in performance : cameron carpenter

cameron carpenter.

cameron carpenter.

The only costume change a very all-business Cameron Carpenter allowed himself last night at Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts in Danville was the between-set exchange of a long sleeve shirt covered in fashionable graffiti for a black t-shirt with the Centre logo embossed in glitter.

“I’ll be sure to wear this next week when I give a master class at Harvard.” Such was one of the pokerfaced quips the Julliard-educated, Grammy nominated artist peppered a two hour display of his remarkable international touring organ with.

While humor played a modest role in the performance, Carpenter’s plan of action was implementing a largely classical repertoire to showcase a self-designed instrument that was essentially a digital hybrid of a traditional pipe organ and the comparatively contemporary theater organ.

The instrument, along with several massive banks of speakers (including one augmented with large, horn-shaped resonators) cut imposing figures onstage and created rich waves of sound, especially on organ pieces like Bach’s Toccata in F Major, that circulated to fill every corner within the Norton Center’s Newlin Hall.

But as distinctive as the gadgetry was, it was Carpenter’s technical command and sense of playfulness that made the program so engaging. The show opening treatment of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and the second set-closer, Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4, were performed with scholarly cool, despite the compositional storm the latter brewed into, that made the music seem more inviting than imposing.

The more playfully devilish side of Carpenter’s performance profile emerged during Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture. Here, the Wurlitzer half of the international touring organ presented itself with an accent resembling a calliope. Together with Carpenter’s exact but highly animated phrasing, the piece took on an almost cartoon-like quality.

The program happily strayed from classical works, as well. A second set medley of George Gershwin tunes was designed, according to the mohawked organist, to “let my inner nerd run free, not that it hasn’t already.” But the performance turned decidedly summery for an encore of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse chestnut Pure Imagination that briefly brought to mind the subtle, lyrical playing of an altogether different organ pioneer, Booker T. Jones.

All that and a Centre shirt, too – kind of makes you wonder if Harvard will be hip enough to handle it all next week.

black keys, avett brothers to headline bunbury

the black keys, dan auebach and patrick carney, will headline this summer's bunbury music festival in cincinnati.

the black keys, dan auerbach and patrick carney, will headline this summer’s bunbury music festival in cincinnati.

Another sign of summertime revealed itself yesterday. Specifically, the initial performance lineup of the Bunbury Music Festival was announced along with concert dates for the event that are a month earlier than in recent years.

Confirmed Bunbury acts in 2015 include The Black Keys, The Avett Brothers, Snoop Dogg, The Decemberists, Old Crow Medicine Show, Father John Misty, Walk the Moon, Manchester Orchestra, Kacey Musgraves, The Devil Makes Three, Reverend Horton Heat, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band and many others. Performance times are to be announced.

As in its three previous years, Bunbury will be presented on multiple stages throughout Sawyer Point and Yeatman’s Cove along the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati. But for 2015, the festival has been moved from mid July to June 5, 6 and 7. That distances it further from the competing Forecastle in Louisville, which has already announced a lineup that includes Sam Smith, Modest Mouse, Widespread Panic and the city’s own My Morning Jacket and Houndmouth on July 17, 18 and 19.

The Buckle-Up Festival, Bunbury’s country/Americana sister event, won’t be back this year. According to its website, the event will return in 2016. Both festivals were acquired by PromoWest Productions last fall.

Tickets for Bunbury and Forecastle are on sale through ticketmaster.com. For additional info on each event, along with full lists of confirmed acts, go to bunburyfestival.com or forecastlefestcom.

redefining the organ

cameron carpenter.

cameron carpenter.

Flamboyant. It is almost impossible to read a review of a Cameron Carpenter performance where the word is not utilized as a critical summation to a concert sound that is wholly revolutionary.

It’s also a tag Carpenter can’t get his head around. A pioneer of the classical organ, he has literally uprooted the instrument from its cathedral roots, modernized it into a creation of his own portable design and built a repertoire around it that runs from Bach to Bernstein to Bacharach. Depending on your viewpoint, that makes Carpenter a renaissance man or a renegade.

But flamboyant? That’s a tag he neither understands nor appreciates.

“There is a continuing suspicion that the music and the personality are different, and I’ve never understood why this should seem so,” said Carpenter, via email this week from his home in Berlin. “ ‘Flamboyance’ is, at this point, a word that has more meaning as a euphemism for queer – a state which can still ill afford to allow any euphemisms.”

The current thrust of the Julliard trained, Grammy nominated Carpenter’s career is an instrument of his own design called the International Touring Organ. A digital creation utilizing samples of traditional pipe organs (as well as such offspring as the Wurlitzer), it is a modernization of instruments housed in cathedrals around the world. In Cameron’s hands, though, the most epic of organ sounds have become portable.

“The instrument behaves exactly as we – meaning, not only me, but its visionary builders, (the Massachusetts team of) Marshall & Ogletree – envisioned, and is almost anticlimatically consistent and well-behaved in this wonderful way. With a few correctible exceptions, I seem to have not totally embarrassed myself in its design, which proposes a hybridization of the mid-century prim and poetic American classical organ with its less respectable, ruder, decadent, not-too-well preserved, off-color half-sister, the much more eccentric theater organ. Their reunion has been difficult to negotiate but I think we’ve broken ground there.

“Understanding this, I am constantly revising it, usually to add more wildness, violence, vulgarity, and randomness, which any great organ must have in spades. Glorious, holy, and majestic are illusions and, as such, squarely easy to manufacture musically and acoustically. Any old electronic organ with light-up thingummies, any old racks of pipes in whatever church balcony can imply that in a ‘good enough for anyone’ sort of way. The richness and personality of real imperfection, though, is a more challenging task.”

Last year, Carpenter put the new International Touring Organ to work in the recording studio. The result was If You Could Read My Mind, a record with a repertoire as distinctive as its sound. Alongside an adaptation of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and his own Music for an Imaginary Film are organ revisions of Leonard Bernstein’ Overture to Candide, Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, the Patsy Cline hit Back in My Baby’s Arms and the Gordon Lightfoot classic that serves as the record’s title composition.

“The International Touring Organ is, actually, totally remarkable in several regards, but it’s still just an organ. It’s a conduit to a live emotional experience. It’s not actually the organ at all that I’m interested in promoting, but, of course, the music I’m making. Here you find one of the organ’s perilous paradoxes. It’s the most impressive instrument technically and physically, but miles of pipe and wire are meaningless on their own. The scale of the machine, in league with its weighty history, is observably a stumbling block to any organist who pays the usual unskeptical obeisance to it in demeanor, repertoire, and style.”

How then, does the viewpoint of many classical enthusiasts that see modifications of performance, repertoire and instrumentation deemed traditional as a form of musical heresy enter into Carpenter’s new world order of the International Touring Organ?

“I don’t care for anyone’s opinions, good or ill, other than my own,” he said. “A funny thing: there’s a lot of lip service in the collective consciousness about how great it is not to care about other’s opinions, but in practice it’s usually received as arrogance, or antisociality. Therein comes the real test of whether you care or not, of course.”

Cameron Carpenter performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Newlin Hall, Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $25-$46. Call (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692 or got to www.nortoncenter.com.

Carpenter will also participate in a pre-concert Gallery Talk with Centre College art professor Sheldon Tapley entitled “Reinterpreting Traditional Art Forms in Contemporary Society.” The 7 p.m. discussion will be held at the Grand Foyer of the Norton Center in conjunction with Beyond the Window, an exhibition of paintings by Zeuxis artists.

in performance: the hot sardines

the hot sardines. from left: joe mcdonough, evan "sugar" crane, jason prover, alex raderman, "miz" elizabeth bougerol, evan "bibs" palazzo, "fast" eddy francisco and nick meyers.  photo by leann mueller/decca records.

the hot sardines. from left: joe mcdonough, evan “sugar” crane, jason prover, alex raderman, “miz” elizabeth bougerol, evan “bibs” palazzo, “fast” eddy francisco and nick meyers. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

“We’re going to dedicate this one to your weather,” said Hot Sardines singer “Miz” Elizabeth Bougerol last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.

With that, the New York swing troupe devised a quiet killer of a jazz delicacy that seemed to glow from the inside out. It began with a serving of piano blues and bowed bass from bandleader Evan “Bibs” Palazzo and Evan “Sugar” Crane that lingered like a dark lullaby. Brass eventually oozed in before Bougerol gave the brewing music a stark but decidedly torchy turn. A trumpet coda from Jason Prover brought everything to a boil before a final ensemble blast let the air out and brought this subtle but deceptively intense display to a close.

The tune, fittingly enough, was Summertime. While this was perhaps the one tune in the 90 minute show least indicative of the Hot Sardines’ studious swing, it made for the most distinctive and captivating performance of the evening.

The rest of the program generated more of party atmosphere with a mix of standards penned or popularized by Fats Waller, Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby and others along with band originals that used pre-World War II swing and jazz as their home bases before taking a number of inventive stylistic strolls.

The wilder turns included an instrumental version of Blue Skies that became a fun performance vehicle for tap dancer “Fast” Eddy Francisco, a revision of The Jungle Book’s I Wanna Be Like You sung by Bougerol in French (but fortified with enough American jazz sass to make the resulting music sound more French Quarter than French) and a set closing Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen that curiously placed most of the band’s eight members on their backs on the stage floor, including reed player Nick Meyers. His concluding clarinet solo sounded like it had erupted out the venue’s basement.

The one member who did not wind up horizontal during the song was a very pregnant Bougerol. When asked by an audience member when her baby was due, the singer dryly replied, ‘Well, if we don’t get this song started…”

sardines and swing

the hot sardines. top to bottom: jason prover, nick myers, joe mcdonough, evan "sugar" cane, alex raderman, evan "bibs" palazzo. left: "miz" elizabeth bougerol. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

the hot sardines. top to bottom: jason prover, nick myers, joe mcdonough, evan “sugar” crane, alex raderman, evan “bibs” palazzo. left: “miz” elizabeth bougerol. photo by leann mueller/decca records.

At a glance, it would be easy to view the Hot Sardines in strictly revivalist terms.

You have a New York bred band with a singer reared in France, Canada and the Ivory Coast wielding a repertoire that reaches back to the ‘20s,’30s and ‘40s for inspiration. Then you hear sounds that come from as nearby as Harlem and as remote as Paris and New Orleans. At the forefront of the band’s music – and, in particular, its self-titled major label debut album – is vintage swing. But gypsy and creole accents, all kind of jazz spirits and bountiful performance immediacy are also at work. The result is a sound that hints heavily at the past but possesses an undeniable here-and-now vitality.

In short, while the music is not contemporary, it’s not a museum piece either.

“That is the take we really hope people will have about the album and the music we perform live,” said Hot Sardines pianist, bandleader and co-founder Evan “Bibs” Palazzo. “The music isn’t dusty in the way we approach it because we know it so well. Our attitude about the music is that it’s universal and perfect for the 21st century. It’s very joyous. The way we express joy may be a little different than how people are used to, but there is no mystery to it. It’s what we love and we play it how we feel it.”

The Hot Sardines formed when Palazzo’s wife placed a Craiglist ad seeking a jam session with enthusiasts of vintage “hot” jazz. That introduced the pianist to Parisian-born singer “Miz” Elizabeth Bougerol. In turn, that led to a pack of like-minded jazzers that included a tap dancer (“Fast” Eddy Francisco) and, eventually, an itinerary heavy on subway busking, bar gigs and open mic nights.

Enter a rave-like performance phenomenon – an underground speakeasy movement, to be exact – that quickly earned the Hot Sardines a cultish but devout following.

“You would go online, get a password and then an address comes to your email for where you need to go on a given Saturday night,” Palazzo said. “It was usually a warehouse in deep Brooklyn, somewhere non-descript. But 300 or 400 people in their 20 and 30s would come out dressed like it was the ‘20s. When you walk in, these places would be decked out like a nightclub. There was burlesque, cocktails, the whole nine yards. We kind of cut our teeth by discovering this circuit. Eventually, other people came to these underground events, like Lincoln Center, for instance. So, really, our reputation and our opportunities flowed from that.”

Flash forward to late 2014. Balancing residencies in such noted New York venues as Joe’s Pub with international touring, the band released The Hot Sardines, an album on Decca/Universal boasting classic jazz works by Fats Waller (Honeysuckle Rose), Sidney Bechet (Petite Fleur) and Victor Young (I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You) as well as similarly structured originals (the Bougerol tunes Wake Up in Paris and Let’s Go.

“Elizabeth always says we’re old souls. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know my parents and her parents played this music for us in our formative years, so it definitely formed our understanding of music from the get-go.

“Now here we are with a lifelong hobby that has turned professional. Every night we get to have the greatest party with a great group of people. It’s a very social music with a real romantic sense to it, too, that may be a little bit lacking in music today.

“I see a lot of couples coming out and it’s always the same scene. The ladies are into the whole thing – the outfits, the fishnet stockings – and they’re dragging along their guys who are usually just wearing their business suits with maybe a fedora. But by the time the night’s over, they think it’s pretty awesome. All of that draws me to this music.”

The Hot Sardines perform at 7:30 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to www.ekucenter.com

critic’s pick 264 : the mavericks, ‘mono’

mavericks monoNeed a shot of warmth, soul and cheer after the winter assault of recent weeks? Then slip on Mono, the fabulous new album from the Mavericks, and proceed directly to track no. 2 – a ballroom-sized party piece called Summertime (When I’m With You). Percolating with a groove that falls somewhere Cuban pop and Jamaican ska, the song comes fortified with summery brass, the towering vocals of Raul Malo and a spring-like attitude that shines so brilliantly that ol’ man winter has no choice but to scram.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Mono finds the Mavericks having braved some turbulence of their own. The record is the band’s first release without founding bassist Robert Reynolds who was let go last year because of an opiate addiction. Interviews with Malo and the other band members stress the firing was difficult and painful for all involved. While its aftermath is never directly felt in the 11 songs Malo wrote or co-wrote for Mono, one may sense an echo of the split in the lyrics to Let It Rain (“Oh, let it rain, so it can wash away sorrows and pains”) and especially Out the Door (“The cards are on the table, the deal is up and gone”). But even in these instances, the warmth and elegance of the music override any dour sentiments, from the light guitar and accordion sway that dances under Malo’s Roy Orbison-like singing on the former tune to the finger-popping drive that recalls vintage Dwight Yoakam on Out the Door.

The latter reference is one of the few country accents on Mono. Though the Mavericks began life as a country outfit, the reliance on Malo’s Cuban roots, encyclopedic pop command and colossus voice long ago gave a global cast to the band’s music. Mono stays the course.

The opening All Night Long boasts a huge Havana strut indicative of Marc Anthony (save for the fact Malo is by far the stronger singer), Fascinate Me stands as a sterling slo-mo crooner and the closing cover of Doug Sahm’s Nitty Gritty (the only non-Malo tune on Mono) swaps cultures in favor of champion Tex Mex fun and some suitably spicy guitar fire and Augie Meyers-inspired keyboard colorings from Eddie Perez and Jerry Dale McFadden.

But the crescendo of Mono (and, yes, the entire album was recorded gloriously in exactly that) comes with (Waiting for) The World to End, a cleverly astute view of mortality (“Just live your life until you die, my friend”) set to an unavoidably infectious groove beset by brass and piano.

It’s a fitting highlight. Having survived a split with one of their own, the Mavericks make the apocalypse sound and seem like a veritable day at the beach. What could be a better respite from winter than that?

critic’s pick 262: soft machine, ‘switzerland 1974′

soft machineAt the onset of Switzerland 1974, the wonderful new concert chronicle by psychedelic-turned-prog-turned-fusion rockers Soft Machine, the music floods in with a low, ominous chime. It’s like listening to Big Ben if you were submerged in the Thames. But after a long, fiery drum roll from John Marshall calls the band to order, the music coalesces into riff-saturated interplay that quickly introduces the young British guitarist that would come to define this reinvented era of the band, Allan Holdsworth.

The resulting time capsule CD/DVD set is a remarkable archival find. It captures Soft Machine at the venerable Montreux Jazz Festival on a July 4 bill with two American bands – the fellow fusion troopers of Billy Cobham’s Spectrum and the roots-driven free jazzers of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Soft Machine’s mere placement on such a bill would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier, given its psychedelic beginnings within England’s famed Canterbury scene.

By the time of Switzerland 1974, though, keyboardist Mike Ratledge was the lone original member (he would depart the following year). Under the de-facto leadership of reed player, fellow keyboardist and primary composer Karl Jenkins, the Softs, as the band was often called, had junked nearly all its previous repertoire in favor of compositions that would highlight Holdsworth.

The Swiss audience on hand for what we are now hearing on this recording over four decades later had no idea of what to expect. Guitar had been absent from the Softs’ instrumental lineup since the late ‘60s. Moreover, the bulk of the tunes presented had not been recorded. The band would convene in London later in July to cut the material that would surface in March 1975 as Bundles (a record that received a long overdue remastering and re-release in 2010).

There are a few references to the past on Switzerland 1974, particularly in bassist Roy Babbington’s nod to his Softs predecessor Hugh Hopper during the amplified “fuzz” crescendo of his solo piece Ealing Comedy and the sparring Ratledge and Jenkins engage in (on keys and soprano sax, respectively) during the close of the 16 minute Hazard Profile. Mostly, though, this is music ripe with discovery.

The Floating World, for instance, briefly cools the rockish charge with double Fender Rhodes piano ambience by Ratledge and Jenkins colored by Marshall on glockenspiel with wordless vocals from Holdsworth.

The latter, however, sings more authoritatively in the exact, clear tone of his guitarwork, which provides a seering jazz glee to what would become the title tune to Bundles and the swift, stabbing solo at the end of Penny Hitch (one of the few holdover works from the pre-Holdsworth era).

Holdsworth would bolt shortly after Bundles was released. So what we have here is an extraordinary document of his brief tenure with the Softs as well as a portrait of a storied but powerfully reinvigorated band.

critic’s pick 261: rhiannon giddens, ‘tomorrow is my turn’

rhiannonOn the title track to her debut solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, Rhiannon Giddens sings with empowered reserve. Throughout the rest of this remarkable recording, she cuts loose with churchy jubilation, bluesy reflection and even country majesty. But on this centerpiece tune, the singer known for her rootsy command with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, lets her inner diva shine. By channeling another vocal priestess (Nina Simone, who popularized the tune in another pop lifetime), she embraces a sound huge enough to be termed cinematic. She plays the song cool in this instance, but the end result could work as the theme song to a ‘60s James Bond flick. It’s that emotive and anthemic. Better yet, it’s just one of the many voices Giddens asserts with easy authority on the album.

Produced by Americana renaissance man T Bone Burnett, Tomorrow is My Turn is the record that unlocks Giddens’ numerous vocal preferences in a way the Carolina Chocolate Drops, by the sheer design of the band, simply couldn’t. In short, this is as liberating a work as you’re likely to hear all winter.

Take for instance, the celebratory gospel engagement of Up Above My Head. Strongly mirroring the prototype version cut by Sister Rosetta Tharpe without ever sounding imitative, Giddens plays off the fiddle sway of Punch Brother Gabe Witcher and some profound call-and-response choir singing. The resulting spiritual flow is sublime.

Stepping onto country turf is Dolly Parton’s Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind, where Giddens’ singing turns restless and defiant over sweeping ensemble support and another beautifully plaintive fiddle run by Witcher. Reaching further into Nashville tradition but veering away from its homogenized sound is Hank Cochran’s She’s Got You. Immortalized initially by Patsy Cline, Giddens’ effortless wail transports the song Northward to the kind of Acadian Americana sound The Band designed over 40 years ago.

Where does Tomorrow is My Turn travel from there? Try the streets of New Orleans for a revision of Black is the Color. Giddens and Burnett strip the tune of its Celtic/churchy veneer and forge it into a sensual parade piece that is part carnal and part carnival. Let’s also not forget O Love is Teasin’, a folk staple long ago reinvented by Kentucky’s own Jean Ritchie and fleshed out here with death rattle percussion from longtime Burnett ally Jay Bellerose and Giddens’ beautifully disruptive singing.

The album isn’t so much a solo beginning as an awakening. You could hear suggestions of these songs within the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and, more distinctly, the recent all-star Dylan project The New Basement Tapes. But by bringing Giddens’ glorious voice front and center, along with all stylistic ammo that ignites it, we have the arrival of an Americana voice for the ages.

grammy post-mortem 2015

beck performing last night at the grammy awards in los angeles. photo by kevork djansezian/getty images.

beck performing last night at the grammy awards in los angeles. photo by kevork djansezian/getty images.

It was the year of duets and all-star mash-ups at the Grammy Awards. But as we dig into our annual Grammy post mortem, we discover too much star power just gets to be a drag.

Between the mismatches and self-promotion (CBS set a new record for product placements of its TV programming) there were a few awards given out and even a surprise or two. Here, however, is what The Musical Box saw.

AC/DC: Undettered by trends, Aussie rockers AC/DC opened the evening with the new Rock or Bust followed by the classic Highway to Hell, complete with front row fans Paul McCartney and Katy Perry wearing makeshift devil horns. Good cranky fun.

Best New Artist: Sam Smith, in what would be the first of four Grammy wins.

Ariana Grande: Pop princess shelves the dance moves to sing Just a Little Bit of Your Heart stationary and straight.

Jessie J and Tom Jones: A salute Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil with an oddly truncated You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. Zero chemistry.

Best Pop Solo Performance: Happy by Pharrell Williams. Fine choice, but let’s hope his pants don’t trend the way his hat did last year.

Miranda Lambert: Suitably energetic and immediate performance of Little Red Wagon that was about as country as Isaac Hayes.

Pop Vocal Album: Sam Smith won for In the Lonely Hour in a Grammy presented by Barry Gibb.

Kanye West: Sings the new Only One while dancing on a lone floor spotlight. An awkward and uninvolving performance

Madonna: Introduced by Miley Cyrus as “my bitch,” the singer offered a new and somewhat droll dance tune called Living For Love. She also cavorted with a pack of shirtless male dancers with masks and horns. Just another day at the office.

Best Rock Album: Beck’s Morning Phase. A great choice in, for once, a very strong field. Strange, though, that Morning Phase is one of the least rockish records of Beck’s career.

Best R&B Performance: Beyonce and Jay Z, Drunk in Love. Guess it was too much to hope for a Ledisi win.

Ed Sheeran with John Mayer, Questlove, Herbie Hancock: A serviceable enough summit version of Thinking Out Loud that left little for the guest list to do.

Jeff Lynne: A heady ELO flashback with Evil Woman, then the heavily Beatle-esque Mr. Blue Sky with Sheeran. Lynne acted liked Sheeran wasn’t there. An odd pairing and odder performance.

Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani: Ryan Sechrist called them “two of our finest” as they launced into the syrupy Maroon 5 hit My Heart is Open. Given how heavily CBS was pushing actors from its network series, having two stars from NBC’s The Voice was probably the biggest surprise of the night.

Hozier and Annie Lennox: I used to think Lennox could make any song sound righteous. That was until she took to Hozier’s dreadful Take Me to Church last night. Her adjoining version of the Screaming Jay Hawkins hit I Put a Spell on You was an impressive save, though.

Best Country Album: In a category that sometimes shells out a surprise, none came. Miranda Lambert’s Platinum took top honors.

Pharrell Williams with Lang Lang and Hans Zimmer: What a mess. Happy is the perfect radio single, so why fuss it up with minor key variations, choirs and ill matched performance partners? Leave well enough alone.

Katy Perry: An atypically stoic performance of By the Grace of God? that followed two striking anti-domestic violence pleas by Brooke Axtell and, in pre-recorded message, President Obama.

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: She may have been dolled up like a drag queen, but Gaga managed the impossible. She sang Cheek to Cheek with Tony Bennett and held her own.

Usher: In a straightforward salute to Stevie Wonder, Usher sang If It’s Magic accompanied only by a harpist until Wonder himself came out of the shadows to briefly play harmonica. In an evening of relentless bombast, this serving of understatement was an oasis.

Eric Church: Nice job on Give Me Back My Hometown, an unsettling rocker from The Outsiders than possessed a refreshingly non-pandering country spirit.

Dwight Yoakam and Brandy Clark: Two guitars and two voices representing two country generations singing Hold My Hand. Simple and potent.

Paul McCartney, Rhianna and Kanye West: I expected a train wreck. Instead, we got a stripped down gospel-flavored pop tune, FourFiveSeconds. Not a revelation, but not a collision of mismatched egos, either.

Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige: This is undeniably Smith’s star moment, but he and his delicate vocals seemed like also-rans in an arrangement that stressed everything except the singer.

Juanes: A performance of Juntos that properly recognized the Latin music categories. On its own, though, this was pretty unremarkable stuff.

Album of the Year. Prince offered words of comfort (“Albums still matter”) but appeared out to lunch as a presenter. But Beck’s Morning Phase beating out Beyonce? Who saw that coming?

Sia: A reenactment of the Chandelier video that was acted out instead out of sung. Please.

Song of the Year: Smith again for Stay With Me. Funny – didn’t see or hear Tom Petty’s name anywhere.

Beck and Chris Martin: To his credit, Martin purposely tried to serve Beck’s light and luminous Heart is a Drum instead acting like a bored co-star like most of last night’s collaborators did.

Record of the Year: Sam Smith, again a worthy winner because the rest of the field was so tepid.

Beyonce: “I am tired,” Beyonce sang with sterling conviction as the gospel favorite Take My Hand, Precious Lord took the Grammy Ceremony to the 3 ½ hour mark. I could relate.

John Legend and Common: A suitably dramatic reading of Glory with choir and strings. Then again, Legend would have been just as commanding if he were performing alone with his piano.

in performance: gregory porter

gregory porter.

gregory porter.

“I was baptized to the sound of horns,” sang Gregory Porter by way of introduction last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. While that was perhaps not the most telling verse to the nature of the Grammy winning artist’s talents (Porter is a vocalist and songwriter, not a horn player), it did reference the level of jazz culture the performance was steeped in.

In fact, the song that line was pulled from, On My Way to Harlem, was a reflection of the formative musicians (Duke Ellington) and writers (Langston Hughes) that obviously resonated with Porter and the community that helped cultivate them (“Marvin Gaye, he used to play What’s Going On right over there”).

On record, Porter stresses songs as well as style by addressing romance, family and spirituality with just enough of a traditional soul pedigree to recall the great Bill Withers. In performance, though, jazz takes over. Last night, Porter’s phrasing shifted from glorious lyrical understatement to gospel-level vigor to blasts of clear, unwavering baritone. With the help of a resourceful back up quartet, every style was spoken with a commanding jazz accent.

No Dying Love, Wolfcry and Hey Laura, three of the seven songs performed from the 2013 Grammy winning Liquid Spirit album, illustrated the cool side of Porter’s performance persona. No Dying Love sported expert ensemble color, the powerful but exquisitely controlled love affirmation Wolfcry was performed as an elegant duet with pianist Chip Crawford and the especially Withers-esque Hey Laura balanced the sleekness of Porter’s singing with flute support from Yosuke Sato.

The title tune to Liquid Spirit, however, was all revivalist release punctuated by a gospel groove and a piano breakdown from Crawford that was as volcanic as Porter’s singing was sweet.

Porter and band saved perhaps their most complete performance for last – specifically, an encore of Be Good (Lion’s Song) buoyed by a bass solo from Aaron James that seemed to sing with its own independent melody, warm and conversational rhythms from drummer Emanuel Harrold and a vocal turn from Porter full of poise, authority and effortless soul.

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