bibb and the blues: a global journey

eric bibb.

eric bibb.

Eric Bibb knows the ways of a bluesman. He knows the routes that pioneers paved before him and the avenues his contemporaries still travel in order to keep the music alive and vital.

But the singer, writer and song stylist is also versed on the side roads, the trails that wind around the blues into regions of folk and soul as well as the vast terrain that stretches between them. Bibb has followed those pathways all over the world in a career that encompasses five decades. While he is proud to be linked with the blues, there remains a drive to let audiences know his music is by no means confined or defined by them.

“I’m grateful that I have been able to make use of the interest there is in blues as a genre, all the hype included, as well as the real deal stuff,” said Bibb who performs twice in the region over the coming week – once with fellow global blues journeyman Corey Harris tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville and again on Feb. 11 on his own at Berea College.

“I’ve been able to find a way onto the blues platform, an established, marketable commodity that has helped my career. But blues is not the entirety of what I do. If I had marketed myself simply as an eclectic singer songwriter songster, I think I would have missed out on a lot of exposure that has been a real boom for me.”

To appreciate the scope of Bibb’s music, you need to meet the family. His father, Leon Bibb, was a Louisville-born champion of Broadway and the 1960s New York folk boom. His uncle was pianist John Lewis, mainstay member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. His godfather was singer/activist Paul Robeson. It was that heritage that encouraged Bibb to see the world – first with his family and then on his own.

“I actually had a 13th birthday in Kiev,” Bibb said. “My dad had a tour of what was then the Soviet Union. So I had a chance to see Europe, the Soviet Union and England as a 12 year old and 13 year old. It was unusual for an African-American family to be traveling around Europe in the mid 60s. So it was a blessing. It probably had a lot to do with me moving to Europe when I came of age, having had a taste of something that must have peaked my curiosity.

“I’m not the first blues troubadour who has traveled around the world. Big Bill Broonzy was in Europe early on. Leadbelly was in Paris in 1949 before he died. So I feel like I’m carrying on a tradition, not only musically but just in terms of my wandering. It’s been a gift, truly.”

Such globetrotting, along with ties to a like-minded generation of musicians (Keb’ Mo’, Alvin Youngblood Hart and performance mate Harris) that revere the blues without being pigeonholed by them has helped inform a remarkably prolific recording career. In recent years, Bibb’s output has included a well-rounded blues and soul solo session (2013’s Jericho Road), a summit with a pack of genre-busting roots music stylists that includes the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal (2014’s Blues People), a Leadbelly-inspired project with French harmonica ace J.J. Milteau (2015’s Leadbelly’s Gold) and a forthcoming collaboration with veteran British bassist Danny Thompson (The Happiest Man in the World).

“It’s challenging to juggle all of this history without making a cartoon out of it, without lumping all of the African-American experience into one howl. This music, it’s varied and it’s subtle. Getting all that across in a genre that tends to characterize the music and the musicians is challenging. But educating ourselves, as well our audiences, is part of what this journey is about, too.”

Corey Harris and Eric Bibb perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut in Danville. Tickets are $38. Call 877-448-7469 or go to nortoncenter.com. Bibb will also perform at 8 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College in Berea. Admission is free. Call 859-985-3965 or go to berea.edu/convocations.

maurice white, 1941-2016

maurice white.

maurice white.

The first time I heard Maurice White – the first time, in fact, I heard Earth, Wind & Fire – was during that curious era of early ‘70s television when programs like In Concert, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special blurred genres during the wee hours and introduced a generation to music that only the early days of FM radio was addressing.

It was also the first time I heard someone playing kalimba in a contemporary setting, a tip to the rootsy drive and eclecticism prevalent in EWF’s music even then. This was roughly two years before That’s the Way of the World established the band as a star attraction. Its music was funk with jazz-like temperaments, all of which played out on the first record I bought that involved White’s buoyant optimism. Curiously, it wasn’t an EWF album, but Ramsey Lewis’ 1973 gem Sun Goddess – the title tune of which featured White and the band he founded as willing jazz fusion accomplices.

During their ‘70s heyday, White and EWF were the Beatles of contemporary R&B. They had everything – singers of wildly different extremes, an almost orchestral musicality and a groove as serious and unrelenting as anything the more overt funk bands of the day were dishing out. They could play to the pop crowd. They could write. They could swing. And onstage, all that kinetic groove and joy ignited into a party beyond belief, as shown by its New Year’s Eve 1977 performance here at Rupp Arena. Throughout, White was the ringleader – a tireless frontman that radiated the uncompromising warmth and invitation that was always at the heart of EWF’s music.

The magic remained intact through much of the ‘80s (EWF’s 1980 double album, Faces, remains an overlooked classic). Having bowed out of the band two decades ago due to the growing ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, EWF never wavered from his vision. As promised by Head to the Sky, the album the band was promoting during those early ‘70s TV jams, his music was the R&B voice of hope and celebration. That was truly the way of Maurice White’s world.

critic’s pick 321: bill frisell, ‘when you wish upon a star’

BillFrisell-WhenYouWishUponAStar-Cover72How fitting that the first musical voice you hear on When You Wish Upon a Star, Bill Frisell’s sublime new sampler of retooled film and television scores from decades past, doesn’t belong to the celebrated guitarist. What greets us initially is the lone viola of longtime Frisell ally Eyvind Kang as it all blows through the late summery unrest of Elmer Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird theme. Fear not, though. Frissell’s light but ominous guitar lines soon dance along with a rhythm section that, throughout the album, efficiently balances its sense of adventure with loose solidarity. What results is a ballet of sorts – one tempered and elegant that reaffirms Frisell’s status as one of today’s most fearless yet majestically understated guitar stylists.

In some ways, When You Wish Upon a Star can be seen as an extension of Frisell’s love of vintage Americana, an inspiration so wonderfully expressed on such past albums as Nashville and Beautiful Dreamers. That explains the merry clang the guitarist summons during the Bonanza theme, a tune that varies not in its clarion call lyricism and Western-informed joy, but in the stampeding rhythm section of bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. The same spirit propels the album-closing Happy Trails, the classic sendoff anthem that, with Petra Haden’s multi-tracked vocals and the wiry slo-poke strut of Frisell’s guitarwork, sounds more like a serenade by Mary Ford or the Andrew Sisters than a saddle chat with Roy Rogers.

By combining the two ensemble settings that pervade the majority of his recordings – jazz combo and progressive string quartet/quintet – and then opening the scope of his repertoire to include the global reach of Hollywood, Frisell has stretched his Americana highway into infinity.

Take for instance, a reimagining of the theme to the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. With Haden taking over the vocal lead established initially by Nancy Sinatra and Kang modestly establishing the tune’s Asian undercurrent, Frisell creates a portrait of vintage cinematic splendor where he is as much a spectator (in terms of how much room he lends to his bandmates) as a leader.

In perhaps its most masterful strokes, When You Wish Upon a Star juggles extremes. A nine minute medley of themes Nino Rota composed for The Godfather is pure wonder – a mix of gypsy flourishes, jagged guitar torrents, a strong noir undercurrent and a rhythm section whose restlessness beautifully intrudes on the music until it settles under a groove by Frisell and Kang during the closing love theme.

The other extreme is measured by When You Wish Upon a Star’s title song in an arrangement that correctly reveres an inherent innocence enough to ultimately utilize it as a lullaby-like admission to the album’s inward celebration of Hollywood past.

paul kantner, 1941-2016

paul kantner.

paul kantner. AP photo by Shawn Baldwin.

At the heart of the San Francisco psychedelic music movement of the late 1960s, at least the part that grabbed the attention of the rest of an unknowing nation, sat Paul Kantner. As the founder and perhaps most politically and socially outspoken member of Jefferson Starship, he fanned the flames of a generation beset by the Vietnam War and the draft, a following caught in a cultural shift of attitudes towards drugs, police, parental obedience and simple personal identity.

Curiously, his onstage role with the Airplane, and its more commercial ‘70s and ‘80s permutation, Jefferson Starship, was regularly overshadowed by the presence of the group’s towering vocalists, Grace Slick and Marty Balin. But Kantner was unquestionably at the controls during the band’s heyday – so much so that when its tenure with singer Mickey Thomas turned overtly commercial in the mid ‘80s, Kantner quit and effectively pulled the plug on his mates by taking the rights to the band’s name with him, hence the formation of the more generically pop-driven group known simply as Starship.

“I felt like the last guy at the party,” Kantner told me in 1993 of his final days with the original Jefferson Starship. “There just wasn’t anything worth staying around for. Everyone else wanted to go and be pop stars.”

But Kantner’s glory days unquestionably fell within the golden age of Jefferson Airplane. The four studio albums the band cut quickly between 1967 and 1969 – Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter’s, Crown of Creation and Volunteers – drew on the strengths of multiple musical personas with Kantner’s socio-psychedelia and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s electric blues resolve being the most prominent.

Surrealistic Pillow was the hit, mostly because it made a star out of Slick. But I’ll place After Bathing at Baxter’s, an indulgent but panoramic blast of psychedelic invention, at the top of the list. “It wasn’t always successful,” Kantner said in our 1993 interview, “but it took giant steps, dangerous steps musically and sometimes got away with them.”

It should also be noted that when Balin bolted in 1970 and the blissed out West Coast fantasy of the ‘60s eroded into the dark, sobering reality of the early ‘70s, the Airplane followed suit with two underrated and often unsettling coda albums (Bark and Long John Silver). Both were preceded by Kantner’s first and finest quasi-solo record, 1971’s Blows Against the Empire, a fascinating last gasp of West Coast psychedelia with a science fiction slant.

Kantner’s only Lexington performance seems to have been Jefferson Starship’s performance at Rupp Arena in 1978. But in the hour I spent with him prior to a 1993 concert at Bogart’s in Cincinnati and was amazed to find how little of the political idealism and restlessness that drove him during the ‘60s had settled. The music Kantner made from the ‘90s onward didn’t match the cunning and stylistic breadth of his earlier work – proof that the magic of Jefferson Airplane was rooted far more in band chemistry than the advances of one member. But from its first flight in 1965 to when it was grounded in 1972, there was no mistaking who pilot of this plane was.

“It’s all about good songs,” he said of any enduring artistic legacy, “Some songs are so bad that you just want to throw your radio across the room when you hear them. Others are so good that it sometimes doesn’t matter how or when you sing them.”

practice makes ‘perfectamundo’

billy gibbons. photo by gerardo ortiz.

billy gibbons. photo by gerardo ortiz.

Somewhere in the deep wiry, soul infested fiber that defines Billy Gibbons – and we don’t mean his classic whiskers – sit the blues.

That’s evident to anyone who has cheered the elemental boogie charge the guitarist has led for over the past 40 years with ZZ Top. But the blues encompasses a lot of music – styles that dance, groove and sustain in ways that might seem unexpected if all you know of Gibbons are hits like La Grange and Sharp Dressed Man. For Perfectamundo, his first album outside of ZZ Top, Gibbons revisits the Latin and Cuban music he knew in his youth – sounds that even pre-dated his pre-ZZ Top band, the Moving Sidewalks. The same fuzzy guitar sound that fortifies his playing and put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still in abundance, as are the scratchy hipster vocals that made the coolest of ZZ Top tunes sound even more chic. But there is also a generous piano and B3 organ drive along with a wall of Latin-charged percussion, making Perfectamundo serious dance floor stuff. At the end of the day, though, the music running the show is still the blues.

“Let’s say the blues and Afro-Cuban music are, ironically, quite compatible,” said Gibbons via email last week. “For instance, Miles Davis, among others, exemplified those interestingly unexpected connections many years ago.  We initially went about the Perfectamundo sessions in a similar manner, without formula, per se.  The rhythms are up front for, well, you know, moving the backsides. We kept an open mind to surround the ongoings to let everybody figure what influences what.  As everybody knows, the root of everything is the blues and that’s a fact.”

Gibbons’ fascination with the rhythms of Afro-Cuban music runs back to his childhood, when his bandleader father introduced him to Cuban percussionist and composer Tito Puente. The always-exuberant Cuban music stylist would become one of Gibbons’s earliest musical mentors.

“My Dad thought it would be helpful if I spent time getting a handle on the basics of polyrhythmic percussion rather than just roam around the house beating and banging on trash cans and such.  Tito’s message, as far as execution was concerned, was elemental –‘Play what you want to hear, directly and deliberately.’ Señor Puente would abide no half hearted efforts, so I do get what you mean about his exuberance.  He got down with gusto.”

While Perfectamundo uses several blues and roots music staples (Got Love If You Want It, Treat Her Right and Baby, Please Don’t Go) as segue ways of sorts to the Latin-savvy command of Gibbons’ BFGs band, several original tunes play right to the heart of the album’s piano, percussion and guitar directed music. Leading the pack is the rich mambo strut of Sal Y Pimiento (Spanish for ‘salt and pepper’). It’s the fourth tune on the album, but the first one to be recorded. As such, it set the pace for the Perfectamundo sound.

“I fell into a just-opened Cuban restaurant in Houston and took a business card with me back to the studio,” Gibbons said.  “I presented it to our engineering crew and said, ‘Here’s the title of the first song for the album. Now, let’s figure out what it sounds like.’ The restaurant was, of course, named Sal Y Pimiento.

“The song is kind of a Latin vamp and is more about the groove than anything else. Truth be told, it could have been 10 times longer because once we got it going, it was hard to stop. We wanted to build momentum with that one that carried through the whole album which, of course, hadn’t been recorded yet. Certainly a funky beginning.”

Where do Gibbons’ ZZ Top bandmates, bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, fit in with all this? For now, the guitarist said, they are enjoying a break from the road. But the trio will be back in action again for a European tour this summer.

“ZZ Top is, of course, the ‘main man.’ The Perfectamundo experience is a bonus.

“Can’t imagine not getting out there and playing for the people and gettin’ down night after night. It’s just terrific to be able to do what you really enjoy doing and know that others are so supportive. Win-win-win.”

Billy Gibbons and the BFGs with Tyler Bryant and the Shakedown perform at 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $65.50. Call (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com. Tickets for the concert’s originially scheduled Jan. 22 date will be honored.

critic’s pick 320: aoife o’donovan, ‘in the magic hour’

aoife o'donovanOn her sophomore solo recording, Aoife O’Donovan ruminates on wonder and loss in a way that their proximity to each other all but vanishes. Some songs breeze with ease, others bear a marked chill. But the demarcation between the spirits and emotions here with us today and those that have seemingly left us are exquisitely blurred. So begins one of the most enchanting releases of the young year.

A veteran of the Americana ensemble Crooked Still, numerous all-star collaborations (most notably, the Goat Rodeo Sessions) and an splendid 2013 solo debut disc called Fossils, O’Donovan designed In the Magic Hour as a requiem of sorts for her 93 year old grandfather, enforcing along the way a connection to an Irish heritage that runs deep in the singer’s roots. But In the Magic Hour isn’t a Celtic session in the least. It’s a set of 10 songs presented as a gallery of portraits with musical strokes as defined and whispery as the lullaby-like tone of O’Donovan’s singing.

In a way, such a deceptively fragile framework brings up the most obvious but misleading comparison facing O’Donovan – namely, Alison Krauss. True, both singers share a delicacy and obviously plaintive appeal. But comparisons largely disappear after that. Since O’Donovan pens her own material (she wrote eight of In the Magic Hour’s 10 songs and co-wrote a ninth, Hornets, with Sarah Jarosz), her voice becomes a more deep seeded component of the album’s musical fabric.

That’s especially apparent on Donal Og, curiously the only traditional tune on In the Magic Hour. It rolls in on a wistful electric/acoustic wash like a night wave at low tide. Amid O’Donovan’s hushed chant of a vocal is the distant, stoic voice of her grandfather. What results is gentle but ghostly séance of a song told with quiet yet powerfully emotive strength. A similarly reserved restlessness pervades The King of All Birds where “family photographs, relics I’ve found” swirl abound in a subtle duststorm of banjo, strings (provided by the always inventive Brooklyn Rider) and O’Donovan’s lightly luscious singing.

The sense of reflection brightens with the twilight pop of Magic Hour, which opens with chiming keyboard chatter that could have sailed out of Pet Sounds. Perhaps O’Donovan’s most effortlessly effective blend of love and loss, the tune tags imagery of her grandfather’s distant voice (“singing far away like an evening star”) with visions of an even more personal mortality (“death is a lonely bride”).

It all sounds rather morbid, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. In the Magic Hour may delve into meditations that can’t help but seem weighty. What O’Donovan creates, however, is music that truly sounds lighter than air – and that is magic, indeed.

miles and miles and midon

raul midon.

raul midon.

Ask Raul Midon about his musical inspirations, and he will point to the Argentine folk styles introduced to him by his father. Review his touring itinerary and you will find him on the road with an all-star legion of jazz celebrities this winter as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival Tour. Consider the genres his songs readily lean to and you will discover abundant accents of R&B and pop. Finally, sift through the tunes making up his most recent album, 2014’s Don’t Hesitate, and you will find a Latin-leaning work co-penned by soul impresario Bill Withers and a cover of I Can See for Miles, a 1967 hit for The Who.

Which sound dominates enough to define Midon’s truest musical identity? Try all of them.

“I have a very wide palette so I never really thought of myself as part of a musical genre,” Midon says. “That’s very difficult from a business standpoint, but that’s just the way it is for me. That’s what I do. If a song is going in an R&B direction, I just let it go there. If it’s going in a jazz direction, I go there. Sometimes I purposely write something in a certain genre or that inclines toward a certain genre. But, I don’t know. I’ve never really stuck to just one genre, for whatever that’s worth. Maybe I should have from a career standpoint, but that’s not the way I’ve done things. I’ve always been into bridging things — bringing things together that are not normally brought together.”

The New Mexico-turned-New York guitarist, vocalist and composer has, over the past decade, established a sound with a folkish accessibility bolstered by strong phrasings of jazz. There was quick support from two of his idols, Stevie Wonder (who was a guest on Midon’s 2005 album State of Mind) and Herbie Hancock (whose Possibilities album featured Midon singing Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You). But click onto Midon’s website and you will be greeted by a video of him interpreting the John Coltrane standard Giant Steps, not as what he calls a “rite of passage” instrumental but as a springboard for vocal improvisation.

“It’s interesting that it’s getting so much attention because nobody improvises as a singer over those changes,” Midon says. “People just don’t do it. I know people — saxophone players, trumpet and even guitar players — that play it. But singing it is another matter.”

Okay then? How do you go from Coltrane to The Who? What made Midon, who filled Don’t Hesitate with a wealth of stylistically far-reaching original material (including the Withers co-write Mi Amigo Cubano) to cover a Who hit?

I Can See For Miles is a very difficult song, but that’s always part of what I look for — something challenging. The song is amazing. Keith Moon’s drumming on it is just spectacular. The harmony in the song is spectacular. I also like the whole metaphor of ‘I can see for miles’ from my standpoint,” Midon says. “The thing just really spoke to me so I decided to tackle it.”

That resonance becomes more understandable when you consider Midon has been blind since infancy. But he has continually brushed aside any obstacles brought on by the condition. For Don’t Hesitate, that extended to the album’s recording process. He cut it in his home studio with a technology called cake-talking.

“What cake-talking has done has made the technology transparent enough to be able to convert what you hear into recorded music,” Midon says. “It was created by someone who really understands what a blind person needs, namely to be able to use the keyboard and not the mouse for doing everything. As a sighted person, you just scan and find what you want. But if you don’t see, the screen has to be configured like, ‘Okay, how do I get this information and not a billion others things that I don’t want.’ Achieving that is really the genius of it.”

Midon is already at work on a follow-up to Don’t Hesitate, even though it likely won’t see a release date until 2017. Among his goals is a renewed emphasis on jazz songwriting — not instrumental compositions, but actual songs that deviate from conventional pop strategies.

“Trying to write a song, a new song, using the modern jazz musical language is not something that’s being done a lot,” Midon says. “Is that something that is ultimately going to get played on the radio? I don’t know. But for me, that’s what’s exciting. I don’t need to sing another Sinatra tune. There are a lot of people doing that and doing it very well. It just doesn’t really hold a lot of interest to me.”

Paul Midon performs at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets: $25. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to ekucenter.com.

cincinnati pops orchestra with rosanne cash, over the rhine, aoife o’donovan, dom flemons, comet bluegrass allstars and joe henry, ‘american originals’

american originalsImagine being seated in the spacious Cincinnati Music Hall swept up on an Arctic January evening last year by the warmth of the Cincinnati Pops. What would be the first human voice you might expect to serve as accompaniment for a program of music celebrating Stephen Foster? Chances are it wouldn’t be Joe Henry. Yet there he was, producer extraordinaire and composer with a surrealist tenacity that suggests David Lynch more than the cherished 19th century Americana composer. Henry’s elegant yet still slightly dangerous reading of Oh Susannah serves as the lead tune to a 74 minute performance recording called American Originals.

Henry, of course, is a roots music scholar and his inclusion in such a program – along with the participation of such like-mined Americana stylists as Rosanne Cash, Aoife O’Donovan and Carolina Chocolate Drop co-founder Dom Flemons, among others – makes American Originals several tiers above the usual orchestral pops presentation. Pops shows, practically by definition, gear toward accessible sounds and styles removed, often severely so, from an orchestra’s usual classical orbit. Still, striking up a dance card like this raises the bar for pops-oriented programming while enhancing the stylistic theme at hand – in this case, Foster-era works – with leanings to folk, gospel, blues and pre-bluegrass country in ways both credible and complimentary.

The most immediate ringer here is when Cash lets her regally clear but reserved voice wash over My Old Kentucky Home. It’s a moment that lets the lush cohesion of the Cincinnati Pops under the direction of John Morris Russell serve as a stirring, gorgeous backdrop for the clarity of Cash’s vocal work. Sentimental? Absolutely. But by playing to the scholarly strengths of the performers, this rendition yields a quiet authority that underscores everything generations (especially generations of Kentuckians) have embraced about the song.

But there is so much more to American Originals, including the delicate, lullaby like reading of Slumber My Darling by O’Donovan that reaffirms her reputation as heir apparent to the Americana throne seemingly vacated in recent years by Alison Krauss. Flemons also has a field day when the orchestral pageantry of Ring, Ring the Banjo pares down into the rugged intimacy of banjo and bones. A pair of Cincinnati favorites, Over the Rhine (in a warm but brittle reading of Hard Times Come Again No More) and the Comet Bluegrass All-Stars (in a Copeland-like revision of Amazing Grace with O’Donovan), round out the bill along with a suitably militaristic arrangement of The Battle of Freedom the Cincinnati Pops takes on without the guests.

But the show stealer goes to Cash, who transports Beautiful Dreamer straight to the heavens with the sumptuous orchestral support. What results is music both timeless and wondrous, a snapshot of an American ideal that has grown only more lustrous with age.

glenn frey: 1948-2016

glenn frey onstage with the eagles in july 2015.

glenn frey onstage with the eagles at rupp arena in july 2015.

The death yesterday of Glenn Frey presents something of a paradox. The dominant feeling, unavoidably, is one of sadness. There have several major artistic deaths already in 2016, some famous (David Bowie, Lemmy), others overlooked (Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin). While Frey certainly belongs in the former category, his musical legacy illuminates a division.

To many, the music Frey created as co-pilot of the Eagles was a benchmark representation of the country-rock sound bred in Southern California during the ‘70s, a style that held considerable sway over the contemporary country music industry that began engulfing the charts during the ‘90s. In short, there would be no Garth Brooks without the Eagles.

Others will quickly pick up the argument that such succession among the pop and country ranks wasn’t such a great thing. We’ll leave that argument for another time. And in the interest of simple respect, we’ll shrug off the later Eagles records along with Frey’s solo work, much of which represented a smugness that often seemed like a corrupted adult version of the Eagles more unassuming beginnings.

It was with no small amount irony that Lexington was witness to one of Frey’s – and the Eagles’ – final concerts. The last of several extensive reunion tours was winding down when the band played at Rupp Arena last July. There was no hint of illness in Frey’s singing or his overall performance. It was an evening of living pop history, one that he and band co-founder Don Henley upheld with authority.

The performance did little to alter my general dislike of the band’s final 70s albums, Hotel California and The Long Run, which dominated the second half of the concert. I realize I’m in the minority on that score. The Rupp crowd’s acceptance of those songs heartily countered that estimation. But what struck me was how strong – and, at times, rather innocent – their early music sounded. Maybe it was the decades of watching countless bar bands sleepwalking through Eagles covers or classic rock radio’s unyielding airplay of the band’s records that deadened me to the songs’ craftsmanship. But hearing Frey and Henley open the show with a duo version of Saturday Night, a forgotten country relic from the Eagles’ self-titled 1972 debut, brushed aside the excess and celeb status of the later years. On simple, uncontested display was the embodiment of the Eagles’ – and certainly Frey’s – best work. It was a rewind to the beginning of the long run, a trek Frey travelled unashamedly as a celebrity. Luckily the musician under the veneer got a chance, during those final nights onstage, to reclaim some of that simpler glory.

sweet honey still rockin’

Sweet Honey in the Rock. From left: Louise Robinson, sign-language interpreter Shirley Childress, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Carol Maillard and Aisha Kahlil. Photo by Dwight Carter

Sweet Honey in the Rock. From left: Louise Robinson, sign-language interpreter Shirley Childress, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Carol Maillard and Aisha Kahlil. Photo by Dwight Carter

As it enters its fifth decade, Sweet Honey in the Rock can’t help but feel a little restless. Its membership has shifted again, altering with it the dynamics within the veteran African-American female vocal group, but so have the rhythms of the world – particularly the social, personal and political issues that have long been addressed within its music.

It short, you don’t experience a history as extensive and formidable as that of Sweet Honey in the Rock and not get used to a very honest and unavoidable constant: change.

“You always have to try new things,” said Carol Maillard, one of the group’s founding members. “With a lot of groups, I think they stick to their formula simply because audiences want that. I don’t know how those artists maintain that for 15, 20 or 30 years. But we all have such diverse interests. Even though a lot of the subjects and topics in our songs reflect the politics and the social fabric of the country, we all just really want to be able to express how we feel in general about life. Sometimes it’s not related to anything that’s going on in the world. It’s just what we’re experiencing at the moment.”

What exists most in the here and now for Sweet Honey in the Rock, aside from its return performance for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a revamped lineup. With the 2013 retirement of co-founding member Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell, the group went from a vocal quintet to a quartet (its initial configuration) and cut its first studio album in nine years, #LoveInEvolution. The recording will be released on Friday.

“We’ve been a quartet, we’ve been a sextet,” Maillard said. “I’ve been onstage when we’ve been a trio and we’ve been a quintet. We’ve sung with full symphony orchestras, we’ve sung with choirs and sung with trios. We’ve sung with just percussion and bass. We’ve done a lot of different combinations. So when Ysaye retired in ’13, we had auditions and decided to have Navasha Daya, a very fine artist from the Baltimore area, join us. We enjoyed that immensely, but just started thinking, ‘What can we do?’ I was always of the opinion that we had a strong quartet. I just knew that.”

But the retooled Sweet Honey quartet – Maillard, Louise Robinson (Sweet Honey’s other original singer), Aisha Kahlil (a member since 1981) and Nitanju Bolade Casel (who joined in 1985 and also works as the group’s producer) – would be different from previous rosters. Known primarily as an a capella ensemble, Sweet Honey began touring regularly with an instrumentalist – specifically, with the Baltimore/Washington, DC jazz bassist Romeir Mendez.

“I think it was Nitanju that said, ‘Why don’t we just have a bass?’ The rest of us thought. ‘Yeah. We can do that. We can do anything we want to do, actually.’ So when we came to the end of ’14, we were clear we wanted to continue as a quartet with a bass player. So Romeir came along and he had just the right vibe. We really enjoy working with him because he is so conscientious, creative and sensitive to the music.”

On #LoveinEvolution, that music translates into a typically varied assortment of songs that range from environmentally themed originals (The Living Waters) to the powerful combination of a traditional gospel piece (I Don’t Want No Trouble at the River) with a poem penned by Dr. Maya Angelou (When Great Trees Fall). There are also interpretations of two tunes – Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) and Wholly Holy – from Marvin Gaye’s classic and still-topical 1971 album What’s Going On.

“In 2010, when we were five singers, we decided that we wanted to bring in some songs we grew up with, songs that were part of our everyday listening, singing and dancing that were also thought provoking. So there was Marvin Gaye, of course, because What’s Going On is absolutely timeless. That music still resonates. Nitanju brought in Wholy Holy, Aisha brought in Mercy Mercy Me, Ysaye brought in Inner City Blues, (also from What’s Going On). I suggested the Stevie Wonder song Love’s in Need of Love Today. We also had (The Isley Brothers’) Harvest for the World. But Mercy and Holy are the ones that are still with us.”

Equally inspiring is the occasion of Sweet Honey’s WoodSongs appearance. Maillard said the group is honored to be performing in Lexington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“We just keep taking it day by day and putting our best foot forward… well, our best notes forward. We put our best notes forward and are very glad that we have this opportunity to have great, great songs to share in honor of this day.”

Sweet Honey in the Rock performs at 6:45 tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $20. Call 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.com.

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