in performance: john hiatt

John Hiatt. Photo by David McClister.

John Hiatt’s finest music always seems to center around family – his adoration of it, his curiosity towards it and, in some cases, his unabashed escape from it.

On Tuesday night before a modest sized turnout at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, Hiatt recounted how his first visit to his hosting city came as a teen fleeing his Indianapolis homestead to sleep in an abandoned downtown building that was “cold as (expletive).” That single-evening truancy sent him back to the family and, presumably, planted at least some of the seeds for his songs.

Though this solo acoustic performance was among Hiatt’s final tour dates promoting his 23rd studio album “The Eclipse Sessions,” the family theme resurfaced in the revival of an astonishing 1990 composition, “Seven Little Indians.” A largely autobiographical tale that outlined Hiatt’s childhood as the second youngest of seven children entertained by their storytelling father through an incantatory tale draped in Native American imagery. Spoken and recited and much as it was sung, Hiatt served the tune up as a childhood remembrance told from a decidedly adult (and subsequently parental) perspective.

The newer tunes from “The Eclipse Sessions” were perhaps less familial but no less fascinating, from the disenchanting Nashville portrait “All the Way to the River” to the plain speaking (and almost apologetic) spiritual confessional “Poor Imitation of God.” In both cases, the darker turns of the lyrics were matched by the low, often whispery tones of Hiatt’s singing.

At 66, there are mild signs of age in Hiatt’s performance profile. Aside from the more sobering nature of his songs, his voice is slightly thinner and his general persona less animated than in years past. None of that was distracting, however. In fact, age brought a sage-like demeanor to tunes like “Crossing Muddy Waters” as well as vintage fare that included “Is Anybody There?” and “Feels Like Rain.” Even the formerly whimsical rocker “Perfectly Good Guitar” took upon an air of scholarly sadness in this unaccompanied setting.

That’s not to say Hiatt didn’t get into party mode when he chose to. The evening’s most ribald entry had to be “Memphis in the Meantime,” a saga of down home decadence that has, over its three decade-plus history, always referenced a currently en vogue country artist and their unwillingness to “ever record this song.” When the song first appeared in 1987, the artist in question was Ronnie Milsap. On Tuesday, it was Blake Shelton.

The tune didn’t stray far from home, ether. It was first featured on the album that essentially broke Hiatt as a solo artist. Its title? “Bring the Family.”

in performance: bob dylan and his band

Bob Dylan.

Go away from my window; leave at your own chosen speed.”

That famous lyric, the lead off to “It Ain’t Me Babe,” comes from a staple of Bob Dylan’s catalog and performance repertoire. The song popped up No. 2 in the batting order of the master songsmith’s otherworldly sold out performance at the EKU Center for the Arts on Sunday evening, serving as – depending on your perspective – a greeting or a warning of what was to come. That’s because Dylan, 77, has long taken his songs at his own emotive, lyrical and rhythmic speed. Such asymmetry explains why some tunes sounded like crooners, other like pop carousels and more than a few like vehicles for, unfathomably, surf inspiration.

Seated at a piano for nearly the entire 1 ¾ hour concert (he quit playing guitar onstage years ago) with a functional four member band that was mostly backlit to make their music even more atmospheric, Dylan presented a set list rich with classics as well as comparatively newer works (meaning songs cut in this century). As we have come to expect from a Dylan show, every song sported drastically altered arrangements that often shifted the music’s entire rhythmic structure. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” as a crooner? “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an encore lullaby? “When I Paint My Masterpiece” as a dizzying meditation? Those were the altered portraits Dylan put on display with varying shades of his death rattle vocals as a tour guide along with piano work that purposely blotched the musical canvases like spilt ink.

The newer works obviously intrigued Dylan more than the hits. As such, several presented some startling surprises, including an incantatory “Scarlet Town,” the first of four tunes pulled from 2012’s “Tempest” and the only complete song Dylan sang without using the piano as protective armor. Equally arresting was “Cry A While” from 2001’s “Love and Theft,” which was transformed into an electric hullabaloo of sorts thanks to guitarist Charlie Sexton’s Dick Dale-like guitar riffs (seriously, this arrangement had “Rumble” written all over it).

Also, if you were especially attentive and could make out actual words from Dylan’s corrosive singing, you could catch him toying with his own lyrics. A change I detected popped up in the set-closing “Gotta Serve Somebody” (“Maybe you’re hallucinating, you think you’ve seen a ghost”).

Curiously, it was the evening’s lone cover tune, which closed the evening, that served as the most faithful entry in the program to the song’s original incarnation. On a slow, somber version of James Brown’s immortal “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” Dylan focused his singing in a manner that approximated the clarity of his recent standards albums. Fiddler and BR549 alum Donnie Herron even provided a startling one-man take execution of the original’s potently elegant string arrangement.

How does such a song fit into one of the most socially timeless catalogues in popular music? Who’s to say? Then again, Dylan debuted the cover on Nov. 7 – the day after the election. In Georgia. For a program so thoroughly rooted in the Dylan mystique, this nightcap was a startling return to earth.

in performance: “the joni mitchell tribute: both sides now”

Joni MItchell attending a tribute concert on Wednesday in Los Angeles, one of several worldwide concerts this week honoring her 75th birthday. Photo by Vivian Killilea/Getty Images for The Music Cente.

On paper, staging a Lexington-based tribute performance to the music of Joni Mitchell would seem a logical second act for the artists and organizers that presented immensely popular and well organized programs of Leonard Cohen songs last year and last spring. Both artists have musical legacies that extend back to the 1960s, both have had their works interpreted by countless disciples representing myriad genres and both have evoked a sense of lyrical and poetic adoration from successive generations. Mitchell even trumps Cohen for timeliness (this year, at least), as Friday’s “The Joni Mitchell Tribute: Both Sides Now” at First Presbyterian Church came in tandem with a wave of international celebrations honoring the songstress’ 75th birthday earlier this week.

But stylistically, Mitchell has proven a greater thrillseeker than Cohen. To that degree, such variance was showcased at Friday’s showcase to an effect that was sometimes thrilling, sometimes lopsided, sometimes both.

Those taken with songs fashioned from Mitchell’s earliest recordings as a folk princess of Laurel Canyon had plenty to luxuriate in, beginning with a crystalline reading of “Cactus Tree” (from Mitchell’s 1968 debut album “Song to a Seagull”) by Louisville folk stylist Julia Purcell, whose expressive soprano best approximated Mitchell’s multi-octave singing. Several other artists, though, nicely shifted the vocal temperament to their own range, be it through two stirring solo piano accompaniments by Beth Scherfee (“For Free”) and Melissa Snow-Groves (a more classically inclined “Blue”) or the beautiful mother/daughter harmonies of Diane Timmons and Claire Rose during The Partisans’ take on the 1969 “Clouds” obscurity “Songs to Aging Children Come.”

The program’s attempts to follow Mitchell’s music as it morphed into more progressive shades of fusion, world beat and jazz were impressive in their daring but more problematic in execution. Kevin Holm-Hudson and Jim Gleason get bonus points for the evening’s biggest gambles, even if the resulting sound and mix buried their vocals. Holm-Hudson assembled a team of 14 percussionists (including local innovators Tripp Bratton and Dave Farris) to recreate the Drummers of Burundi’s incantatory beat on “The Jungle Line,” while Gleason delved into the “Mingus” era swing of “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.” There were also some audacious interpretive choices, including Doc Feldman’s transformations of the spacious “Refuge of the Roads” and “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” into denser, Grateful Dead-style excursions.

But the biggest delight came near the program’s end with chamber-like transformations by Nevi’im of “Amelia” and Mitchell’s brilliant 1982 mash-up of the original “Chinese Café” with the pop classic “Unchained Melody.” Aided by pianist Raleigh Dailey, cellist Benjamin Karp and violinist Margie Karp, the vocals of Marilyn Robie and Kim D’Amato played out with patient, poetic grace in a setting that was distinctive yet profoundly respectful of Mitchell’s stylistic and lyrical genius.

in performance: christian mcbride’s new jawn

Christian McBride. Photo by Anna Webber.

Having put his fellow members of the New Jawn quartet through the paces, either with generous solo passages or ensemble skirmishes that continually juggled elements of swing, blues and playfully scattered bop, Christian McBride stood alone on the stage of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center last night with his longtime musical weapon of choice – the double bass.

An inventive composer, bandleader, sideman and all around jazz entrepreneur, this was what his storied career boiled down to – a few incredibly wondrous minutes by himself creating a solo full of classically designed depth, compositional drama and even a bit of artful showmanship, especially when his hands met and crossed each other on the instrument’s neck as the solo gathered momentum.

But what defined McBride during this brief passage wasn’t his technical command or even his improvisational prowess, although both were in remarkable form. No, the secret was how the solo was really a catalyst, a set up, for “Brother Malcolm,” a spacious McBride original from the aptly named “Christian McBride’s New Jawn” album that was released on Friday. As the bass subsided to join forces with drummer Justin Faulkner’s rumbling backdrop, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and trumpeter Josh Evans let the tune unfold like a meditation, much like a vintage John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders album might. As a result, this sublime blend of intro solo and ensemble prayer didn’t just highlight McBride the soloist, but McBride the band man, as well

The rest of the one hour, 50 minute performance – a major booking coup for the Origin Jazz Series’ second season – utilized the same formula but with a slightly different batting order. Strickland, for instance, switched to bass clarinet several times during the evening. He created an especially lustrous blues accent on the instrument that colored the Thelonious Monk-inspired “The Ballad of Ernie Washington” before switching back to sax to directly honor Monk with a suitably playful reading of “Misterioso.”

Sometimes the feel and tempos stayed cool and blue as on the McBride original “John Day.” In other instances, the bass and brass came in more punctuated stabs, as on a lively take on Wayne Shorter’s “Sightseeing.”  In the end, though, it was McBride who got in the last word with a woozy bass line during an encore tune that would drive, jerk backward and repeat. The bandleader told the audience the line was designed as a sort of drunken stroll. The tune’s name? “Walking Funny.”

in performance: chris stapleton/marty stuart and his fabulous superlatives/brent cobb

Chris Stapleton performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

“I met 1,200 people tonight who claimed they were your cousin,” said Marty Stuart to Chris Stapleton onstage last night at Rupp Arena.

The Lexington-born Stapleton, in town for his first headlining performance as a solo artist, simply motioned to the sold out crowd of 17,000-plus before him and replied, “They’re all my cousins.”

One has to suppose from such a remark that this four-hour, three act country/Americana summit was, in fact, a family affair. Certainly, Stapleton, Stuart and show opener Brent Cobb did their utmost to uphold such a feeling. The lineup had the potential to be the strongest top-to-bottom country bill Rupp has hosted in years, maybe even decades. The good news? All three artists made good on the promise and then some by eschewing the pop-laden concessions and excesses that have, sadly, become standard fare at arena country shows for a roots music mix that upheld tradition without staying anchored to it.

Stapleton’s set was a true embarrassment of riches, beginning with his band, which last night boasted such all stars as guitarist/producer Dave Cobb, steel guitar great Paul Franklin and longtime Willie Nelson harmonica ace Mickey Raphael as well as the return of the singer’s wife Morgane Stapleton as harmony vocalist. But in the end, it was still Stapleton’s ability to craft a sound that struck a hearty balance between country tradition and Muscle Shoals-style soul, whether it was through his own expert songs or a generous roundup of interpretations and covers, that commanded the evening.

Opening with a chunky, electric take on “Midnight Train to Memphis,” Stapleton’s two hour set was a lesson in dynamics. Late into the evening, the program ran through, in succession, a playful cover of “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” with Stuart, a lone duet with Morgane on “Where Rainbows Never Die” (an unexpected nugget from Stapleton’s bluegrass days with the SteelDrivers), a riveting and unaccompanied reading of “Whiskey and You,” a country-folk flavored “Broken Halos” and a riff-heavy and rockish “Second One to Know.”

That each revealed varying shades of Stapleton’s glorious, soul-scratched vocals is probably not big news. What was surprising, though, was how the show also revealed Stapleton to be a monster guitarist. Cementing that assessment was a lengthy revision of the “From a Room, Volume 1” country torch lament “I Was Wrong.” Performed as a trio piece by Stapleton, bassist (and Elkhorn City native) J.T. Cure and drummer Derek Mixon, the tune and the extended jam that grew out of it sounded less like traditionalist country and more like the kind of elemental psychedelia conjured by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

Though not an extensive talker onstage, Stapleton made clear his excitement at performing at the same arena where he saw Bon Jovi perform in 1987.

Fabulous Superlatives guitarist Kenny Vaughan and Marty Stuart onstage at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

Stuart, rightly dubbed a “steward of country music” by Stapleton, preceded the headliner with a 45-minute set that operated as a roots music primer, via expert covers of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard staples, as well as an Americana mix that touched on bluegrass, rockabilly and, remarkably, surf music.

The country veteran sounded fully in charge when on his own, as shown by a riveting take on “Orange Blossom Special” played not on fiddle, but solo mandolin. But what ignited the set was the resourceful and joyous sound of Stuart’s longtime Fabulous Superlatives band. Whether it was through the twin guitar sound created when Stuart locked horns with Kenny Vaughan on the set-opening “Lesson in Love,” bassist Chris Scruggs’ high tenor pleading on an apropos “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or drummer Harry Stinson’s faithful update of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Stuart and the Superlatives served up a vital history lesson on country roots essentials. Hearing him egging the Rupp crowd on to sing along on the band’s version of “Ring of Fire” gives one a sliver of hope for the music’s future in a Florida-Georgia Line world.

Brent Cobb during his opening set at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photograph by Rich Copley.

Cobb’s half hour opening set was a blast, as well, from the a capella intro to “Diggin’ Holes” through the rural comeuppance of “Down in the Gulley” to the country-funk conclusion of “If I Don’t See Ya.” The Georgia songsmith had no problem playing on Wildcat turf, either. He honored his host audience with a fiery version of Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars Cadillacs,” a wonderful channeling of one country roots generation by another.

in performance: brent cobb

Brent Cobb.

After easing out of “King of Alabama,” a rootsy but vivid remembrance of songsmith Wayne Mills, who was shot to death in a Nashville bar/barbeque joint, Brent Cobb wound down with guitarist Mike Harris bringing the tune to a wiry electric conclusion. “That’ll do,” Harris remarked. Yes, indeed. It did nicely.

As a warm-up for tonight’s sold out Rupp Arena performance with Chris Stapleton, Cobb offered a nine song in-store set with Harris this afternoon at CD Central that will likely prove, given the modest stage time opening acts are afforded at arena shows, as long as his Rupp outing.

Cobb packed a lot into his 35 minutes at CD Central. The expected priority of in-store shows is to promote new product, which he did with five songs from his splendid 2018 album, “Providence Canyon” that ranged from the hangover prayer “Mornin’s Gonna Come” to a plain-speaking warning to rural intruders called “.30-06.” But the program, brief as it seemed, was loose and unstructured enough for other fine surprises to surface.  Among them, a rewind to “Down in the Gulley” (a wild account from 2016’s “Shine On Rainy Day” of Cobb’s grandfather’s pump house being mistakenly raided as a moonshine distillery), a suitably rustic cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Swamp Music” and even a soundcheck snippet of the oddly nostalgic “Back When Daddy Smoked,” a tune Cobb said he composed the previous evening.

The advantage of an in-store show over an arena outing? In Cobb’s case, it was a chance to examine the striking rural sentiments within his narratives, especially in ballads like “Lorene.” But it was also a kick to hear Harris lightly unload a solo full of blues-savvy soul at the end of “.30-06” that underscored the tune’s rebel heart as well as Cobb’s acoustic accompaniment and Muscle Shoals-style singing.
All in all, a fun, intimate and insightful view of an Americana original. Now, on to the big house.

oregon’s horse feathers flock with kentucky players

Horse Feathers: Robby Cosenza, J. Tom Hnatow, Justin Ringle and Nathan Crockett.

What happens when an Oregon indie pop stylist, stationed for a time in North Carolina, is in need of a working band for an unexpected touring opportunity? Why, he heads to Kentucky, of course.

That’s the situation then-Portland, now-Astoria based song stylist Justin Ringle, the ringmaster behind the Northwestern folk-pop troupe Horse Feathers, was in a few years ago. After completing duties as producer for the Asheville band River Whyless, a touring offer presented itself even though there was no working road version of Horse Feathers available. So Ringle called up a pair of Lexington pals, drummer Robby Cosenza and guitarist J. Tom Hnatow, as well as longstanding Horse Feathers violinist Nathan Crockett. The partnership wasn’t entirely new. Ringle had shared bills with Cosenza and Hnatow during their tenure in the multi-state rock collective These United States. But Ringle wasn’t just after a quick-fix band to hit the road with. He was pursuing a whole new artistic and sonic temperament.

“Back in 2016, when I was working in Asheville, I got called to do a tour in a pinch,” Ringle said. “Geographically, Tom and Robby were the closest people I knew so I gave them a call. One thing led to another and it just became evident that it was going to be a fresh start working in Kentucky.”

“We met probably 10 or 12 years ago,” Cosenza added. “We would cross paths on the road all the time and always admired each other as players. I think it just made more sense for Justin to find something closer than Astoria or Portland, but I think he was also looking to ramp things up a bit. He called Tom and said, ‘You guys aren’t available, are you?’ We were like, ‘Sure.’ He was taking a shot in the dark and it worked out.”

The tour led to sessions for the sixth Horse Feathers album, “Appreciation.” Recorded largely at La-La Land Studios in Louisville and Shangri-La in Lexington, Horse Feathers cemented the working alliance between Ringle, Cosenza and Hnatow while expanding the band’s previously studied and subtle indie folk sound. What resulted was a fuller rock, pop and soul charge that often echoed the exuberance of a vintage Van Morrison record.

“There were so many new perspectives I explored that came from doing a lot of the record in Kentucky,” Ringle said. “It was the first time I recorded outside of the state of Oregon. Robby and Tom helped greatly because they had been working in styles I don’t regularly experiment with. They’ve sat in on a lot of country, Americana and soul sessions. They’ve done work with all types of bands.

“It just came across as a band vibe,” Cosenza said of the “Appreciation” recording sessions. “It wasn’t like Tom and I were hired guns. We all wrote together, we arranged together. It clicked pretty naturally. A lot of times, Tom and I would be goofing off on a tune and that would be the stuff Justin would go, ‘Man, what was that? Use it.”

Recording so far from home might suggest an air of displacement in the new Horse Feathers songs. It’s there, for sure, but not because of the Bluegrass connection.

“I had felt a sense of displacement because I had moved from where I had lived for the previous decade,” Ringle said. “I moved out of Portland to the Southeast and then, consequently, to the Oregon coast. I had also started a new relationship, so there’s a number of themes about everything that goes into that – good and bad. But one of the biggest things artistically, aside from the songwriting and themes, was that I really wanted to explore some sonic differences that I hadn’t really gotten underneath the hood with. I hadn’t really explored full blown rock ‘n’ roll dynamics. I hadn’t explored soul. I hadn’t explored a number of those things. I had to surrender to an experiment.

“We ended up with a sound I didn’t anticipate, but one that I felt really resonated for me and for the band. We were all like, ‘Wow, this is working in a way that none of us expected.”

Horse Feathers, Bendigo Fletcher and Daisy Helmuth perform at 9 tonight at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $15, $18 at theburlky.com.

in performance: the wood brothers/nicole atkins

The Wood Brothers, from left: Jano Rix, Oliver Wood and Chris Wood. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

After nearly an hour’s worth of tunes that began as a rootsy acoustic incantation and ended with a rhythm-savvy charge worthy of a New Orleans street parade, the Wood Brothers all but shut the show down last night at the Kentucky Theatre. With the trio huddled around a single microphone, the music was pared down to an almost primordial level of folk aesthetics.

There, vocalist Oliver Wood, sibling bassist Chris Wood and percussionist Jano Rix (doubling, at this moment, on melodica) stood playing the faintest of music in the faintest of light. Specifically, what was summoned was the title tune to the 2013 album “The Muse.” The overall feel, though, was that of a decades-old séance, a mood Chris Wood dubbed “O, Wood Brothers, Where Art Thou?” The song also served as the eye of a hurricane, one that merrily slapped together blues, folk, pop, a hint of country and a touch of jazz for a sound that rolled with the assurance of a freight train for just under two hours. Not coincidentally, a cover of the 60-plus year old Elizabeth Cotton folk gem “Freight Train” was later served as a lullaby-like encore before a barnstorming blues-rock mash-up of “Honey Jar” closed the performance for real.

What continually made the Wood Brothers such a distinct and intriguing combo was, ironically, a very familiar formula – a strong, unified sound made up of three distinct components, all of which were in top form last night.

Oliver Wood proved the unassuming frontman, an artist whose singing was as focused and unfussy as his playing. He served as the soulful carnival barker for the Crescent City-flavored “One More Day” but also folded the music into darker yet ultimately warmer corners for the campfire-like confessional “Sing About It.”

While his guitar work, especially wiry steel guitar leads utilized throughout the show, served as functional color for the music, the trio’s pilot was clearly Chris Wood. Playing the first half of the program by applying an atypically jazzy dexterity to the upright bass (atypical, at least, for a non-jazz outing) and then adding thunderous leads and grooves to the second half on an electric Hofner bass, brother Chris underscored the show’s impressive rhythmic and stylistic dexterity. He also took an absorbing vocal lead on “The Shore,” a groove parade built from a bass/harmonica framework that remained spacious enough for a few shades of guitar psychedelia to shine through.

Riding shotgun throughout all of this was Rix, a stand-up percussionist (on the guitar-shaped percussion device dubbed the shuitar) as well as a sit down drummer that regularly doubled on keyboards. From his Rhodes-like keyboard runs during a cover of “Big Boss Man” late in the set to the mix of ragged keys and drums that produced a sound nicely reminiscent of The Band on “Sparkling Wine,” Rix was the fire that fueled the Wood Brothers’ inventive engine room.

An especially nice bonus to last night’s performance was a 35 minute opening set by Nashville-by-way-of-New Jersey songstress Nicole Atkins. An artist with an almost cinematic feel for pop tradition, as well as a voice capable of showing off numerous shades from such a scope, Atkins worked her way into a sense of pop grandeur with “Cry, Cry, Cry,” sang with the reach and aim of Roy Orbison on “A Little Crazy” and echoed numerous girl group sensibilities from the 1960s on the set-closing “Listen Up.” A commanding introduction to an especially fine performance evening.

the musical stew of the wood brothers

The Wood Brothers: Jano Rix, Oliver Wood, Chris Wood. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

Digging into a Wood Brothers tune pretty much requires a check list.

A slinky guitar riff born out of the blues but industrious enough to fit most any roots-savvy groove? Check that. Brother Oliver Wood has you covered.

A rubbery bass line that sounds fittingly rustic yet is soulfully funky enough to always seem in motion? Check that. Brother Chris Wood is on the job when then kind of combo commences.

A percussion charge that can sound jagged and loose on one tune but rugged enough on another to fuel a solemn shuffle? Check that. Non-sibling Wood Brother Jano Rix is the guy keeping that groove going.

Smack all that together and you have the recipe the Wood Brothers have been following for the past 14 years. From the earthy tunes offered on “Live at Tonic,” a now out-of-print 2005 EP disc of the band’s very first performance (cut when Oliver and Chris played as a duo) to the ultra-indie design of 2018’s “One Drop of Truth,” a record the trio lineup cut and produced on its own without outside guests, the music of Wood Brothers has been a fresh but largely borderless blend of blues, funk, jam-friendly folk and jubilant rock and soul.

Oliver Wood, however, doesn’t play favorites. He sees all these colliding genres as one musical language.

“It’s just part of the palette with all of the different influences,” he said. “When you have three different guys who have overlapping tastes, different elements are brought in that we feel passionate about. I think, as in any band, that creates a distinctive sound. It’s like it’s a stew or a recipe that is unique to that band. Other people do that, too, but we have our own take on it. We put it together and it’s our little stew.”

A Colorado native, Oliver Wood spun off to Atlanta, landing in the blues band of guitarist Tinsley Ellis and eventually the roots music troupe King Johnson. Chris Wood landed at the New England Conservatory of Music before moving to New York and eventual membership in the popular avant jazz, jam and funk collective Medeski Martin & Wood. Rix, who utilizes a conventional drum kit as well as a modified guitar called a shuitar that is played as a percussion instrument, made the Wood Brothers a trio in 2011.

“Jano has been with us for seven years now, so his role has evolved,” Oliver Wood said. “He helped create some of the real signature noises you hear coming off the stage and the records. From the beginning, he totally fit us.

“I think when musicians get together, they sort of meet in the middle. They just kind of take awhile. With my brother and myself, it was instant just because we grew up together. With Jano or any other member, it takes a little longer. But eventually you get there. You meet in the middle and find a new language where you connect eventually. The way you wind up communicating with that musical language is really cool.”

Though “One Drop a Truth” was a purposely self-contained effort, the Wood Brothers have long been open to the idea of collaboration. Americana favorite Buddy Miller produced the band’s 2013 album “The Muse” while the Wood Brothers found themselves jamming with Hot Tuna and Tedeschi Trucks Band on the latter’s 2017 Wheel of Soul Tour.

But the band’s hybrid sound remains very much its own in any setting. Oliver Wood said that’s a result of unavoidably emulating the rock and soul sounds of the stylists that came before them. Then again, the singer admitted that’s standard operating procedure for most any artist.

“I’m a Ray Charles fan, but I’ll never sound like Ray Charles,” he said. “I’ll probably try some twisted, lame version of it that ends up morphing into something cool. A lot of my heroes did that, like the (Rolling) Stones. They tried to imitate the American blues guys and ended up with their own sound. There are countless examples of that.

“I think that’s how people’s original voices come out. It starts by emulating. They may fail to some degree, but their own personalities emerge. I think we all do that. Take a group of guys that are all doing that to some degree and you find that music is in your DNA.”

The Wood Brothers and Nicole Atkins perform at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main. Tickets: $25. Call 859-231-7924 or go to kentuckytheater.com.

 

 

in performance: noam pikelny and stuart duncan

noam pikelny (left) and stuart duncan.

“We walked all the way from Nashville,” remarked Noam Pikelny as he and Stuart Duncan entered The Burl last night with their instruments – at least, the ones not already awaiting them onstage – still packed in cases as if they were carting around luggage. But the two quickly made themselves at home with their first banjo/fiddle duet concert in Lexington and their first collaborative show of any kind in two years.

The resulting display of sterling acoustic music prided itself in genre juggling. Bluegrass may have sat the heart of their playing, especially in the instrumental runs that distinguished the show-opening medley of “Brushy Fork of John’s Creek” and “Mason’s Apron.” But even there, the two peeled any grassy intent back to a sense of traditional Celtic fancy.

Another medley paired the Shetland fiddle inspirations of “Laird O’Drumblair” with the more New Grass flavored Pikelny original “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer.” The merger was so playfully but deftly executed that the two tunes sounded like they grew up around the block from each other.

From there, the banjo/fiddle combination appropriated music previously excavated by John Hartford, Merle Haggard, Tommy Jarrell and, perhaps expectedly, Bill Monroe. But for all of the sense of tradition that surrounded the music of the latter, Pikelny and Duncan chose a decidedly unobvious route to travel – namely one that took them to works interpreted four decades ago by the maverick Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker. But the arrangements, by Pikelny, of “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” and “Wheel Hoss” transposed much of the fiddle charm of Baker’s versions to banjo. Still, the resulting dialogue with fiddler Duncan gave both players ample room to survey the compositional depth of Monroe’s music as well as the invention within Baker’s playing.

Mostly, though, the performance was a relaxed acoustic evening with a pair of unassuming virtuosos. Banjoist Pikelny makes his way to the region every few years, either with his day-job band Punch Brothers or his solo work. Duncan, however, almost never performs in Central Kentucky in such an intimate setting. Worth the walk from Nashville? Absolutely. What’s a bit of lost shoe leather when the music was this fine?

 

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