floor techno and assorted studio trickery that takes the music through multiple time warps.

Above it all, of course, is guitar. It’s immediately recognizable – the crunchy, fuzzy and combustible fretwork Gibbons has popularized over the past 45 years with his day-job band, ZZ Top. The sound is familiar yet displaced, which seems to be the general point of Perfectamundo.

What Gibbons has done on this workman’s holiday of an album is take the borderline boogie ZZ Top has specialized in for so long and expand upon it. That’s not to say the Texas trio wasn’t capable of variety. Its shamefully overlooked 2003 album Mescalero was a owner’s manuel of primal Mexicali-inspired rock and soul. Perfectamundo, though, lightens the load and widens the instrumental scope to where percussion and B3 are as integral to the music as guitar and Gibbons’ elder hipster vocals. But you still sense the blues within the lean grooves that sprout out of the heart of these tunes.

The album opens by appropriating a pair of battle tested boogie classics – the 1957 Slim Harpo rumble Got Love If You Want It and the 1965 Roy Head hit Treat Her Right. Both have been covered scores of times through the decades, but here they serve to introduce the Perfectamundo sound – a sleekly rhythmic dance formula both elegant and erotic punctuated by guitar and B3 but with percussion setting the tone. That’s where the album pretty much stays. There are a few ultra modern embellishments, like the chant-style rapping of bassist of Alx “Guitarzza” Garza on three songs and the neo-disco momentum of Hombre Sin Hombre.

A tasty variation, though, surfaces on Sal Y Pimiento. In many ways, the tune is as elemental as its title (it’s Spanish for “salt and pepper”) with a celebratory piano roll at the core and guitar turns from Gibbons that are surprisingly jazz-like.

The tip-off to what awaits on Perfectamundo is the album cover art – a mug of Gibbons minus his trademark shades but with his Father Time beard and a wary expression in his eyes in full view. It’s as if he is daring us to a take a leap into this new musical brew. But fear not. This is a worthwhile plunge.

the cray way

robert cray.

robert cray.

After four decades of playing the blues, Robert Cray decided it was time for a celebration. So instead of adding to a remarkably prolific library of studio recordings, the Grammy winning guitarist and vocalist decided to put the current version of the band that bears his name onstage with a few friends at four different Los Angeles venues and record the whole run.

But given the milestone that inspired the shows, Cray also wanted to offer a glimpse of where his band had been. So the resulting concert album, 4 Nights of 40 Years Live, additionally sported a second disc of performances from 1982 (before the band won over the fanbase that made Cray the most commercially visible “new” bluesman of his generation) and 1987 (after the Strong Persuader album established Cray as a star). Completing that package would be a DVD offering video footage from concerts featured on the two CDs along with commentary by a few of Cray’s pals – namely, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Jimmie Vaughan.

Combined, the three discs make 4 Nights of 40 Years Live as monumental an album release as its title suggests.

“Well, we were celebrating 40 years last year,” Cray said. “I was talking with my manager and Steve Jordan, who produced the record (as well as Cray’s 2014 studio release In My Soul and two earlier recordings). We came up with the concept, which was to try and let people know a little bit about us and give them a little bit of personality – the kind of thing you don’t really hear on most records and CDs. We just wanted to show them a little bit of what it has been like for the band over the last 40 years.”

The first disc boasts a repertoire that runs from the title tune to Cray’s 1983 album Bad Influence to the David Porter/Issac Hayes classic You’re Good Thing is About to End first cut by the guitarist on the vintage R&B-leaning In My Soul. There are also guests, including Jordan (on drums and percussion), Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds (the famed Texas band whose mid ‘80s commercial breakthrough largely coincided with Cray’s), harmonica ace Lee Oskar and a three man horn team. (names cq)

But the big thrill is hearing the current Cray Band lineup – keyboardist Dover Weinberg (whose initial tenure with the band dates back to the’70s), bassist Richard Cousins (another longstanding member that left the ranks but returned) and a comparatively new recruit, drummer Les Falconer. (names cq)

“This lineup is great,” Cray said. “Richard has been back in the fold since 2008. Dover, of course, was around in the early days. The three of us go way back and share a lot of the same tastes in music, whether it be gospel, blues, jazz, country – everything like that. When we get together and start playing, we automatically know where everybody is going to go. Les has a background of playing with a lot of other people in the past we enjoy. That’s what makes this unit really strong. It’s always important to have some kind of commonality between the players.”

Such chemistry is also evident of the second disc of earlier recordings – especially the tunes pulled from an appearance on the Dutch television program Countdown in 1987, the same year Strong Persuader picked up a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording. The win cemented a period when enormous commercial and critical attention came Cray’s way. Much of it, curiously, viewed the guitarist as a new artist.

“Well, the attention that came out of all that was fantastic,” Cray said. “But like you mentioned, we weren’t new when Strong Persuader came out. That record was released in ’86 and we had been a band since ’74. It was just funny hearing yourself on the radio.

“By that time, we were basically playing in clubs and doing 200-plus shows a year anyway. We didn’t think we would be able to do any more work with the record’s popularity than what we were already doing. The gigs got bigger, the traveling became heavier. But you know what? We were able to handle it.”

The Robert Cray Band performs Nov. 14 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets: $46.50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to

three nights of guitar stars

billy gibbons will perform at the opera house on jan. 22.

billy gibbons will perform at the opera house on jan. 22.

It’s a good season for guitar lovers. The Troubadour Concert Series is seeing to that with a trio of major performances that will run through the winter.

The first comes up this weekend. Grammy winning bluesman Robert Cray returns to the Lyric Theatre on Saturday fronting one of the strongest lineups of his longrunning Robert Cray Band. Cray himself will check in with The Musical Box to discuss his new 4 Nights of 40 Years Live album and more. We’ll post his remarks on Friday (7 p.m., $46.50).

The big news is the just announced Jan. 22 concert at the Opera House by Billy Gibbons and the BFGs. Gibbons, of course, is the guitar voice of the titan Texas trio ZZ Top, but this marks his first regional appearance as a solo artist and his first Lexington show of any kind in over two decades. Expect the music to lean to the Latin and Afro-Cuban sounds of his new Perfectamundo album (7:30 p.m., $65.50).

Finally, we have another returnee – Warren Haynes. Chieftain of Gov’t Mule, alumnus of the Allman Brothers Band and a prolific collaborator with numerous artists in scores of styles, the guitarist will be promoting progressive roots and neo-bluegrass songs of his recent Ashes and Dust album on Feb. 27 at the Opera House (7:30 p.m., $44.50).

Tickets for the Gibbons and Haynes concerts go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. through Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 and as well as through the Lexington Center Ticket Office at (859) 233-3535.

allen toussaint, 1938-2015

allen toussaint.

allen toussaint.

A few winters ago – late January of 2011, to be exact – I was burning the final hours of a short New York trip by having brunch at Joe’s Pub, a popular haunt affixed to The Public Theatre that operated primarily as a nightclub. This day, however, Allen Toussaint quietly took the stage as a winter sun lit up a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.

Over the decades, Toussaint has been many things – a champion songwriter, a vanguard R&B stylist, a heralded producer/arranger and one of New Orleans’ foremost musical ambassadors. On this day, though, he was alone at the piano offering stories and songs from an extraordinary career. In such a setting, works like Freedom for the Stallion, A Certain Girl, Holy Cow and even a few non-original favorites like St. James Infirmary were performed with the kind of soul, ease and confidence only a scholarly elder like Toussaint could summon.

In true show business fashion, though, he saved his greatest party piece for the end of the show – a near 10 minute version of Southern Nights. Pop audiences probably recognize the tune through the hit version Glen Campbell delivered to radio in 1975. But in the hands of its composer, Southern Nights turned impressionistic. It was a love song, a lullaby and an elegy all rolled into one but played with an understated, contemplative joy. The performance will forever by my favorite remembrance of Toussaint and his astounding music.

Toussaint died yesterday at the age of 77 of a heart attack following a concert in Madrid. His departure completes a mammoth chapter of American musical history that runs from early pop hits like Fortune Teller to ‘70s-era Crescent City funk to a string of final recordings that included the Elvis Costello collaboration The River in Reverse (2006) , the predominantly instrumental Joe Henry-produced The Bright Mississippi (2009) and the career retrospective concert album Songbook (2013). The latter chronicled another Joe’s Pub show.

The venue served as a performance home for the pianist for several years. He had resettled in New York after floods in the wake of Hurricane Katrina engulfed his New Orleans studio and home. If anything, the disaster only heightened his pride and faith in the city.

“I’m proud to be one of the senders,” he told me in an interview promoting the benefit album I Believe to My Soul of the love generated for his ravaged homeland. “But I’m a receiver, as well.”

critic’s pick 299: van morrison, ‘astral weeks’ and ‘his band and the street choir’

astral weeksYou can easily envision the jaws dropping in the Warner Brothers boardroom when Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s heralded 1968 debut for the label, was unveiled. Here was the Irish expatriate that had floored global audiences a year earlier with the radio smash Brown Eyed Girl. But Astral Weeks revealed a songsmith that sang like a Memphis soul renegade prone to gospel-esque fervor and wrote like a Belfast folk mystic. Where was the pop star? Where was the single?

Upon its release, Astral Weeks was dead on arrival commercially, but it created a firestorm of critical praise and set Morrison up for the record that finally established him as a star troubadour – 1970’s Moondance.

Astral Weeks has just been given the grand re-issue treatment – a sparkling new mix, the addition of primo unreleased takes from the original sessions and insightful liner notes that outline how Morrison was even able to make his way to Warners after a recording contract with Bang Records left his then-young career in shambles.

Released concurrently with the record is Morrison’s third Warners album, His Band and the Street Choir, which gets the same royal dust off.

We won’t rehash Astral Week’s greatness here. Instead, we will make note of the four alternate tracks that constitute the bonus material. At the head of class is the initial studio take of Beside You, a blast of Irish romanticism sung with an epic soul stride. Though not quite as unrelenting as the originally released version, it’s close. It is also a riot to hear producer Lewis Merenstein refer to the tune – jokingly, one presumes, during introductory studio banter – as “the single.”

Also of note is an unedited version of the album’s final track, Slim Slow Slider, a stark, folkish vigil that surrounds its mournful core with a deceptively summery (and decidedly jazz like) dressing. This bonus version, however, sports a forgotten coda that turns the tune into a requiem.

his band and the street choirThe vastly more soul and groove inspired His Band and the Street Choir was released in 1970, a mere 10 months after Moondance (which got the reissue treatment last year). It is an altogether looser affair bolstered by the popularity of two radio hits, Domino and Blue Money.

The new edition comes with five alternate takes, most of which don’t vary dramatically from their finalized renditions. A modest exception is I’ve Been Working, which shifts its groove to a jazzier flow more reminiscent of Booker T. and the MGs.

The bottom line, though, is these two splendid records are again in a spotlight where they might hopefully find a newer, younger audience. Eventually, Morrison’s entire Warners catalogue, which stretched into the early’80s, will be reissued. But Astral Weeks and His Band and the Street Choir keep the ball rolling by bridging Morrison’s poetic Irish instincts with richly American rhythm. The resulting sound remains glorious.

in performance : storm large

storm large.

storm large.

After quickly professing her love for the Bluegrass, Storm Large greeted a Kentucky Theatre crowd last night by purposely pinching a nerve.

“Hear you have a new governor,” she said cheerfully. “How’s that going for you?”

When a collective audience groan greeted her query, the singer snapped to attention and made clear who was in charge for evening.

“Hey! There will no booing at the beginning of the show.”

Thus was set in motion a cabaret style performance of broadly re-imagined pop covers, acerbic yet reflective original tunes and a level of bawdy humor that often seemed traditional in a speakeasy kind of way. But most of all, there were the vocals – an arsenal of rich, robustly clear singing munitions that were alternately serene, romantic and rocking. Large’s voice was exactly that – huge and commanding with a range she glided up and down from with natural ease and a sense of dramatic flair that was theatrical in design but always emotively honest in delivery.

Large opened with a musical warning of sorts – a slice of unapologetic and strangely affirmative reflection titled Call Me Crazy. “Call me psycho,” she stated with jazz like intimacy. “Because I am.”

In a wild streak that typlified the program’s rollercoaster pace, Large followed with a pair of Cole Porter gems retooled for the modern age. I’ve Got You Under My Skin was goosed with an earthy defiance as well as a generous nod to Large’s rock ‘n’ roll roots while It’s Alright With Me became a jubilant bit of tambourine shaking fun with a vocal charge as animated as it was strikingly clear.

The song selection navigated through numerous stylistic waters throughout the rest of the 95 minute program from a decidedly non-diminutive version of the Grease classic Hopelessly Devoted to You (or, as the singer tagged it, “Grease meets Carrie”) to the after hours cocktail arrangement of the country murder ballad Long Black Veil to the wonderfully torchy treatment to the 1967 Jacques Brel by-way-of Dusty Springfield hit If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas).

Of course, Large was as much a raconteur as a powerhouse vocalist. A self-described “sailor mouthed” humorist, she offered ruminations on true romance (“If the cops weren’t called, you weren’t really into each other”) and the taboos of modern language. The latter helped set up 8 Miles Wide, a tune of anatomical pride “in the pants area” that countered any possibility of offense with operatic vocal blasts that made the humor all the more wicked.

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