in performance: los lonely boys

Los Lonely Boys. From left, Henry Garza, Ringo Garza and Jojo Garza.

The club shows that introduced Los Lonely Boys to Lexington some 15 years ago were exhibitions of bluesy, electric exuberance – three brothers out of San Angelo, Texas serving up hearty power trio guitar rock with the spirits of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan never far from view. What it perhaps lacked then in invention was compensated for with boundless performance vigor.

On Wednesday night, before a sold out crowd at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the brothers Garza – guitarist Henry, six string bassist Jojo and drummer Ringo (seriously, that his name) – delivered a set that, if anything, packed an even greater sense of affirmation and energy. But the difference this time was how securely the trio had found its rock, blues and soul sea legs. This was a band fascinated with the possibilities of power trio voltage, its own Chicano heritage and the sheer joy of stage performance. Though brief (the show barely clocked past 70 minutes), it possessed a level of drive and freshness that, frankly, was a little unexpected.

The Garzas threw down their psychedelic cards before the crowd at the show’s onset by opening with a searing cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.” Henry Garza embraced the tune’s killer bayou guitar riff, but dragged it over to Texas terrain, making it more bluesy than swampy. Jojo Garza wisely avoided John Fogerty’s gutbucket vocal lead from the song’s original 1968 version, supplanting it instead with a rich, rootsy shout and an occasional cultural shift in the lyrics (“I can still hear my chihuahua barking”).

Henry and Jojo split lead vocal duties as the program tore through four consecutive tunes from the most recent Los Lonely Boys album, 2014’s “Revelation.” Here is where the band’s stylistic breadth came into play. “Don’t Walk Away” and “Blame It on Love” incorporated just enough of a pop flourish (especially within the percussive Latin strut of the latter) to make Los Lonely Boys sound vastly more orchestrated than a conventional power trio. Ditto for the funk accents, especially in Jojo’s bass work, that fueled “Give a Little More” and the lighter paced, conga-flavored groove of “So Sensual.”

But there was still ample guitar fire from Henry to keep the show moving at a solid, rocking pace, from the intriguing Santana-like coda to “I Never Met a Woman” to the bass and drum-led jam that ignited a giddy cover of the Steve Winwood staple “I’m a Man.”

The evening concluded with the band’s breakthrough 2004 hit “Heaven.” Here, 15 year old Ringo Garza Jr (the drummer’s son) joined in, playing guitar confidently with his dad and uncles, adding to a pop-soul vibe already inherent in the tune.

It was a telling moment, as the three elder Garzas got their professional start decades earlier under the tutelage of their father. Sewing a family thread into music that has grown richer over time enforced the only false aspect of Los Lonely Boys – its name. The communal spirit revealed last night was way too fun and inviting for anyone at the Lyric to feel like they were even remotely alone.

in performance: mumford & sons/cat power

Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons performing Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Matt Goins.

The dichotomy sitting within the music of Mumford & Sons revealed itself the moment the lights went down Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.

After a preshow arsenal of vintage soul favorites from Aretha Franklin, The Contours and The Four Tops blasted through the venue to put the crowd of 8,500 in a celebratory mood, Marcus Mumford and an expanded eight member version of the British pop-folk brigade took to the stage with the first two tunes from their recent “Delta” album. The songs, “42” and “Guiding Light,” quickly iced over the any impending party mood with an atmospheric disparity that was rather chilling.

The two works are essentially companion pieces. The first seeks a path out of darkness, the second finds it. It was an opening that left the Rupp crowd transfixed, seated and somewhat deflated.

But then the party started. With “Little Lion Man,” Mumford & Sons turned back the calendar a full decade to the stomping, folk-informed pop sound rich with fiddle and banjo that first opened the world’s ears to the British band. The audience shot to its feet as if a switch had been thrown.

The band shuffled back and forth between regions of dark and light for the rest of the performance. The latter mostly won out, whether it was through the more elegiac and acoustic inclined “Beloved,” the drummer-less rhythmic drive of “Roll Away Your Stone” or those more rocking instances where Mumford and banjoist Winston Marshall opted for electric guitars, as during the high voltage charge of “Believe.”

Perhaps the most fascinating blend of the two extremes surfaced during “Picture You,” which blew in with synthesized layers of finger popping cool before yielding to the full ensemble charge of “Snake Eyes.”

This was a visually arresting performance. Presented in the round (well, actually on a rectangular stage in the middle of the rectangular Rupp floor), it allowed the band to perform under two massive banks of lights that regularly descended near the stage like probing spaceships.

But the staging also allowed for intimacy. During an encore set, the band gathered around a single microphone for a brief set highlighted by the almost gospel-esque “Sister” that revealed Mumford & Sons at its most appealing and familial.

Mumford proved utility man of the evening, as well. Aside from diverting to drums and percussion for a few tunes, he also sat in for roughly one-third of a fascinating opening set by Chan Mitchell, better known by her professional nom de plume of Cat Power.

A recording artist for over two decades, Mitchell still plays with the wonderment – and, at times, distance – of a hopeful newcomer. The set opening “Cross Bones Style” and later entries such as “Robbin Hood” were wrapped in a spacious electric wash for which her vocals operated more as an additional color as opposed to a lead voice. Singing often with two microphones and wandering in and out of stage shadows, Mitchell echoed the dark chanteuse ambience of artists like Nico while her songs were seldom inhibited by standard verse/chorus structure. They instead unfolded more as ongoing meditations.

There were curious elements of accessibility thrown in, like snippets of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and the folk staple “He Was a Friend of Mine.” Similarity, Mumford’s extended cameo brought a broader pop palette to original works like “Manhattan” while offering a hint of the dark/light dichotomy the evening’s headliners would soon explore in detail.

in performance: ross whitaker

Ross Whitaker.

Approximating the jazz tone and temperament of John Scofield is no easy task. One of the most versed and recognizable jazz guitarists of the past four decades, his electric playing cruises effortlessly through bop, blues, funk and fusion but isn’t afraid to dig into dark corners during the ride. That’s why underneath all the lyrical candor in Scofield’s music sits a restlessness that toys with tempo and phrasing to create a sense of woozy fascination. Then again, when a tunes calls for it, his playing can tear like a torpedo through the mightiest senses of swing and groove.

Lexington guitarist Ross Whitaker took it upon himself to explore and interpret a sizable chunk of Scofield’s catalog – 32 years’ worth, to be exact – for an Origins Jazz Series concert Saturday evening at Tee Dee’s Bluegrass Progressive Lounge. The results offered a musical overview that was as complimentary to Scofield’s stylistic breadth as it was comprehensive.

To his credit, Whitaker didn’t rush the music or force its intent. Scofield has never been intrigued with flash or speed. As such Whitaker, took his time in offering a faithful take on Scofield’s high, wiry tone. It unfolded with modestly aggressive but abundantly playful clarity on “I’ll Take Les,” coalesced for the more outwardly boppish “Eisenhower” and eased for the gentler, bossa nova-flavored “Keep Me in Mind.”

Working with tenor saxophonist Doug Drewek and trumpeter/cornetist Sam Flowers helped color the more expansive extremes of the concert, from the hushed phrasing of “Still Warm” (a tune that reached back to a 1986 Scofield album of the same name) to the blues/soul lullaby “Uncle Southern” (the performance’s newest entry, coming from Scofield’s 2018 recording “Combo 66”).

Then there were times Whitaker’s patiently paced musicianship openly embraced groove. On “Hottentot,” one of Scofield’s numerous collaborations with the avant funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood, the bounce in his playing turned more jagged as the ensemble sound became more rhythmic. Since horns didn’t figure into Scofield’s original version, it was both refreshing and inventive to hear them play off the composition’s central guitar hooks so readily. The jovial sound that resulted sounded less like Medeski Martin & Wood and more like James Brown.

 

in performance: los lobos

Los Lobos. From left: Conrad Lozano, David Hidalgo, Steve Berlin, Cesar Rosas and Louie Perez. Photo courtesy of Paradigm Music Library.

Now here is an audience cheer you don’t often encounter at your everyday rock ‘n’ roll show.

“Everybody cumbia!”

That was the invitation from guitarist Cesar Rosas as Los Lobos headed into the home stretch of a jubilant career overview concert Thursday evening at Manchester Music Hall.

Of course, with Los Lobos, even seemingly foreign sounds as cumbia are no more presented as novelties than they are as purist reflections of musical tradition. As such, the Columbian dance rhythms at the heart of “Chuco’s Cumbia” mingled with shades of rockish psychedelia, courtesy of the myriad guitar voicings of Lobos co-frontman David Hidalgo and the boppish glee of baritone saxophonist Steve Berlin. So, in short, expecting an audience to break into cumbia-inspired dance was as unlikely as it was thinking Los Lobos wouldn’t liberally borrow from a pantry full of ethnic accents.

Ironically, the 90 minute set began on pretty traditional terms with the same four players that began Los Lobos in 1973 – Rosas, Hidalgo, Louie Perez and Conrad Lozano – taking to the stage alone with a sampler of acoustic tunes that accelerated from the brisk and brittle Mexican folk stride of the show opening “Canto A Veracruz” to the Tex Mex drive of “Mexico Americano” with Berlin and drummer Bugs González entering the lineup.

From there the cross pollination began as the show turned to rock ‘n’ roll. Rosas piloted the giddy, roots-savvy “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” while Hildalgo took charge on a majestically orchestral “Angel Dance” as well as a keenly noir-flavored “Kiko and the Lavender Moon”.

A few kindred inspirations were also channeled. A set closing cover of the Grateful Dead staple “Bertha” surrendered fully to jamming instincts revealed more sparingly earlier in the performance, while the hit 1987 cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” (presented as a festive mash-up encore with the vintage Rascals hit “Good Lovin’”) offered the band’s most recognizable and accessible nod to its Latin heritage.

It was all good fun, even though everyone onstage – save for the continually grinning Lozano – looked like pokerfaced dads as they played. But don’t judge Los Lobos by its stage presence. All you needed to hear was the block party pairing of the Tex Mex romps “Anselma” and “Let’s Say Goodnight” late in the set to understand just how hard at play these rocking patriarchs truly were.

in performance: james taylor/bonnie raitt

Bonnie Raitt. Photo by Marina Chavez

Even the headliner at Rupp Arena knew who really ruled the evening.

As he got down to business on Wednesday with a near-two hour, hits-laden show full of sublime and unavoidably sentimental tunes spanning over five decades, James Taylor remarked to the audience of 7,200 that one of the greatest pleasures of his nearly-concluded tour was watching his co-billed pal Bonnie Raitt “steal the show every night.”

Count Rupp as one of those nights. Oh, nothing against Sweet Baby James. At age 70, he still exuded a good-natured folk-pop exuberance that serviced tunes as varied as the show opening reverie “Carolina in My Mind” and the tropically jovial “Mexico.” His vocal work – with a few rare, reedy exceptions – has aged remarkably well, too, as did his way with an orchestrally inclined 11-member band that included, get this, a pair of champion Frank Zappa alums (drummer Chad Wackerman and trumpeter Walt Fowler).

But the divine Ms. Raitt – who, amazingly, was making her Rupp debut – took this night home in her hip pocket. At 69, her vocals revealed a regal glow, assimilating, as they have throughout her career, a balance of blues, soul and rock ‘n’ smarts. Similarly, her guitar work – a gorgeous, slide-savvy tone that ignited the set opening “Unintended Consequence of Love” – would serve as rocket fuel throughout the concert.

The sheer scope of what Raitt packed into her hour-long performance was, frankly, astounding. It ran from a slow, swampy revamping of the INXS hit “Need You Tonight” and a solo acoustic blues reading of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” to a cool but decidedly torchy take on her own 1991 hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

But the showstopper was clearly “Angel from Montgomery,” the John Prine classic Raitt is largely responsible for introducing to the world (she recorded it in 1974, three years after Prine, but before many audiences were familiar with the song). She gave it a solemn but emotive delivery draped with a kind of tasteful world weariness that yielded a sense of scholarly humanity.

There was also an obvious level of camaraderie between Raitt and Taylor at the show. Taylor began the evening with an extended and heartfelt introduction of Raitt that nicely set the pace for the program’s overall charm that carried over into segments when the two artists sat in on each other’s sets at their conclusions – Taylor during Raitt’s career re-defining take on John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” and Raitt as a co-pilot for Taylor’s encore segment that blasted off with a jovial reading of “Johnny B. Goode.”

Again, don’t get the idea that Raitt’s triumph demeaned Taylor’s showing. His set offered a few nice setlist surprises early on – namely, 1970’s “Sunny Skies,” the autumnal title tune to 1974’s overlooked “Walking Man” album and the fatherly snapshot “First of May” (one of the only tunes in the set to venture beyond the ‘70s).

But it was with two very familiar 1970 works, played back-to-back late in the show, that the emotive extremes of Taylor’s writing came into view.

The first, “Sweet Baby James,” remained a quiet anthem of child-like expression, a cowboy lullaby that unfolded with still-vital innocence. After that came “Fire and Rain,” Taylor’s career-making single – a curiosity, given how the song is a eulogy full of blunt sadness that the singer communicated at Rupp with conversational reserve. In the end, that just made the musical impact all the more devastating.

 

down the road from renfro: dale ann bradley returns to the kentucky music hall of fame

Dale Ann Bradley.

Dale Ann Bradley recalled the first thing she did upon being informed of her 2018 induction to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. She cried. Simple as that. Then she cried some more.

“I think I cried for a couple of days there,” said the five-time International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year who returns to the Hall of Fame in Mount Vernon for a concert this weekend. “I don’t know if I could even describe what it was like.

“You think about these things growing up in the hollers. You think, ‘Well, someday, I’d like to play the (Grand Ole) Opry. Someday, I’d like to make a little 45 record. You don’t really think it will happen, but you can dream about it. So for things to happen to me, such as being in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, I don’t know. I feel blessed because Kentucky artists are special. All of them show what the state has to offer. When you’re describing that in writing or music, it shows the deep sense of faith and endurance that this area has had through the years.”

The Hall of Fame performance will cover where Bradley’s career has been and, more importantly, where it is headed.

The past is referenced by the fact the Hall of Fame is located just down the road from Renfro Valley, the long running performance venue where Bradley, who grew up between Pineville and Harlan (“just off 119”), cut her professional teeth before beginning a six year stay as a member of the New Coon Creek Girls.

“This concert will be a coming home party in a lot of ways because it’s been so many years, other than the induction, since I’ve been a part of anything going on there. There is no price tag to put on the time that I’ve spent at Renfro Valley. Had I not had that place to work on my music and my friendships, I don’t know what I would have done. It definitely is precious to me. I think it’s a precious place in Kentucky. I hope people will take a look at what Renfro Valley has done for country music, folk music, bluegrass music and gospel music.”

But the Hall of Fame show also marks the start of the next chapter in Bradley’s career. It will help launch the promotion of a new album, “The Hard Way,” which is set for release on March 22. Like so many of her solo recordings, “The Hard Way” is highly traditional in its string band sound but diverse in terms of source material.

From one corner comes an update of the 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit “Ode to Billy Joe” that retains the original version’s stark narrative potency in outlining the lingering effects of a rural suicide. Then we have “Pretty Dark Hearted Emma Brown,” a work co-penned by Bradley and her brother that fits securely into the Appalachian corral of dark balladry defined by greats like Ralph Stanley. Finally, there is an update of “Ripple,” a Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter classic from the 1970 Grateful Dead album “American Beauty” that underscores that band’s often neglected folk and bluegrass ancestry.

“Their ties to bluegrass were huge,” Bradley said. “I think the Grateful Dead took it to a big percentage of audiences all over the world. What you got was real in Garcia’s playing and Bob s writing. That song is so deep, so spiritually deep. From the time I was a little kid, when I first heard it, I would cry. Then I got to listening to the lyrics and really saw how they fit into a spiritual life. I’ve designated that song to be played at my funeral. I want it to be kind of my epitaph.”

Bradley emphasizes that no one needs to count on hearing “Ripple” in such a setting anytime soon. With a career that has earned her a pair of Grammy nominations as a solo artist (for 2015’s “Pocket Full of Keys”) and as a band member (for the sophomore album by the all-star female bluegrass collective Sister Sadie), Bradley plans to be an active bluegrass ambassador for years to come. But that role has also reaffirmed a few life lessons along the way.

“I feel like, in this last decade, I have really found the desire to do what I feel like we’re here to do, which is to love and be kind. Maybe walk in somebody else’s shoes just a little bit there and you might be able to help them and certainly not push them down. That’s what’s come full circle for me – knowing that those are the right things.”

Dale Ann Bradley performs at 7 p.m. March 1 at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 2590 Richmond St. in Mount Vernon. Tickets: $20, $30. Call 606-256-1000 or go to eventbrite.com.

live from berlin, it’s los lobos

Los Lobos: Conrad Lozano, Steve Berlin, Louie Perez, David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas.

What sound or reflection is revealed when you think of Los Lobos?

Is it the fervent roots-driven rock ‘n’ roll behind the “How Will the Wolf Survive?” album that broke the East Los Angeles band through to a national audience in 1984? Maybe it was the cover of the 1958 Latin-fortified Richie Valens hit “La Bamba” that Los Lobos made a radio staple again in 1987. Perhaps you picture the band’s love of Latin-based music, from Mexican folk tunes to fully realized cumbias and Tex Mex romps. Then again it could be the electric fare it gleefully warps with a discreet dash of psychedelia.

Truth to tell, it’s a little of all that, coupled with a band spirit that has the three-time Grammy-winning Los Lobos still running with its original membership intact and a sense of musical diplomacy that makes its myriad stylistic preferences work within one massively expansive ensemble sound.

“I’d like to think everybody feels like they have ownership and input,” said Los Lobos keyboardist and saxophonist Steve Berlin. “I know I do. That’s one way to keep things alive, where nobody gets upset about not having their voice heard. It’s always been a very collegial atmosphere. Nobody in Los Lobos gets persnickety about ownership. That’s one way to keep a band together for so long.

Berlin is, in essence, the “new guy” in Los Lobos with an affiliation of a mere 35 years. He co-produced the band’s first two major label recordings, the 1983 EP “…And a Time to Dance” and the aforementioned “How Will the Wolf Survive?” with a then little known T Bone Burnett, becoming a full-time band member with David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Louie Perez in 1984.

“It was definitely an adjustment on a lot of levels,” Berlin said of joining. “I had never played any Latin music at all, so there was a little bit of a learning curve. But that was the fun part. I got to open and enter a world I knew very little of that became the story of the rest of my life.”

With the exception of a few auxiliary changes in the drum seat, which was vacated when Perez switched from percussion to guitar in the early ‘90s, the Los Lobos roster has not changed since Berlin came on board. Its music, however, has bloomed in numerous directions. While “La Bamba” may remain at the core of the band’s commercial appeal, its recording catalogue has been critically lauded through the years, especially on comparatively recent albums like 2010’s “Tin Can Trust” and its most recent work, 2015’s “Gates of Gold.”

“I’m proud of everything,” Berlin said of Los Lobos’ album output. “We’ve kept a pretty high standard of quality through the years. There are always ups and downs, as there are with anything, but I feel very good about what we do. I can’t say I spend a lot of time listening to our records, but I’ll be someplace and somebody will put one on and I’ll think to myself, ‘That sounds pretty good.’”

When asked if he had a personal favorite among the recordings, Berlin cited 1996’s “Colossal Head.” It was the second of three albums co-produced in the ‘90s by Mitchell Froom and served as the band’s final release for Warner Bros. Records. Los Lobos came into recording sessions after composing an exhaustive amount of music for the soundtrack to the 1995 Robert Rodriguez film “Desperado.”

“We were empty,” Berlin said. “We didn’t really have any material because of the way Robert makes movies. For an hour-and-a-half long movie, he wants three hours of music. I’m not kidding. That’s just the way he likes to operate. He effectively sucked us dry, so we were in the recording studio with nothing. No songs. No ideas. David said, and I remember this very clearly, ‘Well, what would (blues legend) Jimmy Reed do?’ And we just kind of went from there. That whole record was about little riffs that turned into something without really thinking about it. We were responding to the moment.”

For its current tour, Los Lobos is presenting a career overview of sorts. Through the years, it has toured as either an electric unit centered largely on rock and psychedelic leaning music or as an acoustic group with heavier focus on Latin roots inspirations. Since last fall, it has been designing concert sets that offer both.

“We still rock pretty hard when the situation demands it and keep things quiet when the situation calls for that. I think for a bunch of guys in their 60s, we do pretty well.”

Los Lobos performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 28 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $30-$65. Call 859-537-7321 or go to manchestermusichall.com.

in performance: dierks bentley/jon pardi/tenille townes/hot country knights

Dierks Bentley. Photo by Jim Wright.

Perhaps the most concise way of summarizing Dierks Bentley’s return concert to Rupp Arena on Thursday evening is by viewing it as a set of before and after portraits.

The “before” image was the least telling of the two. It came at the stroke of 7 p.m. when the country star donned a mullet wig, ‘80s style shades and a bit of an amateur hour/lounge lizard stage persona. Here, Bentley transformed himself into the hapless Doug Douglasson, lead singer of a cover band called Hot Country Knights with a repertoire that stuck to ‘90s era country hits like Travis Tritt’s “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and Sawyer Brown’s “Some Girls Do.”

What transpired was fun and very purposeful deconstruction with Bentley… er, Douglasson… and pals squabbling for the spotlight and high-stepping through some imploding chorus line choreography. It was half Louvin Brothers and half Marx Brothers, but mostly an intriguing (and quite rare) glimpse of a country celebrity willing to let loose and poke fun at himself.

The “after” shot arrived at 9:30 when Bentley, sans the hijinks and costuming, got down to business with an energetic set that emphasized the anthemic and affirmative lyrical bent of his last five albums.

The show-opening “Burning Man” set the mood with layers of syncopated ensemble might, a tasteful vocal roar from Bentley and orchestral guitar color from Brownsville native Ben Helson that would regularly propel much of the program’s drive.

At times, Bentley and his band allowed the lyrical sway of his narratives to trigger some of the show’s more intriguing instrumental passages, as with the brief but arresting bluegrass-esque breakdown that concluded “The Mountain.” In other instances, the lyrics triggered conversational turns in Bentley’s singing, especially during the back-to-back affirmations “Living” (his newest single) and “Riser.”

That’s not to say these “after” images didn’t loosen things up at times. “Am I Only One,” in fact, was sung with Bentley walking the length of the arena floor, slapping hands with some of the 5,200 fans on hand, while enroute to a second stage late into the show. The party material didn’t slide into country convention, save for “Somewhere on a Beach,” a weirdly conciliatory nod to Kenny Chesney-like pop. Other than that, the mullet-wearing class clown and the affirmative yet assertive country star managed an impressive balancing act.

Sandwiched between Bentley’s sets were performances by California singer Jon Pardi and Canadian newcomer Tenille Townes.

Pardi had a rough night. His performance was fine – a strong slab of electric honky tonk tunes (“Night Shift,” “Paycheck” and the new “Heartache Medicine”) highlighted by an assured, if not entirely distinctive vocal command. Musically, it was a more focused and traditionally accented outing than Pardi’s opening set for Miranda Lambert a year ago at Rupp. But onstage sound problems, which did not seem evident from the audience, got the better of the singer, causing him to tear out his ear monitors, blast the set as “probably the worst performance of the tour” (an estimation he later rescinded and apologized for) and even halt his show momentarily.

Townes took to Rupp with a big beat and even bigger bell bottoms for the electric “White Horse.” Her brief set reflected a voice that sounded more the product of ‘90s alternative pop than contemporary country (think Blind Melon had it come from Nashville). But the mix was appealing nonetheless, from the good-natured cheer of “I’m Gonna Find You” and “Where You Are” to the cautious professions of faith revealed within the eulogy of “Jersey on the Wall.” “If I ever get to heaven,” Townes sang in the latter tune, “I got a long list of questions.”

grammy post mortem 2019

Alicia Keys and Michelle Obama at the Grammy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Unlike the Grammy Awards, we know how to keep a lid on things. We have limited our annual post mortem of the three-and-a-half plus hour televised carnival to 10 vital takeaways. Here is what it all boiled down to for The Musical Box.

+ Michelle Obama may just have been biggest pop star of the night. As part of an entourage that included Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith and show host Alicia Keys, the former first lady barely got five words out on a reflection of Motown music before the crowd went wild, sending the Grammys’ assertion of female star power into the stratosphere.

+ After Camila Cabello began the ceremony with a multi-story dance-pop block party version of “Havana,” Kacey Musgraves brought the Grammys back to earth with a stunning and sparse reading of “Rainbows” accompanied only by piano that proved a complete antithesis of the usual Grammy glitz. The mood didn’t last. The show quickly shifted to a performance of Janelle Monae’s Prince-meets-Kraftwerk blowout of “Make Me Feel.”

+ Non-rapping rapper Post Malone continued to confound as a song stylist, opening with a solo acoustic reading of “Stay” before turning to the dance-pop groove of “Rockstar” as he seemed to wander through the illuminated bowels of the Staples Center. He eventually resurfaced to jam with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with Anthony Keidis looking a lot like that creepy actor from “Manos, Hands of Fate”) on “Dark Necessities.” Though a sloppy summit with no one coming off as a Caruso, it was nonetheless a fun genre-bashing mash up.

+ Anna Kendrick introduced a salute to Dolly Parton that included the Divine Ms. Dolly singing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with Maren Morris and Miley Cyrus (with the lyric about “getting high” glaringly whited out), a capable duet exchange with Cyrus on “Jolene” and an anthemic take on “Red Shoes” with Little Big Town where Parton’s vocals agelessly soared. The highlight, though, was watching Kacey Musgraves make musical mincemeat out of an ill-prepared/ill-matched Katy Perry during “Here You Come Again” before Parton joined in to take full ownership of her own tribute.

+ Sure, it would have great to have Kentucky’s own Chris Stapleton walk off with Country Album of the Year for the third time, but you will get no argument from me in handing the trophy over to the great Kacey Musgraves for the second time. In an age where country has shamelessly strayed further than ever from its homegrown roots, Musgraves, for “Golden Hour,” now rejoins a list of Grammy winning country album winners that includes Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Sturgill Simpson. The Album of the Year win was the real surprise, especially to Musgraves. It didn’t take a lip reader to decipher her on-camera reaction: “What? What? What?”

+ Alicia Keys was already in the running for Coolest Grammy Host Ever, but she fully earned the title with an ambitious performance overview that used the dual piano playing of the late (and shamefully blacklisted) Hazel Scott as an inspiration. From there, she offered a hit parade that went from Scott Joplin to Roberta Flack to Nat King Cole to Lauryn Hill to Jay Z and more. Effortless and stunning.

+ Who would have expected the most to-the-bone assessment of the music business and the Grammys themselves to come from Drake? After winning Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan,” he delivered an eloquent but pointed dismissal of awards and high profile accolades. “If you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown, if there are people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain and the snow, spending hard earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this. You’ve already won.” The Grammys responded by immediately cutting to a commercial.

+ Introduced by her nine year old grandson, Diana Ross remained a way-larger-than-life presence during a medley of two songs that spanned nearly 25 years of her post-Supremes solo career – “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch.” It was hardly a spotless vocal exhibition and the run of motivational banter that wound up with the singer wishing herself a happy birthday (she turns 75 next month) grew tiresome. But you expected subtlety from the still uproarious Ms. Ross?

+ Hard to fully grasp Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow.” It’s a killer song that lit the rock and soul fuse of “A Star is Born.” Here, she backed up the song’s potency with a vocal command few could have imagined when her career began to gain traction nearly a decade ago. So why all the histrionics and posing in a performance that, visually, bordered on the cliched? In a perhaps unanticipated manner, what you saw wasn’t necessarily what you got. Then again, that’s always been the way with Gaga?

+ Also choosing to de-glam from the Grammys was Brandi Carlile. She let the potency of “The Joke” speak through the lean drive of her band and projections of the song’s chorus lyrics onto a screen behind her. But the key to this prayer for marginalized souls was that voice – that booming, clear vocal bravado that Carlile sent to the moon and back by the song’s conclusion. In recent pop history, only k.d. lang has displayed anything that can match it. Carlile may have even outdistanced her.

in performance: steep canyon rangers/eric bolander

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left, Nicky Sanders, Barrett Smith, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Mike Ashworth and Graham Sharp. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.

It was with no small degree of irony that the Steep Canyon Rangers began their highly engaging performance last night at Manchester Music Hall with their two newest members going it alone – namely, drummer Mike Ashworth and bassist Barrett Smith. The rhythm section initiated a subtle groove that brought the rest of the Grammy winning North Carolina bluegrass troupe to the stage, turning the resulting momentum into the rhythmic sway of “Stand and Deliver.”

Wait a minute. Bluegrass bands have rhythm sections? Well sure, just not normally ones anchored by drums, as was the case with the continually evolving Rangers. Over the course of a one hour, 45-minute set, Ashworth didn’t simply embellish the grassy textures that more expected string instrumentation gave to tunes like “As I Go” and the encore finale of “The Speed We’re Traveling.” He also set up a driving jam (quickly commandeered by mandolinist Mike Guggino) during “Let Me Out of This Town,” provided Fairport Convention-esque Celtic propulsion under fiddler Nicky Sanders on “Take the Wheel” (where Smith took a guest turn on lead vocals) and dug in for a drum solo underscored by mandolin that eventually enlisted all of the Rangers for a giddy percussion romp.

While Ashworth’s prominence (augmented by his solid harmony singing throughout the performance) represented the biggest stylistic leap the Rangers have taken since their last Lexington visit in 2014, the rest of the show relied on essentials, like the juggling of lead vocal duties between guitarist Woody Platt and banjoist/songsmith Graham Sharp. Platt was at home with the easy country lyricism of “When She Was Mine” and a nicely relaxed cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” while Sharp employed more conversationally smoky vocal colors for “Simple at Me.”

All of these elements converged during the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love” that placed the train whistle fiddling of Sanders, the joint vocals of Platt and Sharp and some wild ensemble dynamics that gave the music an almost respiratory rhythm within a single bluegrass statement that both bowed to tradition and dashed madly away from it.

Local hero Eric Bolander opened the evening with a very appealing 50-minute trio set that utilized cellist Seth Murphy and drummer/harmony vocalist Ben Caldwell for an Americana mix that placed restless folk confessions within Southern fried frameworks. What resulted were songs like “The Road, “Fly” and the new “Montgomery Hill” that were rustic, rootsy and often elegant.

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