in performance: pat metheny unity group

PatMethenyUnityBand

pat metheny unity band: chris potter, giulio carmassi, ben williams, antonio sanchez and pat metheny.

Pat Metheny may just be the closest thing the contemporary jazz world has to a slight of hand magician. During a tireless 2 ½ hour performance last night at the KCD Theater in Louisville, not everything was what it seemed. He conjured acoustic sounds from an electric guitar and later squeezed electric firepower out of an acoustic guitar. Oh, and those keyboard and percussion sounds the audience heard chattering away for most of the night were actually the non-man made products of the Rube Goldberg-like Orchestrion.

Even the evening’s repertoire was a surprise. With two albums under his belt by two different versions of his Unity Group, one might suppose Metheny would go the route of the typical jazzer and discard material that could be viewed as a product of the past. Well, that wasn’t the case either.

After a show-opening exhibition on the double-necked harp guitar, the founding members of the Unity Group – saxophonist/bass clarinetist/flutist Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez – ran through a quartet of meaty mainstream tunes – two of which, The Bat and Folk Song No. 1 came from Metheny’s seminal 80/81 album (the guitarist’s first recording away from the fusion fold) with the others, Roofdogs and Come and See, hailing from his current troupe’s 2012 debut album, Unity Band.

The name change from Unity Band to Unity Group for the new Kin album is more telling than it appears. The new lineup, which added Italian multi-instrumentalist Giulio Carmassi to the quartet, brought a heightened lyricism and orchestral sheen to the music that often recalled the guitarist’s career defining Pat Metheny Group. But Carmassi was often an invisible presence, figuratively and literally, last night. He seldom soloed and was hidden from much of the audience’s view behind Sanchez. And while he is credited with playing over a dozen instruments on Kin, the majority of what would have been his onstage duties were handled by the Orchestration.

As much a living science experiment as anything else, the Orchestrion is a computer triggeed assembly of instruments – mostly percussive devices along with two cabinets of bottles and jugs that were used as homemade chambers for keyboard sounds. Together with the fiercely organic sounds of the Unity Group, Kin tunes like the gospel flavored Born and the anthemic On Day One, as well as the bolero-like 1982 PMG staple Are You Going With Me?, possessed a sound that was truly epic in scope.

Metheny nicely scaled back the program, though, for a series of duets with his bandmates, including a spry bit of sparring with Williams on 1976’s Bright Size Life. Perhaps the grand antithesis of the Orchestrion-directed music was an extended encore medley of melodies from throughout his 35 year that began with Phase Dance and concluded with Last Train Home. The trick? For once, there was none. Metheny served up the history lesson alone on unembellished acoustic guitar.

in performance: john fogerty

john fogerty

john fogerty.

 At this stage of his career, John Fogerty would have every right to let the swampy, textured rock and soul hits he fashioned over four decades ago as chieftain of Creedence Clearwater Revival, as well as some of the more streamlined tunes penned since then, to stand on their own. But last night at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, there he was, racing from one end of the stage to the other, guitar in hand, egging his audience on as the 1970 Creedence classic Up Around the Bend roared through the concert grounds.

In a way, it was quite endearing to find the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer still playing the role of cheerleader for one of the most distinctive catalogues of any pop era. But it was also encouraging to witness Fogerty, at age 69, still in possession of enough vocal and physical stamina to fuel such performance vigor in the first place. While the years have mellowed some of the dark, roots-driven tone of his singing into an appealing and manageable tenor, nothing in this two hour performance resembled a golden age rocker going through the paces. This was instead a living portrait of an artist still deeply and effortlessly involved with even his most familiar music.

What music it was, too. The concert opened with eight Creedence songs – seven hits led by Travelin’ Band and Green River along with the Cosmo’s Factory epic Ramble Tamble. The latter was especially arresting as it showcased the program’s two most dominate instrumental voices – Fogerty’s guitarwork, which revealed a level of range and invention the heavily rhythmic musicianship of his Creedence days only suggested. The other belonged to drummer Kenny Aronoff, whose playing reflected elements of New Orleans groove that made it a natural fit for the Southern inclined Creedence hits. But the down beat in Aronoff’s playing was also exact, tireless and potent to the point of being atomic.

Beyond that, one could wax on for hours about the setlist alone. At the midway point came Suzie Q with its glorious feedback-enhanced guitar solo. A few songs later we heard Mystic Highway, the show’s newest work, which tempered the Creedence mystique with an Americana reality check. Best of all, perhaps, was Who’ll Stop the Rain, Fogerty’s faithfully performed remembrance of playing Woodstock.
“Everybody else got naked and stoned,” Fogerty said of the legendary festival. “But I actually remembered it.”

 

travels with saintseneca

Saintseneca

saintseneca: clockwise from top left: maryn jones, steve ciolek, jon meador and zac little

Slip on Dark Arc, the newest album by Columbus, Ohio alternative folk-popsters Saintseneca and you are greeted by a sound that takes obvious delight in time travel.

The opening Blood Bath starts like a throwback to the psychedelic acoustic music fashioned at the dawn of the ‘70s by the Incredible String Band – that is until chant-like cheer reminiscent of the Lumineers chimes in. Move on to the splintered pageantry of So Longer and Conor Oberst comes to mind. By the time Dark Arc’s title track takes the album down the home stretch, we hear an Eno-fied version of the Decemberists.

That doesn’t even take into consideration the folky introspection of Neutral Milk Hotel, the ‘90s pop ambience of Mazzy Star and the light narrative abstraction of ‘80s-era Robyn Hitchcock that echo throughout Dark Arc. In fact you could play “Spot the Influence” all day with a record like this.

In the end, though, what Saintseneca chieftain Zac Little has designed is a patchwork of sonic color with mandolin, balalaika, dulcimer and the Eastern stringed instrument known as the baglama as his favored utensils. But Little admitted the sounds on Dark Arc were as much the product of accidental discovery as they were of any purposeful inclination on his part.

“Sometimes when you have a vision for a song, you’re kind of aiming for something,” said Little, who brings Saintseneca to Lexington tonight for the second performance in WUKY’s Phoenix Friday series. “But that sound can be a pretty abstract goal, so in the process of being inspired by something you inevitably end up landing somewhere else. A lot of times that becomes something interesting and exciting about the recording process, to have that little bit of dissonance between where you’re aiming and where you’re landing all the time.”

On the surface the instrumentation surrounding Dark Arc might seem reflective of Little’s upbringing in Noble County, a rural region in Southeast Ohio that runs through Appalachia. But the Saintseneca frontman said no regional trait, favored artist or cherished recording stands as a pivotal inspiration. Music, he said, has been his mission since childhood.

“I think I’ve always had that drive and always had something that subconsciously motivated me to do this. I don’t think there was ever a moment where I was a passive listener of music and then flipped a switch and said, ‘Now I’m going to start taking this seriously.’ I mean, even from the time I was very young, I had the impulse to write songs. But it wasn’t until I was a little older that I actually had instruments and the conduits through which I could express those things and channel that impulse. Then once I started playing in bands, even on a really small level, I always took it really seriously. I don’t think things have really shifted.”

Initial EP recordings were the first order of business after Saintseneca formed. While the personal shifted dramatically after the release of its first album (ironically titled Last), the band exists today as an expansive sounding combo that also includes Maryn Jones, Steve Ciolek and Jon Maedor as it tours behind Dark Arc. The record also marks Saintseneca’s debut on Anti- Records, the label home of Tom Waits, Kate Bush and Neko Case, among other notables.

“We’re out there chugging along, but I think one of the things that becomes important is to take a step back and find a level of fulfillment in every step. You can set some lofty goal. But when we’re selling out some place with 1,000 people packed in, that’s when I’ll really feel that I’ve made it. But that’s also an artificial standard of success. To feel supported and feel like what you’re doing means something to other people is pretty important, too.”

WUKY’s Phoenix Fridays featuring Saintseneca, Small Batch and Englishman begins at 5 p.m. July 25 at Phoenix Park, S.Limestone and W. Main. Admission is free. Call (859) 257-3221 or go to http://wuky.org.

in performance: dave alvin, phil alvin and the guilty ones

dave-and-phil-alvin

dave alvin and phil alvin.

“I know you’ve been covering your ears all night,” said Dave Alvin to a patron seated next to a sizeable speaker last night at the Southgate House Revival in Newport. “But I should really warn you that things are about to get ugly.”

Up to that point, the performance the Grammy winning songwriter and guitarist was showcasing with elder sibling Phil Alvin was something of a roots rock jamboree. The initial repertoire dealt with the more acoustic driven works from their fine new Big Bill Broonzy tribute album Common Ground (All By Myself, Key to the Highway and especially the ragtime flavored instrumental Saturday Night Rub) as well as lighter fare from the brothers ‘70s and early ‘80s tenure in The Blasters (Jimmie Rodgers’ Never No More Blues) and brother Dave’s solo catalogue (the still regal King of California, which was dedicated to the Alvins’ mother). And, frankly, one could have walked home from that expansive segment and considered the evening a win.

But the “nasty” aspect had Dave switching to electric guitar and piloting the vastly rockier aspects of this highly roots conscious outing.

For the Broonzy songs, that meant riding the crest of lean, wily grooves that unfolded during Southern Flood Blues and pumping up the rockabilly sass of Truckin’ Little Woman. For the Blasters tunes, that meant serving up a big, chunky slice of roots rock fun during Border Radio and igniting the gospel-esque stride in their 1981 version of Samson and Delilah. And to prove the great Broonzy wasn’t the only inspiration at work, brother Phil delivered the ‘50s-era James Brown hit Please Please Please with the kind of combustible vocal vigor that stood in contrast to the ultra-reserved stage presence he maintained throughout the 2 ¼ hour performance.

The show wasn’t some makeshift Blasters reunion, either. In that band, the boundaries were clearly set (Phil sang, Dave wrote and played guitar). Last night, the brothers were equal partners. And while Phil’s ageless rockabilly tenor was obviously the more buoyant vocal utensil, Dave’sfolk-directed singing (especially during the anthemic Dry River and Fourth of July) nicely balanced a roots-hearty rock ‘n’ roll show fueled by extraordinary musical instinct and undeniable brotherly love.

critic’s pick 332: keith jarrett/charlie haden, ‘last dance’

last danceLast Dance is many intended things -.an album of understated but extraordinary beauty, a subtle and soulful conversation by two jazz titans – Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden – whose friendship extends back nearly a half century and a loving representation of a jazz standard’s seemingly limitless interpretative possibilities.

It is also something fully unexpected. Released on June 17, the album stands as the final recording prominently featuring the great bassist Haden to be released in his lifetime. He died on July 11 at age 76 of complications from post-polio syndrome.

How noble it would be to view this delicate, spirited music without factoring in Haden’s passing. Maybe you can do that. I couldn’t.

The hushed finesse of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s My Ship, for instance, takes on an unavoidably bittersweet quality. That doesn’t detract from the beauty of one of Jarrett’s most delicately graceful recorded performances or the way Haden follows him like a shadow until his own playing on the double bass – a sound that absolutely sings – is allowed to solo.

The same feeling emerges when Jarrett glides serenely into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s It Might As Well Be Spring, where Haden’s feathery bass punctuation serves as a dance partner as much as a duet voice.

Last Dance was recorded during the same round of 2007 sessions that gave us another Jarrett/Haden duets album, Jasmine, in 2011. So finality wasn’t on either player’s mind when this music was recorded. What surfaces instead is a reflection of the musical camaraderie that began in the ‘60s and hit its first pinnacle with several ‘70s collaborations for the European ECM label (which also issued Last Dance). The communication between the two players on the new album is so heightened and exact you can almost picture them playing this music in your living room.

Jarrett, of course, is an old hand with this stuff. Aside from his famed solo piano concerts centered exclusively on improvisation, he has led a resourceful trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette for over 25 years devoted largely to new explorations of jazz standards. But listen to the solo bass blues-speak Haden creates here on Everything Happens to Me and you discover his ability to unlock the lyrical bounty of a standard is equally authoritative.

Then, of course, we have the coincidental application of the titles. Could anyone have imagined Haden’s final album would bear the name Last Dance? Or that its closing tune, would be a pastoral interpretation of Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye? Or, for that matter, that the next-to-last song would be an equally lovely version of Cole Porter’s Every Time We Say Goodbye?

It all makes for the most touching of parting shots – the kind that was never intended to be one.

of brothers and broonzy

dave and phil alvin 2

phil alvin and dave alvin.

Phil Alvin remembers well the first time he heard a Big Bill Broonzy record. He was barely in his teens, growing up in the Southern California town of Downey with an infatuation for music that was fervently matched by younger brother Dave.

Once they hit their ‘20s, the siblings fell into a Los Angeles punk and roots music movement that yielded such vanguard acts as X, Los Lobos, Kentucky’s own Dwight Yoakam (who would eventually score a major hit with a cover of Dave’s Long White Cadillac) and the band that gave a platform to the Alvins’ rock ‘n’ roll passion, both as stage performers and as recording artists – The Blasters.

Before any of that though, there was Big Bill.

“I remember there was a reissue album my mother bought for me in a department store,” said Phil, 61. “The cover was great. There was this real sharp looking guy on it. That was my introduction to Big Bill’s songs. I took it home and played for my brother and we both just loved it.”

The multi-stylistic blues of the Southern-bred Broonzy, who penned and copyrighted over 300 songs before his death in 1958, did more than inspire two brothers in search of their own musical voices. It would, roughly a half century later, serve as the sound that reunited them after a lengthy period of estrangement and solo career activity.

On Common Ground: Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy, the brothers refocused on one their foremost inspirations to cut their first full studio album together since 1985.

“The thing is, Big Bill Broonzy never played in just one style,” said Dave, 58. “If we were doing, say, a Lightning Hopkins tribute we would pretty much have to sound like Lightning Hopkins all the way through. But Big Bill could play in ragtime. He would play country blues. He did everything.”

But when asked the chicken-or-the-egg question about which came first, the idea of recording a Broonzy tribute or reuniting with his brother, Dave didn’t hesitate.

“It was the chance of doing something together.”

Perhaps that’s because another circumstance intervened to bring Common Ground to fruition. While on tour in Europe with the present day Blasters (which Dave has largely steered away from over the years, save for a tour in 2003), Phil was hospitalized for an infection caused by an abscessed tooth. The condition caused his heart and vital signs to momentarily stop.

“Everything has changed since then,” Phil said. “You put more value in music. You put more value in everything. It’s hard not to when your mortality flashes before you like that. I wish it was something I could get away from, but I can’t. But I’m out here and staying healthy”

Dave was solemn and succinct in describing the reunion. “It’s just great to be out playing with my brother.”

During their years apart, Dave released a succession of roots-driven solo recordings (1998’s Blackjack David being among the finest) and forged a devout Lexington following though a series of late ’90s performances at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his band, The Guilty Men. The group, now dubbed The Guilty Ones, will back the brothers during a Wednesday concert at The Southgate House Revival in Newport.

The two will resume their separate careers this fall. Phil, in fact, will make his Lexington debut on Labor Day when the Blasters perform at Willie’s Locally Known. But with their professional and personnel bonds now strengthened, neither brother plans on letting too many years slip away before reteaming again.
“I’m not that stupid anymore,” Dave said.

Added Phil: “That’s funny. I think I’m getting more stupid.”

Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones perform at 8 p.m. July 23 at the Southgate House Revival,111 E. Sixth St. in Newport. Tickets: $25, $35. Call (859) 431-2201 or got to www.southgatehouse.com

in performance: chuck mead and his grassy knoll boys

Chuck-Mead

chuck mead.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “Don’t forget about the big dance floor down here,” said Chuck Mead, motioning to the crawlspace in front of the stage at Willie’s Locally Known last night already occupied by a string of sizeable stage monitors.

A few couples squeezed into other available spaces to two-step (or something close to it) to the self-described “big country show” Mead brought to town. But those content to sit back and soak in the litany of traditional and roots-driven sounds the singer and his trio, the Grassy Knolls Boys, summoned certainly didn’t miss out. As a friend once told me, “You can dance to anything.” And indeed, the expert level of vital, vintage fare Mead was dishing deserved active listening from its audience.

Mead had a new album to promote, a fine Kansas-themed record call Free State Serenade that dominated roughly half of the 75 minute set.

The show-opening combination of Knee Deep in the Wakarusa River and The Devil By Their Side (which also serve as the first two tracks on Free State Serenade) were, to borrow a term from the latter tune, “cornfield shuffles” that centered around the continually spry pedal steel guitar colors of Carco Clave, a lightly toned but swiftly paced rhythm section and a vocal lead from Mead full of country reverence but also a hint of wry humor that helped seal the deal on this music.

Such a game plan further unfolded in the UFO parable Ten Light Years Away. Mead prefaced the tune with a story detailing the flatness of his home state (“There would be about six trees between you and Canada”) before the song outlined the prospect of an actual extraterrestrial landing there (“That ain’t no Chevrolet”).

The rest of the show was equally roots-driven, but drew on a wider range of source material. Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys took highly appealing stabs at tunes popularized by Buck Owens (Hello Trouble), Ray Price (Crazy Arms) and Del Reeves (Girl on the Billboard), as well as several appealing flashbacks to the singer’s tenure in the country roots band BR549. From that bunch, the beer-soaked neo-ballad Lifetime to Prove best reflected the soul, sass and solemnity that drove this Saturday night country revival.

in performance: mic harrison and the high score

MicHarrison-byAnnieClarkRankin

mic harrison. photo by annie clark rankin.

The clock was closing in on midnight at the Green Lantern as the crowd dwindled down to a small handful of patrons. Even the evening’s headliner admitted this was the latest start time he had been given for one of his shows in about four years.

But Mic Harrison and his longrunning Knoxville band The High Score carried on last night as though they were basking in prime time. Their show was fueled by a fine catalogue of elemental original tunes with a high garage rock quotient and a stylistic reach that stretched from honky tonk to surprisingly immediate post-punk jaunts. But Harrison put one in the win column with his stage demeanor alone. Despite the miniscule turnout and the late hour, his performance attitude reflected an unflinching love for his work and music. That made an already vital set sound all the merrier.

The show opening Wiser the Whiskey set the pace and temperament of the hour long set with a front line of three guitarists and a bassist, all of whom doubled as vocalists. While Harrison’s general vocal cheer recalled the mischievous immediacy that highlighted the late’90s records of the Bottle Rockets, some of the heavy lifting was left to guitarist Robbie Trosper. His meaty rhythmic jabs fortified the song’s loose groove and carved room for some serious instrumental shredding.

Elsewhere, the tunes themselves underscored – and then tinkered with – the show’s roadhouse vibe. Hey Driver, for instance, was a vintage-style trucker song with an inviting backbeat supplied by drummer Brad Henderson while Ruin of My Days (from the Harrison and the High Score’s fine 2012 album Still Wanna Fight) was a vastly involved suite that slipped a slice of ensemble psychedelia in between two passages of heavy honky that sounded like Status Quo on a rural country holiday.

The set also reached back for a pair of tunes from Harrison’s ‘90s tenure with the Knoxville power pop troupe The V-Roys (Sooner or Later and No Regrets) and two well chosen covers (Tom Petty’s Listen to her Heart and an exhaustive, show-closing take on Bob Seger’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man).

All in all, an enthusiastic, well balanced and highly intuitive performance sent to us from the other side of the Tennessee border. Too bad so few folks from the homestead showed up for the visit.

johnny winter, 1944-2014

johnny-winter

johnny winter.

At the height of his powers, which was on just about any record issued under his name between 1968 and 1986, Johnny Winter was one the most potent and unrelenting blues stylists to roar out of Texas.

A wiry figure from Beaumont born with albinism, Winter could not have looked less like a bluesman. But once unleashed in performance, his guitar work and singing became something of a perfect storm. Sure, there were instances where he bowed more directly to the blues (as in his 1968 debut album The Progressive Blues Experiment and 1977’s return-to-the-roots primer Nothin’ But the Blues). But Winter’s appeal was built around a sound that shunted blues tradition through the guitar-dominate sounds of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. His jams were tireless blasts of boogie-driven rock that favored drive and groove over subtlety. Winter’s singing was the same – a tough-knuckled howl that seemed to egg on the intensity of his playing.

But Winter, who died yesterday at the age of 70 while on tour in Switzerland, was also a product of his time. He found his place in an age of psychedelia, a situation cemented by a career defining performance at Woodstock. The freshness of the music he fashioned during that era was captured on the first two entries in a near flawless stream of recordings for Columbia – 1969’s Johnny Winter and 1970’s Second Winter.

There were extraordinary highs, like a late ‘70s alliance with Muddy Waters that resulted in three sublime Winter-produced recordings for the blues master, as well as near fatal lows that included an early ‘70s addiction to heroin. And as with any great artist whose career has prevailed through both extremes, there have bee numerous recording triumphs that have never received their just critical due, including 1974’s Saints and Sinners (his most stylistic diverse rock-dominate set with a deliciously nasty version of the Rolling Stones’ Stray Cat Blues), 1980’s Raising Cain (a primal blues adieu to Columbia), 1985’s Serious Business (arguably the finest of three albums Winter cut for the famed blues label Alligator) and 1991’s Let Me In (a looser, blues dominate session Pointblank/Charisma).

“I remember making records when I was a teenager – maybe 16 or 17 years old,” Winter told me in a January 1992 interview. “I thought at the time, ‘I wonder what these are going to sound like to me when I’m 50 or 60. I had an awareness even then that I was making a record for the future.”

critic’s pick 331: john hiatt, ‘terms of my surrender’

JohnHiatt-TermsOfMySurrender“I guess we all have dreams floating on feathers,” remarks John Hiatt near the end of Terms of My Surrender in a song of separation titled Come Back Home. It’s a sentiment both passive and deflating, a shadow from the darker side of a songwriting psyche with a front row seat to the human condition. Color that with the low, scorched tone of his singing and the light, rustic tone of the instrumentation and you have a portrait of the 21t century Hiatt at work.

Well, you have one portrait. Hiatt may sound like he belongs to an elder school of hard knocks on Terms of My Surrender. But, as has always been the case with his recordings – especially the remarkable string of nine albums he has issued over the last 15 years – Hiatt wears the comedic mask as much as the tragic one. Two songs earlier, on Here to Stay, brittle guitars sway in bluesy simpatico preaching romantic salvation and familial faith in the face of desolation (“Even your pride is gonna leave you; my love is here to stay”). And in a wily instance of roots-rock diplomacy called Baby’s Gonna Kick, Hiatt takes a whimsical pass at domestic distrust that is revealed when the title’s full intent unfolds in the chorus (“My baby is gonna kick me out someday”).

Such are the peripheral glances of domesticity that Hiatt serves up throughout Terms Of My Surrender. The wiry, rootsy backdrops Hiatt designs with producer/guitarist Doug Lancio nicely compliment all the emotional fence-straddling, too. But even within that context, the album offers a few surprises.

When the troubled skies clear for the baby talk parlor piece Marlene, Hiatt and Lancio create a light, summery sing-a-long. Then during the title tune to Terms of My Surrender, the sound turns to slow jazz while the mood becomes whimsical enough for Hiatt to summon a truly distinctive metaphor for the lovelorn (“my heart is so heavy, like a stack of Bibles”).

Still, the sound and imagery permeating the record suggest the blues. Hiatt began leaning more prevalently in that direction with 2008’s Same Old Man. But on the new album’s most arresting tune, Face of God, Hiatt gets worldly (perhaps even otherworldly) with a brittle acoustic meditation that strives to find the balance between earthy suffering and spiritual release.

Nothin’ I Love is a more earthbound reverie with a dirty, dirty, dirty guitar riff and a sense of playful confession fit for a priest (“I keep-a slink-slack-slidin’ down a slippery slope”).

Ever since Bring the Family redefined his career over 25 years ago, Hiatt has sounded remarkably at home in the well worn skin he calls home. While the stories on Terms of My Surrender aren’t autobiographical, they are told with enough crusty, curmudgeon-ly zeal to make Hiatt the master of all the bliss and wreckage before him.

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