toots thielemans, 1922-2016

toots thielemans.

toots thielemans.

I heard the playing of Toots Thielemans, who died yesterday at age 94, before I ever knew who he was or understood the importance and extent of his musical history. I was about 11 and remember being transfixed whenever the theme to the then-popular film “Midnight Cowboy” came on the radio. It boasted a slow, elegant melody performed on, of all things, harmonica. It was one of the loneliest sounds I had ever experienced. But there was also a lightness and warmth to it that countered the desolate feel with comfort.

That was the sound of the Belgian musician born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans but who was forever known simply as Toots.

It took a few years to understand Thielemans’ astonishing career, playing alongside the likes of jazz titans such as Charlie Parker, George Shearing and especially Benny Goodman. But Thielemans never stood on accolades. His playing also graced comparatively contemporary recordings by pop stylists (Paul Simon, Billy Joel) as well a newer jazz voyagers (Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Lovano) that introduced him to successive generations of fans. But his playing was a constant. While he never again sounded as lonesome as he did on “Midnight Cowboy,” Thielemans’ musicianship always possessed a lyrical sweetness that was unwavering.

A versed guitarist and whistler (as witnessed by his signature song “Bluesette”), Thielemans also had a performance affinity for pianists. Two of his recordings that especially resonated with me paired him with two cross-generational piano voices – Bill Evans (on 1979’s “Affinity,” one of Evans’ final studio recordings before his death the following year) and Fred Hersch (on the underappreciated 1989 concert album “Do Not Leave Me”).

I got to see Thielemans play just once, at a University of Louisville concert in 2010 backed by another great pianist, Kenny Werner. Thielemans was a spry 88 at the time. The program ranged from Brazilian music (Luiz Eca’s “The Dolphin”) to a medley of Frank Sinatra hits. But the harmonica tone was as exotic as it was steadfast, transporting the instrument from more expected folk and blues domains to a very different musical paradise. In the hands of Thielemans, the harmonica was a voice of and for the world.

bobby hutcherson, 1941-2016

bobby hutcherson.

bobby hutcherson.

No instrument defines swing and bop’s sense of pervading cool better than the vibraphone. It is the ice cube in the proverbial jazz cocktail, a touch of chill that differs from all other percussive sounds. As a melodic device, it exudes clarity and elegance. To that end, no one played the vibes with more persuasive invention than Bobby Hutcherson. The great instrumentalist and composer died Monday at age 75.
There were giants before him, like Red Norvo, Kentucky’s own Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson. There others than came in his wake, like Gary Burton and a legion of new generation stylists that include Stefon Harris. But Hutcherson’s brilliance began in bop with a series of sterling Blue Note albums than spanned a remarkable 12 year period (1963-75), a stretch where artist and label both weathered shifts that steadily urbanized their music.
The early Blue Note records were things of beauty. A personal favorite from that era was 1965’s “Dialogue,” mostly because it showcased Hutcherson’s stylistic restlessness (it was rooted in bop-flavored cool, but would regularly jump off into waltz structures and free-style excursions). A hearty guest list (saxophonist/flutist Sam Rivers, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Andrew Hill) helped, but nothing matched Hutcherson’s gliding beauty when a vibes solo presented itself.
Later albums for the label were hit-and-miss, but early ‘70s collaborations with reed player and flutist Harold Land were standouts recorded just as Blue Note hit the crossroads of jazz and more R&B leaning appeal. The best of those works was 1970’s “San Francisco,” which wonderfully chronicled a stylistic changing of the guard. With a young Joe Sample on piano and electric keyboards, the record embraced groove but kept Hutcherson’s mix of boppish fancy and improvisational prowess in the driver’s seat.
As is often the case with musical artists whose career and performance stamina continue long enough to outlast trends and entire musical eras, Hutcherson settled on a largely traditional sound for his final records. 2007’s aptly titled “For Sentimental Reasons” boasted a repertoire dominated by standards set to the relaxed interplay of a quartet. But the exchanges between Hutcherson, sounding lighter and more fanciful than ever, and pianist Renee Rosnes sit at recording’s luscious core.
All three records should be considered essential listening for anyone intrigued by, but unfamiliar with, Hutcherson’s music.
“When you become involved with jazz, you’ve already received your reward,” Hutcherson told me in an interview prior to a Louisville concert with the SF Jazz Collective in 2005. “The thrill comes from being inside this world of music, of being tossed around inside the moment.”

in performance: joe walsh

joe walsh.

joe walsh.

Joe Walsh is such a paradox. Always has been. But in the 46 very odd years since his first recordings, you would think his rock ‘n’ roll image and the considerable ingenuity of his talent would have discovered a finer balance. Judging by his performance last night at the Louisville Palace, such was not the case.
The good news is that he sounded great, which is probably all that matters. Backed by a 10 member band that included two keyboardists, four backing vocalists and a few stellar West Coast names (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, drummers Joe Vitale and Chad Cromwell), he set about showcasing the hearty endurance of his career within the show’s first two songs – “Walk Away” (his 1971 hit with the James Gang) and “Analog Man” (the title tune to a 2012 solo album, his most recent recording). His voice was strong and expressive while his guitarwork was bold enough to lead the troupe through extended and engaging instrumental breaks during many tunes. Most notable among the latter was the James Gang relic “The Bomber,” which sailed through elongated psychedelic passages that touched trippingly on Ravel’s “Bolero” and the comforting melody of Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate Into the Wind” before resettling into the central tune’s crashing intro riff.
All of that effortlessly enforced the fact that Walsh, at age 68, is still a rock force of scholarly ability. So why, after all these years, does he still feel compelled to maintain the dimwitted stoner schtick between songs? When not playing, he rambled, often unintelligibly, about assorted misadventures and general forgetfulness. Decades ago, that seemed like a comic act designed for the Cheech & Chong generation. Last night, it just came across as juvenile put on, as if playing the fool was a base audience expectation.
Hopefully, anyone who bought into the spiel was equally enticed by the guitar roughhousing and prog-ish orchestration that highlighted obscurities like 1972’s “Mother Says” or the ensemble charge and clear-headed vocal command built within more established fare like “In the City” and especially “Turn to Stone.’ Those are instances that truly defined Walsh’s greatness, not the class clown antics that now serve him like a proverbial ball and chain.

in performance: dirty dozen brass band/chico fellini

Kirk Joseph (left) and Efrem Towns performed for Crave Lexington last night at Masterson Station Park.  Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Kirk Joseph (left) and Efrem Towns performed for Crave Lexington last night at Masterson Station Park. Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Crave Lexington couldn’t have chosen two more disparate acts to close out its first day at Masterson Station Park. Playing into sunset last night was New Orleans’ famed Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a favorite among local audiences that inches further away from its homeland heritage with every visit. Then gears shifted dramatically as Lexington’s own Chico Fellini mixed power pop, post punk, glam, psychedelia and more in its first formal stage outing in nearly five years.

The Dirty Dozen’s set was all sloppy fun that was far more concerned with retro funk and soul than native Crescent City grooves. Operating without tenor sax man Kevin Harris, which trimmed the band to a scant six members (The Dirty Half-Dozen?), the band placed the heavy lifting on trumpeter/flugelhornist Efrem Towns (who, in his more rambunctious moments, played both instruments simultaneously), baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis and trumpeter Gregory Davis.

The latter, on the band’s splendid Columbia albums of the’80s and ‘90s, was a prolific composer, fashioning often complex rhythms that expanded New Orleans jazz traditions. Last night’s show, though, was a loose – as in extremely loose – array of soul covers (“Superstition”), rootsy rumbles (“Lil’ Liza Jane”) and assorted jam vehicles that probably didn’t challenge the band the way Davis’ music did in the old days. “Use Your Brain,” delivered late in the night, was an exception and nicely approximated the joy and invention of vintage Dirty Dozen workouts. But even when rocking away in pure party mode, the Dirty Dozen offered an abundantly spirited soundtrack for a late summer Saturday night.

Emily Hagihara and Chris Dennison of Chico Fellini.

Emily Hagihara and Chris Dennison of Chico Fellini.

Despite its extended hiatus, Chico Fellini has lost none of its fighting form. The quartet played last night with a urgency and tightness that befitted a band that has never lost favor with (or interest in) stage work. Vocalist Chris Dennison still sang with remarkable drama and range, guitarist Duane Lundy continued to pilot tunes with efficient hooks and extended solos laden with psychedelia and even blues, Emily Hagihara remained the utility expert juggling duties on bass and percussion while regularly serving as a vocalist of regal beauty and drummer Brandon Judd kept all of the set pumping with a vitality that regularly revealed a preference for a playful backbeat.

The band’s original tunes, specifically “Electrolyte” (which highlighted Hagihara’s percussive colors) and “Hot” (where Dennison’s giddy range reflected the mood swings of a young David Byrne) were delivered with impressive clarity and drive. A selection of covers – the Iggy Pop/Kate Pierson convection “Candy” and, more robustly, a full tilt delivery of the David Bowie/Queen classic “Under Pressure,” rounded out Chico’s accomplished return to active service.


in performance: “the promised land”

tpl-postcardPossibly the greatest everyman charm of Bruce Springsteen’s songs has been the ability, in wholly rock ‘n’ roll terms, to seize a moment in motion. During the ‘70s, it embraced a mix of youthful zeal and restlessness. In the ‘80s, darker realities and a sense of desperate nostalgia came into play as adulthood intruded. Since then, his compositional scope has grown worldly and more world weary, a celebration of dreams attained and shattered.

Last night’s “world premiere educational workshop presentation” at the Singletary Center for the Arts of “The Promised Land” by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre strived to construct a narrative that links at least some of Springsteen’s songs and themes within a modern stage musical format. That’s a risky proposition, since Springsteen songs are so known and revered. Despite a bounty of youthful cheer and intent, little in this work-in-progress production illuminated its source material or conveyed a storyline that was even remotely in line with the exactness of Springsteen’s works.

There were numerous production issues – erratic singing voices and very unsteady acting that rendered a considerable portion of the first act unintelligible, as well as staging that seemed to dictate that, for maximum drama, actors must stand in stoic, chorus line fashion when singing. There were some nice exceptions – specifically, the female leads Ashley Jackson and Susanna White as well as some commanding second act singing from Darian Sanders that struck a character balance between acting and vocalizing largely lacking in the rest of the cast.

But the real problems with ‘The Promised Land’ were with design. The book by Adam Max and Alex Wyatt was a lightweight and, frankly, contrived vehicle full of sometimes astonishingly clichéd lines (“What are the neighbors going to say?”) that did little more than dumb down songs of scholarly completeness and detail. “Dancing in the Dark” muted and sung as a lullaby? “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” as a fight song for firemen? “Born to Run” as a combination hissy fit and self-help exercise for a disgruntled writer?

The production got especially problematic when it incorporated 9/11 late into the second act in order to utilize some of Springsteen’s sobering and very specific works from “The Rising” (the closest the show came to modern entries as much of the music relied on ‘70s and ‘80s Springsteen songs). Granted, it is next to impossible not to be moved by the severity of the occasion and its lasting sense of loss and tragedy. But “The Promised Land” seemed to pump the setting for cheaply earned, sentimentally provoked response.

That, in essence, is the problem facing anyone attempting to shoehorn songs of such human detail into a conventional stage musical setting. Springsteen’s music possesses more genuine energy (something the entire show achingly lacked), purpose and depth than anything this very pedestrian storyline brought to it.

Someday, perhaps, a production will surface that can properly compliment such astounding music. For all its good intentions and youthful spirit, last night was not that day and “The Promised Land” was not that production.

in performance: bryan ferry

bryan ferry.

bryan ferry.

Watching Bryan Ferry, one of the founding fathers from the prog side of Euro-pop, holding court in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, ground zero for country and Americana music, may represent the ultimate in culture clashes. Even a patron seated next to me on Tuesday night as a rare North American tour by Ferry hit Music City seemed bewildered. “How many people in Nashville even know who this guy is?”

Point made. Much of the healthy turnout seemed familiar with the veteran British singer and song stylist only through his early to mid ‘80s music, when a de-glammed version of the vanguard pop army Roxy Music decamped into darker, textured and more ambient inclined songs – all traits he carried over into a revamped solo career after Roxy ceased operations as a recording group in 1983.

But Ferry carried on as if Nashville was one of his key fanbases from previous decades with a neatly orchestrated nine-member band that ably fleshed out the dense, arty arrangements of his music and a setlist that wasn’t afraid to promote deep cuts from long lost albums as much as hits. After all, those who knew Ferry through the 1982 Roxy swan song record “Avalon” and the 1985 radio hit “Slave to Love” (which accounted for the bulk of the crowd) needed an understanding how just how extensive Ferry’s pop history was.

Make no mistake, the evening was a history lesson. After opening the show with two groove-directed songs from his newest album, 2014’s “Avonmore” (the title tune and “Driving Me Wild”), Ferry jettisoned everything from his catalog that post-dated 1987. That effectively eliminated three of the four-and-half decades Ferry’s recordings encompass. But the 15 year spread that remained was examined thoroughly.

From the earliest days of Roxy Music came giddy pop hits (“Virginia Plain,” “Re-Make/Re-Model”), quirkier, more prog-laced works (the noir-like “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” ominously performed with the band in silhouette, and the lost post-disco requiem “Stronger Through the Years”) and few complete surprises (1973’s “Beauty Queen,” which opened with summery lyricism before exploding into storm-trooping arena rock).

The solo career fare was more diverse, tracing Ferry’s pop roots as well as his stylistic evolution. Those songs reached back to the traditional pop wistfulness that distinguished his 1974 cover of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the lean piano-led reflection of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Thick Twice, It’s Alright.” The Ferry the crowd seemed to know made himself known early in the show when “Slave to Love,” with its thick keyboard and percussion-dominate soundscape, was dispatched. But there were again surprises, like a pair of  tunes from 1987’s Patrick Leonard-produced “Bete Noire” (the dark tango-infused title tune and the spiraling meditation “Zamba”).

At 70, Ferry’s voice has thinned a bit. Then again, he has spent much of his post-Roxy career as a kind of hushed, ambient crooner whose voice was less of a lead instrument and more part of an ensemble fabric. There were old band hands on board (guitarist Neil Hubbard, a co-hort since 1979) and vocalist Fonzi Thornton (a Ferry mate since “Avalon”). But newer members called upon to handle the vast instrumental terrain established by the Roxy material (Australian reed player Jorja Chalmers and especially Danish guitarist Jacob Quistgaard) helped Ferry blur time lines and geographical boundaries, making a sound fashioned in Europe decades ago seemed fresh and vital in boot-scooting Nashville.

in performance: wheels of soul tour featuring tedeschi-trucks band/los lobos/north mississippi all-stars

dereks trucks and susan tedeschi.

dereks trucks and susan tedeschi.

At the halfway point of last night’s Wheels of Soul summit at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, an old adage – the one about a unison force being greater than the sum of its parts – was reborn. In the midst of a scorching and unassuming set by Los Lobos, out marched Susan Tedeschi, half of the evening’s headlining Tedeschi-Trucks Band. Initially, she sang harmony with Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo on “Burn It Down,” a taught but beautifully pensive rocker she cut with the band in 2010. That alone was a highlight, a showing of artistic kinship of co-billed artists working in solidarity. Then Tedeschi took the lead as the TTB’s three member vocal crew joined the Lobos team and served up a beautifully anthemic rendition of the Marvin Gaye soul classic “What’s Going On.” The results made for a performance home run on all levels. It underscored, in a frank and sad way, the song’s enduring topicality. But it was also a grand show of musical hands, a united front of two powerhouse acts crossing generations and creating a performance of big-hearted musical might.

All three Wheels of Soul acts – the North Mississippi All-Stars opened the evening – delivered sets of distinct, absorbing power. The All-Stars, especially frontman/guitarist Luther Dickinson, offered an expansive, maturing view of their famed “world boogie” sound. Los Lobos remained a pack of stonefaced maestros, dispensing with artful and articulate rock delicacies without seemingly breaking a sweat. Tedeschi-Trucks again asserted itself as a vital rock and soul revue, but with a slightly more streamlined sound and heavier reliance on late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock, soul and psychedelia.

But the moments where members of the three bands swapped cameos in each other’s sets offered the show’s biggest surprises and most genuine thrills.

Trucks and Dickinson traded guitar breaks during the All-Stars’ version of the Howlin’ Wolf blues nugget “I’m Leaving You (Commit a Crime)” that were refreshingly free of the usual clenched teeth, blues-rock angst and were instead utilized as layers in a colorful, rootsy fabric. Later, after the Gaye celebration, Lobos were backed by the Tedeschi-Trucks horn section for a set-closing “Mas y Mas” that rocked with rich, brassy urgency. Then Dickinson returned for a series of wild, sinewy guitar exchanges with Trucks during TTB’s set that fueled the big beat pop soul charge of “I Want More” before dissolving into instrumental ambience that quoted the Allman Brothers Band’s “Little Martha” (but sounded more like Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way”) before coming to rest with the gentle but torchy “Midnight in Harlem.”

Three bands on a single bill creating the rock and soul equivalent of a block party – midsummer Saturday nights seldom offer better.


in performance: lyle lovett and his large band

lyle lovett.

lyle lovett.

One of the factoids Lyle Lovett dispensed with last night during an Opera House performance of typically vast stylistic breadth with his Large Band referenced what was essentially the introduction of his recording career – specifically, the reality that his debut album was released 30 years ago this summer.
That info seemed to buoy the 2 ½ hour, 24 song performance. For anyone seeing the Texas song stylist for first time, and there seemed to be many, the variance of themes, sounds and emotive makeup in the music had to be bizarrely refreshing. A personal highlight, in fact, was watching a patron seated directly in front of me crack up at the Zen absurdity within one of Lovett’s most beloved tunes, “Here I Am” (“If it’s not too late, make it a cheeeeeeseburger”). But those who have championed Lovett’s stylistic distinction for most of those three decades likely discovered such idiosyncrasies have lost little of their charm. “If I Had a Boat” still possessed a gentle but askew folk familiarity, “She’s No Lady” remained a bemused portrait of domestic entrapment highlighted by the Large Band’s elegant swing and “North Dakota” stripped Lovett’s lyrical sentiment to its starkest, most bittersweet core.
In short, the whole affair was pretty much a win-win.
There were a few modifications to the Large Band’s game plan, the most obvious being the program’s pacing. The evening began and ended with full blown gospel that utilized the group’s 13 member roster augmented by 10 additional vocalists from the Cincinnati community choir Rameco Lattimore and TWC. Vintage gospel has long been one of the many stylistic wellsprings Lovett dips into during his Large Band outings. But the show-opening jubilation of “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” revealed Lovett to be exactly that – a servant to a massive sound propelled by an in sync battalion of singers and instrumentalists.
From there, the show enlisted a number of dramatic musical spirits. Some were earthbound. Others, like the late Lone Star songsmith Guy Clark, who died in May, were not. Lovett reminisced at length about Clark’s influence during the program, but it was astonishing to hear how much emotive clarity and economy the two artists shared. Emphasizing such kinship was the placement of Clark’s wistful “Step Inside This House” next to Lovett’s “North Dakota.” Both were simple, quiet mood pieces with lovely poetic construction presented as the Large Band slowly pared itself down (eight members on the former song, seven on the later).
The other dominate presence, outside of Lovett himself, was singer Francine Reed – a mainstay of the Large Band for much of its history. With an expressive vibrato steeped in vintage R&B and blues, Reed’s was an animated foil for Lovett’s more askew romantic tunes (“What Do You Do,” being the most obvious). But she also rode shotgun to the ensemble swing of “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” beefed up the gospel reverence of the encore hymn “Pass Me Not” and renewed her role as crowd darling on the Ida Cox gem “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” a blast of soul and sass that has been her featured tune during Large Band shows for many years – one that has lost none of it abundant gusto.
But it was with “Closing Time” that Lovett brought the show full circle. The only offering from that debut record, the tune was performed as an after hours exhale, a neon-soaked snapshot of Lone Star country in a state a grace and exhaustion. Lovett wore the tune last night like a sheriff’s badge, a symbol of resolute authority. Thirty years on, Lovett may still be closing up the honky tonks. But as this immensely engaging performance revealed, the barroom doors to styles, sounds and stories too big for even Texas to contain, remained invitingly open.

in performance: colvin & earle

colvin & earle: shawn colvin (left) and steve earle. photo by alexandra valenti.

colvin & earle: shawn colvin (left) and steve earle. photo by alexandra valenti.

In setting the tone for their duo performance earlier tonight at the Lexington Opera House, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle went right for the holy grail of harmony rich folk-pop by opening with “Wake Up Little Susie.” Of course, the veteran songsmiths – billed officially as Colvin & Earle for this tour as well as a recent Buddy Miller-produced album – revealed little of the playful exactness of the Everly Brothers, who popularized the tune nearly 60 years ago. Colvin and Earle have decades of hard touring and songs than run from the topically tormented to the emotionally stark to fortify their reputations. Instead, “Susie” was an effective and elemental blueprint of what was to come – namely, two artists singing the vast portion of the evening’s 20 song, 100 minute set in unison. There was ample harmony, to be sure – albeit one of a more grizzled variety. But the singing spoke remarkably well to the program’s simple makeup as well as to the pair’s catalog of restless and often harrowing songs.

Colvin was more dominant in the overall sound mix, which was a plus. Her vocals, largely unblemished by age, conveyed clarity, delicacy and, when called for – as in the duo sneer of “You’re Right (I’m Wrong),” one of the original tunes from the “Colvin & Earle” album, which was performed in its entirety – sobering authority. Earle remained the gruffer one, still is possession of a humid Texas drawl that managed to masque itself during some of the evening’s more engaging cover tunes (including a leisurely take on the ‘60s folk/pop gem “You Were On My Mind”) while unapologetically letting itself spill during the coarser harmony lines of the Rolling Stones classic “Ruby Tuesday.”

As much as the singing was spotlighted, it was still the songs – the originals, specifically – that quietly ignited the performance. Two of the newer “Colvin & Earle” tunes that closed the set underscored that. “Tell Moses” professed faith by leap frogging from Jerusalem to Selma, Ala. to Ferguson, Mo. with a sing-a-long chorus of hope (“water is wide, milk and honey on the other side”) for each locale. Just as emotive was “You’re Still Gone,” a story of death and loss co-penned by both artists and Julie Miller that let its sorrow speak with profound but unsentimental grace.

There were a few works pulled from the pair’s respective solo careers that were sung separately (Colvin’s murderous “Sunny Came Home” and Earle’s celebratory “The Galway Girl”). But their histories collided on the latter’s “Someday,” a tune Colvin cut for her “Cover Girl” album in 1994. Earle introduced the tune by recounting his early career success and subsequent descent to addiction (described only as time in “a very dark place”). His lone points of comfort during those days came “when I learned Emmylou Harris cut ‘Guitar Town’ and Shawn Colvin cut ‘Someday.’” With that, the two raised their somewhat battle weary voices for the evening’s most unified and commanding wake-up call.


in performance: the earls of leicester

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales. Photo by Anthony Scarlati.

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Johnny Warren, Jeff White, Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas and Barry Bales. Photo by Anthony Scarlati.

One of the most revealing traits of any musical pioneer is the ability to not only recognize the right time to acknowledge artistic roots, but when to embrace them wholeheartedly. During a nine song set earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, dobro great (and one-time Lexingtonian) Jerry Douglas did just that by reviving the crystalline bluegrass tradition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs with the all-star tribute troupe The Earls of Leicester. The band might be cheekily titled, but its musical command of a string music sound that has largely evaporated from today’s bluegrass landscape was executed with scholarly vigor, authority and taste.

The band boasted a repertoire devoted exclusively to the groundbreaking grass Flatt & Scruggs explored for nearly two decades with their Foggy Mountain Boys before splitting in 1969. Flatt’s congenial and conversational vocal style was taken up by veteran Nashville songwriter Shawn Camp, who tempered the high tenor leads of songs like “Big Black Train” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (the first two tunes on the Earls’ Grammy-winning, self-titled 2014 album) with a sense of gospel-esque cool. Several other members, most notably mandolinist Jeff White, joined in to create three and sometimes four part harmonies during the set. But Camp’s affable singing was the easygoing catalyst that ignited much of the performance.

Douglas, banjoist Charlie Cushman and fiddler Johnny Warren (son of Foggy Mountain stringman Paul Warren), dispatched brisk, intricate solos that rang through “Down the Road” (one of the three tunes pulled from the new Earls album “Rattle & Roar”) and the set opening “Earl’s Breakdown.” But none of their breaks lingered. The Earls were all about economy and clarity, which underscored the band’s overall efficiency.

There was an undeniable sense of history to the program (Douglas, Cushman and Warren were all playing the very instruments that had clocked time with Flatt & Scruggs) as well as subtle pageantry (JD Crowe was an unannounced guest for an interview segment, but did not perform while Steve Earle, in town for a Tuesday concert with Shawn Colvin at the Opera House, was part of the audience). But as the encore strains of “Old Salty Dog Blues” and “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” closed the show, it was the quiet sense of revival that was most arresting. Douglas and the Earls didn’t treat the Flatt & Scruggs legacy as a museum piece. They made the music sing with a regal vitality that was authoritative, animated and appealingly immediate.


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