in performance: ross hammond

ross hammond 2

ross hammond.

It wasn’t so much a tour gig as a homecoming. In fact, a sizable portion of the audience on hand last night for Ross Hammond’s Outside the Spotlight solo guitar concert at Mecca consisted of friends and family, including his grandparents, father and 4 year old daughter.

But as informal and intimate as the 70 minute set was, what Hammond performed was a stylistically far reaching program that was expansive even by jazz terms. But given the music was performed without amplification on 6 and 12 string guitars with a mix of finger and flatpicking styles, the evening’s dominate sounds were rooted in compositional folk-blues traditions more than jazz

In its finest moments, the performance embraced all of that. The Creator Has a Master Plan transformed the meditative groove saxophonist Pharoah Sanders wrapped the tune’s original version in with slide driven accents on 12 string that made the resulting music fall in line with the wiry rural folk adventures of John Fahey.

From another plain altogether came the familiar hymn I’ll Fly Away, a staple of bluegrass and pre-bluegrass country repertoires that Hammond established with a rugged, punctuated rhythm before the tune’s melody line rang out with a decidedly Eastern air.

Then on the original Womuts!, elements seemingly borrowed from British folk tradition – especially, the pre-Pentangle records of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch – bookended slower, American-rooted passages on 12 string.

All three tunes, which will be featured on Hammond’s forthcoming solo guitar album Flight, might seem far afield from the standard practice of a jazz player. Likewise, an unaccompanied guitar concert favoring compositionally based works over openly improvisational music might seem an abrupt rerouting for an OTS show. To that thinking, Hammond offered two dramatically reworked excerpts from his Humanity Suite album, a sextet project encompassing swing, classical and free jazz elements. Last night, that music became a stark folk reflection on 6 string that highlighted spotless tone within a quiet but beautifully pensive folk framework.

The audience members seemed especially appreciative of the whole mix, but none so much as daughter Lola, who casually walked up and awarded her father with a hug late into the set. Now that’s what you call a rave review.

elton at the pops

michael cavanaugh

michael cavanaugh.

Most any pop-savvy pianist will happily admit their reverence of the music Elton John has created over the past 45 years. Count Michael Cavanaugh among them.

“I’m a huge fan of Elton,” said the pianist and vocalist who will be the guest artist at this weekend’s Picnic with the Pops performances. “I’m also a huge fan of Bernie Taupin, his lyricist. The stuff they wrote was just so unique. Most of their songs, especially the ones from (John’s 1973 multi-platinum album) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, they wrote and recorded in one day. That just blows my mind. They were all living in this mansion of a house that was turned into a big recording studio. So they’d get up in the morning, write a song, record it and that was it. That’s how songs like Bennie and the Jets and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road happened. That’s just crazy.”

Many of the songs John wrote with Taupin during the first half of the ‘70s also sport keen orchestral arrangements by Paul Buckmaster and, on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Del Newman. That makes such music a fine fit for orchestral concerts such as the Picnic with the Pops performances with the Lexington Philharmonic. But Cavanaugh isn’t limiting his touring tribute, The Songs of Elton John and More, which makes up the program for Picnic for the Pops, solely to the vanguard British rocker’s orchestral works.

“We open the show with (the 1975 single) Philadelphia Freedom because it’s got this great orchestral purpose already,” Cavanaugh said. “So obviously songs like that, songs like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, songs like (John’s breakthrough 1970 hit) Your Song have these beautiful orchestral and string arrangements that we love playing. But then we also love doing songs like Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, which has never seen an orchestra before but sounds really cool with one. And there’s Candle in the Wind. So many people got used to hearing just the piano/vocal version of that song. I do it with piano, voice and strings and it really sounds beautiful.”

Curiously, John wasn’t Cavanaugh’s first or most formative piano-pop inspiration. That honor goes to Billy Joel. After catching a Las Vegas performance by Cavanaugh in 2001, Joel chose his devotee to be the lead for Movin’ Out, his Broadway bound collaboration with famed choreographer Twyla Tharp. Cavanaugh remained with the production for three years, earning Grammy and Tony Award nominations.

Actual orchestral concerts, though, didn’t begin for Cavanaugh until after Movin’ Out closed. That was when he designed large scale touring tributes to Joel, John and a newer singer-songwriter program (the “… and More” qualifier in the title to this weekend’s John tribute calls for additional ‘70s-era songs by Wings, Styx and the Eagles).

“When I was on Broadway, I worked with a 10 piece rock band. It was a rock ‘n’ roll band with a horn section, basically. The first time I ever played with an actual orchestra onstage was at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops. I guess I got spoiled.

“Growing up as an ‘80s kid, I was surrounded by synthesizers that were trying to mimic these orchestras but couldn’t do it. So suddenly to be surrounded by a real orchestra was incredible. It was like taking cotton out of my ears.

“What’s beautiful about these concerts now is we’ve got these guys coming from the rock ‘n’ roll world and symphonic musicians coming from the classical world. We’ve learned over the last eight years of doing this how to play with an orchestra and work effectively with a conductor. The more you do that, the more you feel these two different worlds coming together. There’s nothing like it.”

Picnic with the Pops: The Songs of Elton John and More featuring the Lexington Philharmonic and Michael Cavanaugh performs at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 15 and 16 at The Meadow at Greene Barn, Keeneland, 4201 Versailles Rd. Tickets are $15-$300. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to http://lexpops.com.

hometown guitar

ross hammond

ross hammond.

Traveling is usually just an accepted routine within the life of a working musician. That’s certainly been the case for guitarist Ross Hammond.

Though born in Lexington, he has spent all of his professional life in Sacramento, Calif. establishing a voice of his own for the jazz guitar and, more importantly, an audience to accept and appreciate it. While the West Coast has afforded him numerous performance situations, including a commission from Sacramento’s Croker Art Museum that yielded an outstanding live recording and a favorable write-up in the jazz magazine Downbeat, furthering his guitar voice inevitably meant hitting the road.

“I go to the East Coast every six months or so and just try to have a presence,” Hammond said. “I just turned 37, so if there is a time to do this, to travel and pay your dues in a national sense, I think it’s kind of now or never. I’m just trying to grow the circle a little bit more every year. That’s the idea, so I’m trying to do whatever possible to get out.

“I think that’s helped in terms of visibility, too. Maybe people might go, ‘Oh, here’s this dude from California. What’s he got going on?’”

This weekend, though, Hammond travels to Kentucky for personal as well as professional reasons. The trip was initially designed merely as a visit to see his father. But when Ross Compton, chieftain of the Outside the Spotlight series got wind the guitarist was heading to Lexington, he arranged for a performance tonight at the Mecca dance studio on Manchester.

The concert will be unplugged in the truest sense of the term as Hammond will perform without a band and minus amplification of any kind.

“It’s totally stripped down,” Hammond said. “You can’t get any more stripped down than this.”

Somewhat coincidentally, the performance ties into Hammond’s newest recording project, a collection of solo guitar pieces scheduled for release over the winter.

“I had the idea to do this recording of how the music would sound around the house when you’re playing an acoustic. It’s mostly.original, but there are also some hymns. What I recorded was a lot of 12 string, 6 string and resonator/slide guitar music. I’ll just be playing 6 and 12 string when I’m in Lexington. People will just have to sit in close at the show, but that should work out pretty good.”

The upcoming solo record differs considerably from Hammond’s most recently issued recording, Humanity Suite. That album is a live document of the piece commissioned by the Crocker and was recorded at the museum.

Humanity Suite was designed around a 2013 Crocker exhibit of works by visual artist Kara Walker, known for using paper silhouettes to reflect scenes of racism, violence and slavery. Walker’s Crocker exhibit combined dark silhouetted images with photos of the Civil War that first appeared in Harper’s magazine. Hammond’s music is a blend of neo-classical accents, subtle groove and open improvisation.

“The Crocker asked me to play opening night of the exhibit,” Hammond said. “So I thought if we’re going to do this big show, I want to write new music specifically for the event. Then they commissioned the piece. I was able to get Catherine Sikora, who is a really wonderful tenor saxophonist in New York, and Vinny Golia, who is a great (saxophonist) in Los Angeles. I was able to bring them out and play with a lot of the guys in Sacramento and we just made this sextet.

“The music wasn’t really like, “This song goes to that piece.’ It was more like, ‘If all these silhouettes were made into a film, what would the film sound like?’ That’s how I went about it.

“The recording was a little bit of a risk, too. There are just two giant tracks. But people seem to dig it.”

Ross Hammond performs at 7 p.m. Aug. 15 at Mecca, 948 Manchester St. Admission is $5. Call (859) 254-9790.

 

crtic’s pick 334: eric johnson, “europe live”

Eric-Johnson-Europe-Live-300x300Eric Johnson has long been something of a musical amalgamation. Within his guitar playing, you hear the deft picking that a Nashville classicist like Chet Atkins might give a nod to, the kind of thunderous drive that brings to mind the more fusion friendly records of Jeff Beck and suggestions of blues spirits like Stevie Ray Vaughan that emanate from the same Texas base of operations as Johnson – namely, Austin.

Still, slip on Europe Live, a true sleeper of a summer concert recording, and you will discover he doesn’t really sound like anything of those giants. Instead, Johnson is as inconspicuous as he is inventive. He has long shown zero interest in the hyped-up profile of the modern day guitarslinger. Instead, Johnson remains the master of his own universe, an expanse where he can play with the fluidity of a country vet, the precision of a fusion pro and the passion of a bluesman. Now, squeeze out the ego pinned to each of those personas and add together what’s left. What you have the comprehensive drive bolstering Johnson’s playing. And on Europe Live, that playing has never sounded finer.

Witness, for instance, Zenland and its brief prelude Intro. The muscle of the medley blasts off with a crackling riff that sounds like Mark Knopfler in full Money for Nothing mode. But the tune quickly tightens around a searing guitar line likely boosted by pedal effects. It’s a bold, rockish run Johnson establishes with the lean rhythm section of drummer Wayne Salzmann and bassist Chris Maresh riding shotgun. But you also don’t appreciate how a clean a player Johnson is until he pulls back and assumes the role of rhythm player with a few efficient jabs that emphasize a surprising lightness to the trio. Such are the dynamics that make Europe Live a delight.

Some of the tunes are fairly recent, like the brief but beefy instrumental Fatdaddy, a romp that recalls Beck’s unrelenting fusion records despite the music’s initially country-esque tone. It’s a serving of great trio cunning that plays at full throttle with maximum efficiency. In under three minutes, the whole wild ride is complete.

Other works, like the Grammy winning Cliffs of Dover, are nearly 25 years old. But the way the tune coalesces out of spiraling guitar lines into a roadhouse groove sounds positively ageless.

The album’s lone excess is a fairly pedestrian drum solo from Saltzman that derails the otherwise engaging electric swing behind John Coltrane’s Mr. P.C. Outside of that, Europe Live is an unassuming summer treat – a live album by a guitarist that has long prided himself on being a studio perfectionist. Then again, the liberating feel one senses in Johnson’s playing is just a single highpoint from one of the year’s most complete and robust guitar rock adventures.

in performance: dawn landes

dawnlandes

dawn landes.

Dawn Landes had to realize just how closely last night’s opening night audience at the inaugural Well Crafted Festival was following her performance. When she introduced a tune (the pensive Bodyguard) by saying, “This is a little song about a robbery,” a crowd patron, without skipping a beat, replied, “Were you involved?”

Granted, the folk/Americana accent of her songs and the often wistfully confessional nature of her lyrics are very audience-friendly attributes. Adding to that last night, though, was the performance setting. The Louisville-born, Brooklyn-based songstress was the last of four acts to perform in Meadow View Barn at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County.

In other words, the show was set in the most inviting and remote part of an already inviting and remote festival site. An atypically cool midsummer evening didn’t hurt either, but the barn setting provided an informal, intimate atmosphere for Landes’ music – especially tunes from her fine 2014 album, Bluebird.

Backed by a trio of Lexington pros dubbed the Kentucky Gentlemen – guitarist/pedal steel player Tom Hnatow, bassist Blake Cox and drummer Robby Cosenza – Landes delivered a 50 minute set that worked its way from songs of studious reflection, revelation and despondency to a finale of rockish celebration highlighted by a jacked up cover of Tom Petty’s Southern Accents.

The Bluebird tunes fell into the former class. Tryin’ to Make a Fire Burn Again, the best of the new selections, used Hnatow’s pedal steel accents as subtle embellishment to the uneasy grace of Landes’ singing, which recalled the subtle but dark emotive cast of Natalie Merchant’s early solo records.

Heel Toe turned such a sound on its side by setting the music to a jagged, neo-waltz melody. Pull such intensity back into a more traditional country context and you had the repressed emotive drive of Oh Brother which escaped in beguiling, mantra like choruses. And for pure country fun, there was a sisterly cover of Dolly Parton’s Longer Than Always with Lexington’s own Coralee, whose preceding set with her longstanding Townies band worked a emotively similar but stylistically different country soul vibe that sounded equally sweet at this barn party.

critic’s pick 333: crosby, stills, nash & young: ‘csny 1974′

CSNY74When Crosby, Stills and Nash began their second set at the Louisville Palace last spring, Graham Nash remarked that there once was a time the group would devote intermissions to tanking up on whatever chemical stimulant was at their disposal. Today, he said, the singers spend concert breaks texting their grandchildren.

Well, on a lavish new archival set called CSNY 1974, we are ushered back to “once was a time” – specifically, to when a summer tour by the trio augmented by sometimes co-hort Neil Young was the year’s biggest concert attraction. But being a rock success story in the ‘70s meant a lifestyle beset with indulgence. Add in the acrimony that seemed to flow in and out of the foursome at the time, and you had a party that was often on the verge of burning to the ground. A proposed studio album, rumored to be so complete that a cover shot had even be taken, was scrapped and the copious amount of concert tapes many had hoped would surface s as a live album were indefinitely shelved.

Four decades to the month later we have CSNY 1974, a fascinating and flawed chronicle of the lost summer when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young let the biggest folk-rock franchise of its day go down in flames.

Nash oversaw the restoration, so from a sonic standpoint the whole set – available as a single disc sampler and a comprehensive multi-disc CD/DVD/Blu Ray package – sounds like a dream, especially during the acoustic performances that make up the second disc of the larger edition. And, frankly, from a performance standpoint, things sound remarkably more vital than history has let us believe. Stephen Stills sounds pretty uncontained vocally throughout, however. He largely slurs, wails and moans his way through many tunes, especially the lovely Change Partners. Similarly, the group’s usually stately harmonies often possess a ragged, barroom quality.

But there is a lot to relish here. David Crosby, for all of his fabled excesses, sings like a bird with clear, effortless expression on chestnuts like Guinnevere and The Lee Shore and while conjuring the electric fire of Déjà Vu.

To perhaps no one’s surprise, though, the show stealer is Young. CSNY 1974 is loaded with seldom performed gems, especially from his landmark On the Beach album that would be released just after the tour’s conclusion. From the social rant of Revolution Blues (“I won’t attack you but I won’t back you”) to the coarse childhood remembrance Don’t De Denied (from 1973’s criminally out-of-print Times Fades Away) to the comparatively gentle sway of the unreleased Hawaiian Sunrise (the rumored title tune to the aborted CSNY studio record), Young sounds frightful and exact as he kicks a hearty dose of sand into the face of the boozy summer joyride that is CSNY 1974.

making sense of talking heads

stop-making-sense

tales from the big suit: david byrne in ‘stop making sense.’

Above all its theatrical design and positively enchanted music, there is a performance aesthetic at work in Jonathan Demme’s remarkable Talking Heads concert documentary Stop Making Sense that is as inviting and as it vital.

If you had to pin down one single instance – one single frame, even – that captures such intent, it would be when head Head David Byrne, dancing like a child unbound in his famed Big Suit during Girlfriend is Better, hoists his microphone momentarily to the camera filming him as if to invite the audience to sing. It’s an astounding moment in a film filled with them.

Amazingly, Stop Making Sense has turned 30 with digital re-release that is making the rounds of movie houses this summer in much the same way Talking Heads might be had the band not split at the dawn of the ‘90s. It plays twice on Aug. 6 as part of the Kentucky Theatre’s Summer Classics series. What a fitting homecoming. Not only did the film play there upon it release in 1984, but Talking Heads performed in Lexington in May 1983 at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum. It was the only regional stop of the tour Stop Making Sense was built around.

stop_making_sense_posterDemme’s film was a practice in simplicity. It presents an unbroken stage performance minus the gratuitous crowd shots, interviews and backstage nonsense. Then again, who needed frills when you had Byrne as your focal point? Throughout the film, he operates as a wiry stick figure of frontman who bends and dances like a rubber band and sings like an artist (and, at times, like a child) thoroughly consumed by the music around him.

Admittedly, much of the film’s fascination deals with Byrne’s performance design as his actual performance. It opens with the singer alone onstage belting out the misanthropic Psycho Killer before instruments and musicians are added with each successive song until Talking Heads stands as a nine-member post-punk funk army. The unit’s single-mindedness comes through during a version of the radio hit Life During Wartime, transformed here into calisthenics workout with half of the Heads running in place for much of the song.

But Demme is right on his target here, too. One of the film’s most arresting shots occurs during the thick funk of Swamp where the camera slowly pans across the front of the stage to catch Byrne s he pops into view like a jack-in-the-box.

Sadly, Stop Making Sense was also the beginning of the end for Talking Heads. The band never toured again after 1983. After three more studio records, it quietly dissolved. But what Demme and Byrne leave behind in this film isn’t just an ensemble snapshot or a chronicle of its time. This is instead a living portrait of performance joy and invention in fascinating motion. And that makes outstanding sense.

An ’80s Oktoberfest

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The Smithereens: Jim Babjak, Severo “The Thrilla” Jornacion, Dennis Diken and Pat DiNizio.

The ’80s will live again in September. The free headliners for this year’s Christ the King Oktoberfest were announced this morning and both harken back to an era when MTV was pop’s top policymaker.

Sept. 19 brings The Smithereens, the no-frills New Jersey rock troupe responsible for the late ‘80s radio hits Behind the Wall of Sleep, Only a Memory and A Girl Like You. The band still tours with three of its four original members – guitarist/vocalist Pat DiNizio, guitarist Jim Babjak and drummer Dennis Diken.

The Sept. 20 lineup will feature The Fixx, the post New Wave British band defined by a string of early ‘80s singles that included Saved By Zero, One Thing Leads to Another and Secret Separation. Amazingly, the quintet’s mainstay lineup – vocalist Cy Curnin, guitarist Jamie West-Oram, keyboardist Rupert Greenall, bassist Dan K. Brown and drummer Adam Woods is still intact.

The event will be held outdoors at the Cathedral of Christ the King, 299 Colony Blvd. Showtimes and a full Oktoberfest schedule are forthcoming. For more info, go to http://www.ctkoktoberfest.com.

in performance: jerry douglas

jerry douglas

jerry douglas.

After winding his way last night at the KCD Theater in Louisville through a typically stunning solo dobro medley that culminated with the wistful Duane Allman classic Little Martha and a clever bit of live looping that provided invisible accompaniment, Jerry Douglas brought out his band and was set for serious business. That’s when the fun really started.

No sooner did drummer Doug Belotekick off the Southern fried fusion of We Hide and Seek than the multi-Grammy winning instrumentalist dropped his pick into the base of the dobro. What resulted wasn’t a look of panic on Douglas’ face or even a call for a quick time out to regroup. Instead, he flashed a broad grin, shrugged his shoulders and plowed right into the tune’s blend of reflective lyricism and barnyard groove. After a hearty round of soloing, Douglas shook his instrument from every angle until the pick fell out. That bit of onstage utensil retrieval earned the dobroist his first ovation of the evening.

Unlike his Lexington concert last November, which was devoted exclusively to solo dobro music, last night’s Louisville outing showcased a band that efficiently brought to life many of the multiple stylistic personalities that have long coexisted within Douglas’ playing.

For the jazzers, there was a remarkably faithful version of Joe Zawinul’s A Remark You Made where Douglas used the dobro to rethink the lead melody introduced by saxophonist Wayne Shorter on the song’s original 1977 version by Weather Reporrt. Or at least that’s what happened until the musical pecking order for the band was playfully reshuffled as the song progressed.

Those preferring something earthier were able to indulge in pair of Celtic flavored reveries (the Douglas originals Gone to Fortingall and Sir Aly B), a prime slice of new grass fun (Edgar Meyer’s Unfolding) and a bit of rootsy Crescent City-style party music (Leadbelly’s On a Monday).

There was even an electric adventure that bordered on rock ‘n’ roll. On a reworked version of So Here We Are, a trio piece from his 2012 album Traveler, Douglas plugged into lap steel guitar and jammed away on an amped-up romp still rooted in the dobro’s wily, wiry aesthetics.

in performance: pat metheny unity group

PatMethenyUnityBand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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