in performance: new riders of the purple sage/charlie parr

new riders of the purple sage: ron penque, johnny markowski, michael falzarano, buddy cage and david nelson.

new riders of the purple sage: ron penque, johnny markowski, michael falzarano, buddy cage and david nelson.

The standard practice of many live performances, especially the largely promotional sets presented at the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, usually dictates that featured artists devote the limited time they are given onstage to new music. Then, if the setting permits any kind of an encore, a familiar hit can be offered as an audience thank you for being an attentive test subject.

The veteran psychedelic neo-country troupe New Riders of the Purple Sage reversed that philosophy completely for the WoodSongs taping earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre. The band has two semi-new recordings to push, but devoted its entire four song allotment during the program to its most established fare – three tunes from its 1971 self-titled debut album (made when the band was essentially an offshoot of the Grateful Dead) and the Peter Rowan penned Panama Red, first cut by NRPS in 1973. Its lone new entry, curiously enough, was served as an encore.

Today’s NRPS sports two key members – longtime guitarist David Nelson and pedal steel ace Buddy Cage, who took over duties from a moonlighting Jerry Garcia in 1972. Not surprisingly, the thrust of the debut album trilogy – You Don’t Know Me, Whatcha Gonna Do and the playful drug smuggling chestnut Henry – revolved around both players.

Cage’s soloing set the tone of the performance, affirming the kind of hippie/honky tonk hybrid that still defines NRPS. But Nelson, a quietly assertive instrumentalist with a schooled sound owing equally to twang and folk-rock tradition, drove much of the set, especially the brief jam that ignited the title tune from the band’s 2009 album Where I Come From (which he co-wrote with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter) that closed out the evening.

The surprise of the program, though, was the co-billed Minnesota guitarist Charlie Parr. Sporting a roots driven sound that incorporated folk blues, country blues, a touch of rag and more, Parr offered an eclectic sampler of vigorous tunes on 12 string and National steel guitars.

Using predominantly a two-finger picking style, Parr’s playing sounded rustic but never antique or affected. In fact, tunes like True Friends and especially Over the Red Cedar, both of which employed foot stomps for a rhythm section, flew by with an ease, authority and swiftness that was refreshingly pure.

chris squire, 1948-2015

chris squire of yes.

chris squire of yes.

I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I loved ‘70s prog rock. It was pretentious, excessive and, as the decade progressed, unfashionable. And women, for the most part, hated it. So it wasn’t anything a guy was going to scores points with the girls for liking. Even at the close of the decade, when punk held prog by the throat and used it as a punching bag for everything it rebelled against, I still privately championed the music and all of its instrumental extremes.

At the head of the prog pack for nearly that entire era was Yes, and at the core of the band’s fanciful orchestration, its synth and guitar adorned arrangements and the high, otherworldly tenor of Jon Anderson was the bass guitar work of Chris Squire. On such career-defining albums as 1971’s The Yes Album, 1972’s Fragile and what remain Yes’ shining hour, 1972’s Close to the Edge, Squire made the bass as prominent and purposeful and any other instrument in the band. His sound was huge and rubbery. It was sweet enough to color Yes’ more pastoral passages but rocked like a jackhammer when the band hit full throttle, as in the elemental cosmic groove that drove the title tune from its last truly classic album, 1977’s Going for the One.

Squire died yesterday, less than two months after revealing he had been diagnosed with leukemia. He was 67.

A co-founding member of Yes, he anchored every lineup that toured and recorded for over 45 years. Admittedly, some of the later, post-Anderson outings signaled the band had finally run its creative course (although 2011’s Far From Here album was surprisingly strong). But spend some time with any of Yes’ seminal ‘70s recordings and you will experience one of the key architects of prog having a field day. His playing was as joyous, in its own way, as it was wickedly intense.

“As an individualist in an age when it was possible to establish individuality, Chris fearlessly staked out a whole protectorate of bass playing in which he was lord and master,” wrote Bill Bruford, veteran percussionist and Yes drummer up through the release of Close to the Edge, in a Facebook post yesterday. “I suspect he knew not only that he gave millions of people pleasure with his music, but also that he was fortunate to be able to do so

 

in performance: john prine/amanda shires with jason isbell

john prine.

john prine.

The defining moment of last night’s sold out John Prine performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts came in the closing minutes. Never one for long goodbyes, the veteran songsmith summed up an immensely spirited two-hour performance with show opener Amanda Shires, her Americana celeb husband Jason Isbell (“our special guest and her special guest,” as Prine put it) and the three stringmen that have long served as his touring band (guitarists Jason Wilber and Pat McLaughlin and bassist Dave Jacques) for a near-euphoric encore version of Paradise.

The song remains one of Prine’s most familiar works, so its inclusion in the setlist was hardly a surprise. But given the regional resonance of the tune (it details a Muhlenberg County countryside from the singer’s youth where coal definitely did not keep the figurative lights on) and the obvious joy triggered by having a pair of new generation disciples singing along, Paradise became a celebration. The cherubic, 68 year old Prine beamed like a schoolkid after it concluded and exited the stage with a citywide smile on his face. In short, the song he should have grown the weariest of playing had become a multi-generational anthem instilled with renewed vigor.

There were loads of less obvious treats, as well. Capitalizing on the camaraderie, Prine also enlisted Shires and Isbell for a trio version of what was perhaps the least likely offering of the evening, the bittersweet title tune from his 1980 album Storm Windows. All three hammered home the chorus, Prine and Isbell swapped verses and Shires iced everything with a fiddle solo full of Appalachian gusto. From a more playful terrain came a duet version of In Spite of Ourselves played as a sparring session between Prine and Shires.

The quartet tunes with Wilber, McLaughlin and Jacques formed the basis of the concert, from the three tunes off of 2005’s Fair and Square album that began the set (Glory of True Love, Long Monday and Taking a Walk) to darker vintage fare (Six O’Clock News, Souvenirs) that reached back to the early ‘70s. But the band’s most dramatic collaboration came when the four returned to the mid ‘80s for Lake Marie, a scrapbook meditation that mixed cultural folklore, a marriage on the rocks and TV coverage of a murder in the wilderness.

“You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?” sang Prine as the song headed into its homestretch. The audience, well versed in the lyrics, shouted back the grim reply: “Shadows.” That earned a grin, too

“Thank you, class,” Prine replied.

A brief unaccompanied section by the singer, which included a calm but still discomforting My Mexican Home, concluded with Sam Stone, the harrowing saga of a displaced, drug-addicted war veteran who dies alone of an overdose. Perhaps more than any other tune in the repertoire last night, Sam Stone benefited most from the vocal creases and coarseness of age, a reflection of both its potently succinct lyrics (“Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios”) and its sadly unfortunate topicality.

“I still sing this song at every show because there are still a lot of old veterans around,” Prine remarked.

Shires’ 40 minute opening set was a delight, as well. Though possessed with a voice full of pure country charm, her songs deviated from any kind of roots music symmetry. The show opening The Garden (What a Mess) possessed an air of somber mystery that brought some of the less prog-ish songs of Kate Bush to mind while Bulletproof set a portrait of hippie legend with references of weaponry and self-preservation to a neo-Spanish lilt.

Husband Isbell, an unadvertised addition to the proceedings, was largely an accompanist, engaging in a brief but feisty electric guitar and fiddle flare-up near the end of Shake the Walls and adding tasty slide colors to Mineral Wells. But he and Shires met on equal terms for a lovely cover of the underappreciated Warren Zevon gem Mutineer.

That didn’t keep a few Isbell fans in the audience from the misreading the occasion and calling out for several of his tunes (Cover Me Up earned the most vocal requests). But Mrs. Isbell remained in the driver’s seat of this set.

“If you want to request any of Jason’s songs, you’ll have to go his show tomorrow,” Shires told the crowd. “In Chicago.”

in performance: party knullers

fred-lonberg-holm.

fred-lonberg-holm.

On paper, a duo consisting of cello and drums would seem to dictate at least some kind of mimicry of a conventional rhythm section with cello being a serviceable stand-in for bass. But for that to happen, the musicians involved would have to subscribe to rhythm in the first place. Given the free-form exploits of Party Knullers, the duo of Chicago-based cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Norwegian percussionist Stxl Solberg, such a point is moot. Their music is no more based on rhythm than their instrumental duties are limited to support duties for other players, as is often the case, even in jazz circles, with a rhythm section.

Last night at Mecca before an audience that was modest in size but strong in terms of attentiveness, Lonberg-Holm and Solberg operated essentially as conversationalists. Sometimes that meant spacious improvisations full of strident exchanges. In other instances, the playing of each artist was complete unto itself with a vocabulary as vast and challenging as the music that fueled the jagged dialogue sections.

That was especially true of Lonberg-Holm. Aided by pedal effects that colored and corroded his playing, as well as a performance style that incorporated unconventional taps, scrapes and phrasings, his improvisations operated with essentially two voices – one organic and one electronically enhanced. Each proved as distinctive as the other. But the most fascinating segments of last night’s concert came during the several occasions when those voices could be differentiated simultaneously. While one couldn’t exactly view these moments as examples of harmony, the sounds did offer a fascinatingly textured make-up that enhanced both the tension and expression of the improvisations.

Though equally inventive his playing, Solberg also possessed a surprisingly exact tone, whether he found various shifts in register within the way he snapped a mallet stick against a drum head or the more assaulting sounds created by scrapping the drums with plastic forks, among many other unexpected as well as obvious percussive devices. For example, there was just as much engagement within the chatter of woodblock and cowbell and even the comparatively expected rattle of a snare.

There were also several instances where the sounds seemed almost otherworldly, like when Lonberg-Holm’s cello elicited a sampler of pedal produced belches and croaks, or when Solberg’s drumming brought these fractured dialogues to a slow but petulant boil.

Additionally, there was space within this music – lots of it. It was so prevalent, in fact, that when the first of six improvisations came to a close, no one in the meager sized crowd applauded. It wasn’t out disinterest and dislike of the concert to that point. Rather, the open-faced structures of these duo performances made it tough to tell when a piece had truly concluded.

But the reverse was true during Gold, a brief finale tune concluding the first set that had Lonberg-Holm switching to guitar. The fanciful, echoing colors he summoned brought the orchestral playing of Bill Frisell to mind.

Just try getting any of that from a rhythm section

in performance: large unit

large unit with paal nilssen-love, fourth from right.

large unit with paal nilssen-love, fourth from right.

“Ready to rock?”

That was the call to places by Paal Nilssen-Love for the 10 fellow musicians of the aptly titled Large Unit last night at the Downtown Arts Center.

But as anyone who has witnessed the Norwegian drummer in action at his numerous appearances here over the last 13 years for the Outside the Spotlight Series, “rock” is a relative term.

When he cranks into action, Nilssen-Love packs the precision and sonic assault of a schooled rock drummer. That happened several times during this 80 minute performance, creating a percussive firestorm as dueling rhythm sections punctuated the sometimes placid, sometimes corrosive sounds of a potent front line of horns and winds.

But Nilseen-Love is an improviser of the first order and Large Unit – composed of players from Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark – is a jazz army that fleshed out compositions by the drummer with modern classical flourishes, free jazz immediacy and a curious symmetry that sounded, well, Nordic.

The show-opening Austin Birds was an open display of the band’s cagey dynamics in action. A whir of electronic static from Tommi Keranen introduced the Large Unit sound in increments – strains of tuba from Per Ake Holmlander lifting out of a sonic fog, guitarist Ketil Gutvik and Nilssen-Love battling over two different bassists (Christian Meaas Svendsen and Jon Rune Strom) and exchanges from the four-member front line. Then everything hit head on and accelerated with the aural force of a rocketship, gaining speed and intensity until the music receded and splintered.

The down side of such a make-up was that several players were often left with little to do. For much of the performance, one rhythm section sat out as the other propelled the music. Other musicians – specifically, Gutvik – seldom got much elbow room in Large Unit’s almost inclusive sound.

That was likely part of Nilseen-Love’s design for the music. The dynamics created an almost Zappa-like undercurrent during Erta Ale 2. But in a leaner passage, the tune yielded a sparse, willowing exchange between Keranen and trombonist Mats Aleklint so symmetric that it became tough difficult to differentiate the electronic ambience from the organic improvising.

Then there were tunes like Circle in the Round that simply exploded with color – cartoon like bass runs, trombone led grooves and the two rhythm sections tossing rhythmic shifts back and forth. Topping it all was a horn/wind melody that wound this circus up with a pastoral coda that sounded almost mournful.

It was a lot to take in. But such were the challenges and rewards that resulted in having a jazz battalion like Large Unit around to shake up the senses.

in performance: michael mcdonald

michael mcdonald.

michael mcdonald.

“Let me just go down as saying that I’m glad to be here,” sang Michael McDonald last night near the onset of an especially jubilant and involving performance at the Opera House. “Here with all the same pain and laughs everybody knows.”

That especially telling verse came from Here to Love You, the leadoff track to the 1978 album that cemented the singer/keyboardist’s place in pop-soul stardom – the Doobie Brothers’ Minute By Minute. But at age 63, the lyrics eschewed a level of performance maturity that seemed to dominate the 85 minute concert.

From a technical standpoint, McDonald’s husky tenor was in fine shape. The very upper level of his falsetto surges seemed a touch muted, but that was the only visible hint of aging. Otherwise, his vocals meshed nicely with a proficient six member band. Of course, the fact the group was built around McDonald’s keyboard sound insured he was showcased prominently as both instrumentalist (from the clavinet funk supplied to a encore medley of Stevie Wonder tunes to the calliope like runs that underscored his Doobies gem It Keeps You Runnin’) and singer.

The song selection was a crowd pleaser, as well. Roughly one-third of the set list was devoted to his Doobies hits of the late ‘70s. But the show also reached into the ‘80s for the James Ingram duet funk hit Yah Mo B There (which opened the performance) and the movie hit Sweet Freedom as well as into comparatively recent years when McDonald’s recorded output focused more on his prowess as interpreter as opposed to songwriter. A standout from the later column was You Don’t Know Me, a Ray Charles classic by way of Eddy Arnold that peeled the band down to an intimate sax/piano/keyboard trio.

But the real surprise was McDonald’s seriously physical investment in this material. This was not some dialed in nostalgia ride. Though seated at his keyboard for the duration of the set, the singer was heaving his muscular tenor around like a wrecking ball. Even the few relaxed pop detours (What a Fool Believes and his co-written Kenny Loggins hit This is It) possessed a physical bravado that provided the performance with rugged immediacy and awarded McDonald with a sweat soaked shirt well before the end of the show.

The Doobies staple Takin’ It to the Streets, the song that largely introduced the singer to the pop mainstream nearly 40 years ago closed this celebration with the band in a joyous groove and McDonald howling like an in-his-prime Joe Cocker. How fitting that what began on the streets for the singer so long ago wound up there again last night in such vibrant form.

one voice, many styles

michael mcdonald.

michael mcdonald.

It’s one thing to call Michael McDonald one of the most identifiable voices in contemporary music. For more than three decades, his seasoned pop-soul tenor, and the frequent falsetto extremes it reaches to, has fortified a generation of hits.

But what remains so fascinating about the singer’s body of work is the sheer variety of settings you are apt hear that voice in and the styles his vocals are often surrounded by.

Sure, there are the obvious radio classics like What a Fool Believes and Takin’ It to the Streets that retooled the radio rock of the Doobie Brothers into R&B-slanted pop during the late ‘70s. But there are also chart-topping duets with soul maestros like Patti LaBelle and James Ingram as well as fusion flavored journeys with Steely Dan where, even as a harmony or background singer, McDonald gloriously stood out.

But dig deeper into the five-time Grammy winner’s resume and you discover just how many – and how many stylistically different – artists have called upon of one pop’s most recognized voices for their recordings.

A partial list includes classicists Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell as well as newer generation indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Holy Ghost. Oh, and did we mention McDonald even sang under the closing credits of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut?

For McDonald, juggling vocal roles and genres continues to fuel a career that brings him back to Lexington for a Tuesday concert at the Opera House. Longtime fans will note the venue is just a few streets over from Rupp Arena, where the singer/keyboardist played regularly during the late ‘70s with the Doobie Brothers.

“Knowledge of one kind of music is always going to enhance your enjoyment of another,” McDonald said. “As a kid growing up, I enjoyed a lot of different kinds of music even though what I was introduced to as a kid probably would not have been the music I would listen to later as a teenager.

“My dad was a singer. Growing up with him, my first instrument was tenor banjo playing ragtime and music of another whole other era before I was born. Even as a kid, I loved the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, stuff like that. Those guys to me are still part of what I consider to be American classical music. So my tastes have always been kind of diverse.”

Then came the ‘60s, which turned the St. Louis native to the electric sounds of the day, By 1970, that music prompted a move to Los Angeles.

“Like most guys of my generation, I wanted to play rock ‘n roll,” McDonald said. “My first band kind of emulated all of the British Invasion bands. Then rhythm and blues got to be a favorite music. But I always saw a similarity in all of it. There was always something from one genre that I borrowed to approach the next one I had an infatuation with. That’s the thing about music. There is always going to be a similarity.”

That sense of musical kinship dominates a 2014 recording that reteamed McDonald with the Doobie Brothers. But the resulting album, Southbound, wasn’t a reunion as much as a refashioning as it presented new versions of Doobies classics cut with contemporary country artists.

For McDonald, that meant taking new looks at hits he popularized during his tenure with the band. Specifically, What a Fool Believes was shared with Sara Evans and Takin’ It to the Streets with Love & Theft. It also enlisted Vince Gill for guitar color during You Belong to Me, a 1977 Doobies song McDonald co-wrote with Carly Simon (it was a Top 10 hit for the latter in 1978).

“Oh, that was a lot of fun,” McDonald said of the recording. “We (the Doobies) don’t always get that many opportunities or excuses to get back in the studio because we’re always going in different directions at this point. So any time something like this comes up for me, it’s fun. But it was also an opportunity to work with some great new artists in the country scene, most of which we probably wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to get into the studio.”

Michael McDonald performs at 7:30 p.m. June 16 at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets: $85.50-$175. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to

ticketmaster.com.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, day 4

dry branch fire squad: brian aldridge, dan russell, tom boyd and ron thomason.

dry branch fire squad: brian aldridge, dan russell, tom boyd and ron thomason.

“We always start with the instruments we know the least with the optimism that everything will get better,” said Ron Thomason as the Dry Branch Fire Squad brought the Festival of the Bluegrass to a close early this afternoon at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“But that seldom works.”

In reality, the self-effacing Thomason is no one’s fool. A staunch advocate of pre-bluegrass string music, especially gospel, he and the current lineup of the 40-year old Dry Branch band turned back the clock decades and even centuries for tunes and spirituals refreshingly open in their sense of sermonizing with Thomason’s Will Rogers-like commentary providing worldly and often bemusing between-song color.

Take the subtle but deep rooted harmonizing that fueled Then You Don’t Love God, where the tune’s non-judgmental stance was underscored by a chorus fragment that preceded the title (“If you don’t love your neighbor…”) or the efficiently affirmative a capella charm behind the subtle testifying of Dip Your Fingers in Some Water. But were relaxed, rustic and completely immersive spiritual statements that avoided the fierce pathos and pandering of contemporary country gospel. What resulted with Dry Branch was music as richly steadfast and unspoiled as the faith that fueled it.

For all of Dry Branch’s equally unassuming instrumental firepower, and there was plenty of within the banjo and dobro work of Tom Boyd, the focal point of the performance again came down to Thomason’s wily gifts as raconteur. It didn’t matter if he was reminiscing about the “man in pain” performance stance of folk renegade Dave Van Ronk or offering a summation of how country and cosmopolitan audiences regard bluegrass (“country folks still view it music while city slickers see it as acrobatics’).

But the joking halted for He’s Coming to Us Dead, a harrowing account of a father awaiting the return of his son, who is later revealed to be a Civil War casualty. Performed alone by Thomason on banjo, the tune was a sobering reminder that no matter how great the quest for heaven gets, the reality of hell on a battlefield remains disturbingly close at hand. And that’s the gospel truth.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, day 3

dudley connell and fred travers of the seldom scene performing yesterday afternoon for the festival of  the bluegrass. the band also played an evening set. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

dudley connell and fred travers of the seldom scene performing yesterday afternoon for the festival of the bluegrass. the band also played an evening set. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

It was just after midnight when Robert Greer of Town Mountains channeled the rootsy spirit of White Lightning-era George Jones during Up the Ladder and ceremoniously sent the Festival of the Bluegrass into its fourth and final day at the Kentucky Horse Park.

This was a strong Saturday night for the event with three returnee acts and one accomplished newcomer closing out the bill. Town Mountain was afforded headlining status, a reflection of the North Carolina band’s increasingly strong national visibility and local popularity (it has already return shows in Lexington on the books for August and October).

Greer and company took full advantage of star billing with one of the festival’s more roughly hewn ensemble sounds, one that frequently approached the Prohibition throwback drive of such non-bluegrass string bands as Old Crow Medicine Show, as shown by the new Phil Barker tune Ruination Line. But slower works like House with No Windows (by banjoist Jesse Langlais) and a sleekly cool but still grassy take on Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire underscored Town Mountain’s considerable stylistic reach.

Fellow Asheville-area troupe Balsam Range (the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainer of the Year) preceded with its festival debut. The band neatly meshed traditional aspects that regularly strayed outside of bluegrass (occasional touches of gypsy swing), solid gospel harmonies (One of These Days) and gentler persuasions of country (Chasing Someone Else’s Dream). But the band’s ace in the whole was clearly fiddler Buddy Melton, the IBMA’s reigning Male Vocalist of the Year. His gliding high tenor was more reminiscent of Roy Orbison than Bill Monroe on Everything That Glitters (is Not Gold).

Festival mainstay Seldom Scene played earlier in the evening than usual and without the banjo services of an ailing Ben Eldridge. But the band was still in rich form, shifting from the whispery harmonies that distinguished heart tugging favorites like Wait a Minute and 500 Miles to its decades-old covers of John Fogerty’s Big Train from Memphis and Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather. But the highlight was a gentle cover of Walk Through This World With Me, dedicated by dobroist Fred Travers to festival co-founder Jean Cornett, who died in February.

The evening’s true surprise, though, was The Barefoot Movement. A standout act when it debuted at the festival last year, this Nashville quartet of Carolina and Mississippi natives was a true curiosity – four 20-somethings with a group name that screams jam band solidarity but a sound that was as old-timey in design, intent and execution as any act on the festival roster.

Fiddler Noah Wall penned much of the material and sang with a tone and maturity that greatly exceeded her years. But that didn’t stop her or the rest of the band from diverting for an encore of the Jimi Hendrix staple Fire complete with a retooled lyric tailored for the band’s evening time slot (“Move over, move over, let Seldom Scene take over”). It wasn’t a crass stylistic sellout, but simply a fun dessert after a feast of unexpectedly scholarly tradition.

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, day 2

IIIrd Tyme Out: Justen Haynes, Blake Johnson, Russell Moore, Wayne Benson and Keith McKinnon.

IIIrd Tyme Out: Justen Haynes, Blake Johnson, Russell Moore, Wayne Benson and Keith McKinnon.

Late into IIIrd Tyme Out’s headlining set last night at the Kentucky Horse Park for the Festival of the Bluegrass, frontman and vocalist Russell Moore offered a bit of between-song praise for the virtues of traditional bluegrass. Such a proclamation inferred IIIrd Tyme Out was, itself, a traditionally minded troupe despite a history of embracing everything from ‘50s flavored doo-wop to progressive country. But last night, armed with astute performance efficiency, resounding instrumental interplay and a vocal charge both relaxed and assertive, IIIrd Tyme Out very much fell in line with string band tradition.

The setlist may have suggested otherwise with songs by John Hartford, John Denver and Hank Garland peppering the repertoire. But a darkly hued blue collar tune like Little John I Am and the remorseful Hard Rock Mountain Prison (Till I Die) proved as rustically compelling as the rural affirmation Old Kentucky Farmers that began the show. All three showcased Moore’s potent tenor without overplay its emotive hand too much. His delivery was almost conversational in flow, so much so that even the obvious country lilt of A Little Unfair could have passed for bluegrass tradition.

A preceding set by Adkins & Loudermilk offered no such distinction. Fronting a muscular sounding sextet, Elkhorn City native Dave Adkins was all country boy zeal with a vocal holler that was richly jovial though sometimes overstated. His almost Michael Bolton-ish turns during the crescendos of such non-bluegrass pop-folk fare as Please Come to Boston and Never Been to Spain (redubbed on the duo’ debut album as simply Spain) seemed more than a little calculated, although the crowd ate all the fanfare up and awarded Adkins ovations after both tunes.

Bassist Edgar Loudermilk (curiously, an alumnus of IIIrd Tyme Out) was stoic in comparison, with a grounded tenor that nicely enhanced the gospel solemnity of God Meant It For Good as well as the animated family faith of Georgia Mountain Man.

Central Kentucky’s NewTown also spruced up the bill with expert fiddle and vocal fire from Katie Penn that erupted as soon the set-opening All I Was to You got out of the starting gate. It would be nice, however, to see the band move beyond its reliance on cover tunes (All My Tears) and familiar staples (Pretty Polly). NewTown has more than enough instrumental and vocal charm to ignite material of its own. This highly engaging set was proof.

The Crowe Brothers was the odd act out last night. No, the duo bore no relation to a certain Nicholasville banjo great of the same name. Guitarist Josh Crowe and sibling bassist Wayne Crowe are Georgia natives that revealed a strong love of traditional country, especially in Josh’s solid oak tenor singing. There seemed to be intended comparisons to the Louvin Brothers throughout the set (the two even performed the Louvins nugget Must You Throw Dirt in My Face). But the Crowe’s country-bluegrass blend felt more austere. The audience didn’t seem to be buying it, either. The brothers, despite all good intentions, played to a wealth of vacated lawn chairs.

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