Archive for March, 2008

straight shooter

shooter jenningsFor all the Hollywood attitude that seems to surround the image and presentation of country music these days, corporate Nashville still doesn’t have a clue as to what to do when one of its own defects to Los Angeles.

Take the case of Shooter Jennings, who shot onto radio three years ago with a smart debut album called Put the “O” Back in Country that mixed West Coast honky tonk drive, lyrical schemes every hard living and home loving country buck could embrace and a fervent respect for the musical inspirations passed on to him.

For crying out loud, the guy is the only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. How could he not feel reverence for country music tradition with parentage like that?

But after a pair of studio follow-ups (the 2006 Southern rock manifesto Electric Rodeo and the new, genre-splitting The Wolf), as well as a white-hot concert document (Live at Irving Plaza 4.18.06), the younger Jennings is at a crossroads.

As the stylistic breadth of his music expands, his airplay diminishes. Now that any honeymoon he shared with country radio is over, the singer is trying to find ways to get music heard that continually challenges the commercial expectations of a country artist. It’s not a predicament he relishes one bit.

“Country radio and the entire music industry are in such shifty positions these days,” said Jennings, who returns to town to play The Dame on Wednesday. “It’s impossible to get on the radio if you’re doing things different from the way everyone else does them But I know who I am.

“I want to be remembered as someone who did something different with country music. But at the same time I’m at a very scary place now. I’m on my third (studio) record. Radio threw us some love on the first one. On the second one, they shut us down. The third one is much more of country record, so we thought radio might let its guard down a little bit. But they haven’t.”

The Wolf presents a vastly greater stylistic vision than just about anything that oozes out of country airwaves these days. The album-opening This Ol’ Wheel, in fact, is something of a cross generational séance. It has Jennings offering snapshots that led him away from the outlaw path paved by his famous father to a hopeful but harrowing life as a California country renegade.

At the heart of the tune are two giant inspirations. Within the spoken narratives, you immediately hear the storytelling detail of father Waylon. But over the verses is a fiddle lead that comes not from some Nashville studio pro, but from the strings of veteran Cajun-country stylist Doug Kershaw.

“The way that happened was so random,” Jennings said. “I was in a guitar store in L.A. buying a 12 string acoustic – just a cheap one to use on the record. The guy there knew who I was and said, ‘Hey man, I’m Doug Kershaw’s nephew.’ So I give him my number and within an hour, Doug is calling me saying, ‘I want to play on your record.’ Man, Doug has so much character. It was a little blessing having him in the studio.”

Confounding expectations further is Slow Train, a tune that strikes to the heart of country conservatism by bringing aboard the veteran vocal quartet The Oak Ridge Boys.

“We’ve always used guests on the records. But I like to use them in really weird ways instead of just coming up with a duet. So we went, ‘Why not the Oak Ridge Boys?’ I mean, I thought that was a really cool idea. But once I had (longtime Oak Ridge Boys singer) Duane Allen’s number in my hand, I just stared at it for, like, two weeks. I’m always nervous about calling people up for stuff like this. But from the minute we got those guys on the phone, they were so nice. They just rolled up to the studio in their bus. It was such a surreal experience.”

Finally, there is a heavily reinvented cover of Mark Knopfler’s Dire Straits hit Walk of Life. While that might seem like The Wolf‘s broadest stylistic leap of faith, Knopfler has long publicized his love for country music through collaborations and friendships with Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill. One of Waylon Jennings’ final recordings, in fact, was a 1996 duet cover with Knopfler of Buddy Holly’s Learning the Game.

“Mark and my dad had mutual respect for each other,” the younger Jennings said. “My dad was a big fan of Dire Straits and turned me on to them when I was a kid. I guess, in a way, doing Walk of Life was crazy. But once I heard it in my head as a honky tonker, I knew it was going to be a cool track to cover.”

It’s a diverse trio of tunes, for sure. Yet collectively, the music possesses a far more generous and authentic country spirit than the more pop-inclined hits that dominate country radio. But getting shrugged off of late by corporate Nashville, disappointing as it seems to be to Jennings, is hardly the first time the singer has had to fight to promote his own West Coast country voice.

“I’ve ended up having to pick myself up on a number of occasions,” Jennings said. “There were times people said I was just riding on my dad’s name. But during the years I fought to be heard in L.A., my dad’s name didn’t mean anything. I was just another redneck who migrated here.

“So, yeah, radio is still putting up a fight. It’s still like, ‘Hey, he plays rock clubs’ or ‘He doesn’t look like everybody else.’ They’re still playing that game with me. But I feel like I can endure. I’m smarter than they are, so I’m just going to keep on keeping on as long as I can.”

Shooter Jennings and Eddie Spaghetti perform at 9 p.m. April 2 at The Dame, 156 West Main. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door. Call: (859) 226-9005.

a sparrow in china

abgail washburn

Of the many discoveries Abigail Washburn  hoped to make when she first ventured to China, forging a career in music was not one.

But after a decade-long immersion in the country’s culture and language (she speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese), Washburn became not only infatuated with the sounds of another land. She discovered a musical kinship that ignited roots music exploration here at home.

“It’s funny, really,” Washburn said. “I mean, why does one go to a foreign land to live and learn?  It’s different for everybody. For me, I had a really clear career path. I thought I was going to do something with Sino-American legal issues. I wanted to be an expert in some aspect of comparative law between the two cultures.”

She was going to do what? Where in the world – or at least in two continents – did Washburn decide to sack the law, pick up a banjo and become not only a mainstay member of an acclaimed bluegrass band (the all-female Uncle Earl) but the leader of a daring, multi-cultural ensemble packed with serious heavyweight players called the Sparrow Quartet?

The answer began somewhere in a smoky Beijing club roughly six years ago when Washburn sang Appalachian tunes in Chinese. The seed was then planted for the unconventional Sparrow Quartet instrumentation of two banjos, violin and cello. That also triggered a passion to study further the Americana music she was singing in China. But you can also thank a serious listen to records by pioneering guitarist Doc Watson for the latter.

“I can’t even recall if it was a conscious effort to find something cultural to attach to when I came back to my own native culture or if it was just a subconscious thing. But after hearing an LP of Doc Watson, I thought to myself, ‘This is a beautiful American thing.’ So I went out and bought a banjo and listened to Doc Watson a lot. That spark of American roots music has grown into this career.”

A move to Nashville and subsequent membership in Uncle Earl furthered the performance aspect of that career. But trips to China, and eventually Tibet, continued. Gradually, the musical pals that ventured with Washburn became collaborators. Among them: Louisville-born cellist Ben Sollee, progressive bluegrass fiddler Casey Driessen and a true innovator at meshing musical genres, banjoist Bela Fleck.

“None of this was intentional,” Washburn said. “We didn’t go over there together for the first time thinking, ‘We’re the Sparrow Quartet. We’re going to play in China.’ I just knew I didn’t want to let go of this love I had for the Chinese culture and the love I have for speaking the Chinese language. I didn’t want to let go of that part of my life.”

While brief performance excursions to China were workable for the ensemble, American touring was vastly tougher to arrange logistically, primarily due to Washburn’s commitments to Uncle Earl and Fleck’s work in myriad projects. But add some luck and fate to the mix, not to mention a full-length debut album which will hit stores in late May, and calendar time surfaced for the Sparrow Quartet to undertake its first extensive North American tour.

The trek will include some mammoth performances. Along with a Tuesday concert at the Kentucky Theatre, there will be appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Bonnaroo, then a trip across the ocean to play the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The album, titled simply Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet manages a bit of globe-trotting, as well. There are tastes of Sichuan folk songs, nomadic Kazakh music, Lily May Ledford banjo tradition along with numerous original quartet works.

“The four of us already knew we enjoyed playing together,” Washburn said. “But we never considered this as something we would tour in the States. We thought of it as an adventurous group that specifically toured China.

“Then as were working on the new record, we discovered that we all might be available to actually tour. We never really had the time to explore the potential of the sound we could make as a double banjo-cello-fiddle quartet. Along with the window that opened for everyone to tour the States, we became really excited about being able to put quite a bit of time into the group. It feels like a real unveiling of our music.”

Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet performs at 7 p.m. April 1 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. Tickets are $23, $27.50. Call (859) 231-7924.

current listening 3/29

 loadedThe week’s off-hours listening has included:

The Wood Brothers: Loaded – More great soul-style fun with bassist Chris Wood (of Medeski Martin & Wood) and sibling guitarist/vocalist Oliver Wood. Sounds like the lighter mood of MMW’s recent children’s album, Let’s Go Everywhere rubbed off on these guys. With John Medeski again producing and pack of guest pals (literally) singing their praises, the lean Loaded sound is funky, sunny and thoroughly cool.

The Rolling Stones: Shine a Light – Though billed as a soundtrack, Shine a Light is another Stones concert album. And, frankly, that’s just fine. Loving Cup (with Jack White, no less), the country cut-up classic Far Away Eyes and the wiry You Got the Silver prove Mick, Keith and the boys are as long on soulful stage smarts as they are long in the tooth.

Van Morrison: Keep it Simple – A lighter, leaner, older, wiser, and gloriously unsettled Morrison preaches on the lessons of a sober, simpler life. He sounds typically incantatory on That’s Entrainment and ever-ready for the rapture on Behind the Spiritual (“behind the ritual, you find the spiritual”). Rave on, Van the Man. Rave on.

Mountain: Climbing – A big ol’ greasy post-psychedelic indulgence from 1970. Mississippi Queen was the hit. But the fun came in this introduction to the wonderful stylistic disparity between Mountain’s twin peaks: the stormy, doomsday guitar and vocals of Leslie West and the lighter, more fanciful singing of bassist Felix Pappalardi.

Chick Corea: My Spanish Heart – Cut in the wake of Return to Forever’s 1976 split, My Spanish Heart has it all: synthesized bop, flamenco serenades, brassy suites and, most of all, a wealth of Corea’s acoustic piano playing that is presented in string/chamber settings, in acoustic duets with bassist Stanley Clarke and all by its glorious lonesome.

adieu, jazz factory

harry pickens at the jazz factory 

Sad news out of Louisville: The Jazz Factory is closing. After five years of performances by local and nationally recognized artists in a comfortable, modern environment that rivaled many of the country’s most prestigious jazz clubs, the venue is shutting its doors following sold out sets tonight and Saturday by Louisville pianist Harry Pickens and his trio (pictured above at the club in December 2006).

Admittedly, building a music establishment solely around live jazz may be something of a death wish in this part of the country. But, boy, did Jazz Factory foreman Ken Shapero and staff ever a make a grand stab at it.

Since becoming acquainted with The Jazz Factory three years ago via a jazz trio performance by Peter Gabriel keyboardist Rachel Z, I have been privileged to be part of the audience at many a fine performance at the club. They have included concerts by pianist/song stylist Mose Allison, fusion keyboardist Brian Auger, trombonist Delfayo Marsalis, pianist Mulgrew Miller, longtime Ray Charles saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, guitarist/vocalist Doug Wamble, the prog-rock trio Tunnels and many others.

Two nights especially stand out. The first came in September 2006, when auxiliary members of The Rolling Stones led by saxophonist Tim Ries arrived in Louisville ahead of a Churchill Downs performance to jam at the club. The music, which included a flamenco version of Angie, was exemplary. But it was an even bigger thrill to watch a packed house full of young listeners encounter what may very well have been their first live jazz performance.

The other came last August when former Miles Davis saxophonist Kenny Garrett played a set of volcanic bop and spiritually inclined improvisations. Aside from brief introductions of the band members, no words were spoken for the entire set. As is often the case with great jazz, none were needed.

So jazz now has one less place to call home in Kentucky. But Shapero and company can feel proud of the superlative music they have brought to the region as well as the way they made every patron that walked through the club’s doors feel welcome. Well done, friends.

California Tax Forms Now Include One for Levies on Out-of-State Purchases.

Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News December 25, 2002 By Lisa Munoz, The Orange County Register, Calif. Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News Dec. 25–If you shop online to escape sales tax, get ready to cough up. in our site california tax forms

California loses $147 million a year from not collecting sales tax on Internet purchases. That may not be enough to dent the state’s $34 billion deficit, but officials say it could help.

“We’ll be looking at all ideas,” said Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean about enforcing state sales and use tax laws to cut the deficit.

Now this: In California’s 2002 income-tax forms, taxpayers also will find forms to pay tax on purchases from out-of-state merchants that don’t charge it.

With consumer uncertainty over the economy and a possible war, retailers didn’t hear “Cha-ching!” this holiday season as much as they wanted, but for the first time, online sales did eclipse those at bricks-and-mortar stores. Analysts estimate nationwide Internet sales will top $40 billion this year — up $10 billion from last year — and reach $105 billion within five years.

“We can no longer ignore an entire segment of the retail marketplace,” said Pat Leary, a lobbyist for the California State Association of Counties.

Many out-of-state Internet retailers, telephone or catalog mail-order companies and book and record clubs do not charge sales tax, but that doesn’t mean the purchase is tax-free. In fact, to complete a purchase, shoppers at many popular sites have to agree to follow their state’s tax laws.

One study by the University of Tennessee found that states, cities and counties nationwide lost $13.2 billion in revenue last year from uncollected e-commerce sales taxes. Officials at California’s board of equalization, the agency behind the inclusion of use-tax forms in 540s and 540EZs, estimate the state loses $147 million annually. But New York-based Jupiter Research suggests it’s closer to $20 billion.

“It’s been enforced all along. We’re just looking for additional opportunities to let the public be aware that the use-tax obligation is out there,” said Vic Anderson, a supervisor with the equalization board. california tax forms

California’s use-tax law passed in 1935 to limit competition from retailers in states with no sales tax. But at the height of the Internet boom two years ago, Davis vetoed a bill that would have forced e-tailers to charge state residents an online sales tax. Now, the agency is counting on taxpayers to step forward and pay up.

Even they acknowledge it won’t be easy.

“That’s always a difficult task,” Anderson said, “We have a limited staff, and we have to dedicate our response to maximum productivity and efficiency.” Tricky as it may be, the agency does have its ways, including special investigations, audits and customs, which have turned up big-ticket purchases of farming or construction equipment. And some consumers do step forward to pay the tax of their own accord. In the past two years, the board of equalization received about 23 returns per month, averaging $5,700 each.

Cooperation from merchants has been spotty, but Anderson said his agency tries to work directly with companies to apply taxes.

Some of those companies agree. Others don’t. Many merchants outside the state, and eBay, the most popular site for online purchases, remind customers they are expected to pay applicable taxes for their state. And they correctly point out that it is the duty of individual taxpayers to declare the liability, not their job to charge another state’s sales tax.

And here is one more good thing for taxpayers to know: There’s no need to rush to the post office. Unlike the April 15 income-tax deadline, there is no deadline for filing use-tax returns. Maybe that’s why Anderson says the chance consumers will volunteer to pay use taxes “is slim.” –The Associated Press contributed to this report.


in performance: the punch brothers

punch brothers 

During the opening moments of Punch Bowl, the leadoff tune of the Punch Brothers’ industrious and frequently virtuostic performance last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts, you could almost see stylistic expectations fall to the ground one by one.

Fronted by ex-Nickel Creek-er Chris Thile, the quintet employed familiar bluegrass instrumentation – banjo, guitar, stand-up bass, mandolin and fiddle – as well as plenty of the organic warmth that can’t help but bloom when such instruments play off each other. But the resulting string music couldn’t have skirted tradition more.

In Punch Bowl, there was a touch of gypsy mischief in the fiddle work of Gabe Witcher. Within Thile’s vocals were traces of the blues. And as for the banjo dissonance that Noam Pikelny applied against that tune… well, who knew where that came from? Imagine Sun Ra playing bluegrass (without the space suits, of course) and you at least get an idea of the merry experimentation that occurred during the program.

In a nutshell, the Punch Brothers reveled in music not so much rooted in traditional bluegrass, although Witcher’s vocal lead on Jimmy Martin’s Ocean of Diamonds was happily knee-deep in it. Instead, mandolinist Thile and company seemed to model their band after the late ‘70s and early ‘80s West Coast “dawg music” groups of David Grisman.

Listening to the way Witcher emerged as the most conversational but commanding musical voice in Thile’s 40 minute, four movement opus The Blind Leaving the Blind more than once brought to mind the fluid, jazz-like phrasing violin pioneer Darol Anger gave to Grisman’s records decades ago.

The rest of the ensemble was equally industrious. In fact, the blend of classical and contemporary airs during The Blind Leaving the Blind – not to mention instrumental runs and exchanges of pastoral-like reserve and warp speed briskness – was so complete that Thile’s pouty vocal passages in the piece seem almost intrusive.

More alert in the vocal department was the overtly poppish drive of Nothing, Then, where Thile sang like a grassy Michael Stipe and the band championed a ruptured, pensive groove that sounded like a staccato variation on the theme from The Twilight Zone.

Curiously, the most modern works in the 90 minute set – namely covers of the Strokes’ Heart in a Cage and the White Stripes’ Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground – revealed some of the Punch Brothers’ more rustic, Appalachian-inspired interplay.

Most telling of all was the encore reading of Norman Blake’s Green Light on the Southern – a tune full of unsentimental Americana storytelling that the band illuminated all with kinds of dizzying but still-controlled new grass colors.

It was as if the Punch Brothers had booked passage on the very railroad line that roared along in Blake’s song, had confidently stowed all their stylistic baggage on board and were happily bound to parts unknown.

punch line

punch brothersThe first thing to be stressed is that The Punch Brothers is a band.

Well, above that, actually, is the fact its members aren’t really brothers, except in spirit. But we also need to understand that, despite mandolinist Chris Thile’s initiative in bringing this new generation pack of progressively minded, bluegrass bred string players together, The Punch Brothers is not some fleeting project or pick up unit the now-former member of Nickel Creek has chosen to spearhead.

“The band is definitely a band,” Thile said. “It’s not my band. It’s our band.”

Admittedly, though, it took a big slab of Thile music and two other ensemble names to get The Punch Brothers off the ground.

It all began with a four-movement piece titled The Blind Leaving the Blind. Then came a Thile solo album called How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, which offered a mix of traditional, contemporary and altogether disassociated bluegrass styles. The ensemble Thile organized to bring this new string music to life was formally dubbed The How to Grow a Band following the album’s release in the fall of 2006. The group became The Tensions Mountain Boys this time last year and premiered The Blind Leaving the Blind at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. 

Now we have the Thile opus on a record along with four shorter, group-composed pieces that maintain bluegrass instrumentation but leave string music tradition behind in favor of classical, jazz and New Grass-style inspiration. The record is aptly called Punch. And the band? Well, it was now The Punch Brothers, of course.

“The new record revolves around The Blind Leaving the Blind,” Thile admitted. “But that’s actually the result of how we came together. I called everybody and asked them if they wanted to be involved with this project – a project that, at the time, consisted of only recording this one piece which was already long enough to be its own record. But once we realized how special this group of musicians was, we figured out we should be doing this music full time.”

Of course, that initially meant getting a performance grasp of The Blind Leaving the Blind. On its few scattered vocal segments, all of which are sung by Thile, Nickel Creek’s wistful, almost poppish melancholy emerges. Aside from that, though, the stylistic barriers fall fast. There are organizational traits of a string quartet in terms of tonality and tempo, areas of dizzying instrumental runs that would shame the most practiced of bluegrass pickers and a jazz-like sensibility, especially in the bass work of Greg Garrison, that opens the music up.

The Punch Brothers now have enough of a handle on the piece that it can be performed, in its entirety, as part of the band’s current stage repertoire. But getting it that way wasn’t easy.

“At first, this music was so difficult and so foreign to us,” said Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny, who has previously forged new compositional ideas out of string band sounds as a former member of Leftover Salmon (as was Garrison) and The John Cowan Band. “There were just some really, really challenging things in the piece.

“Maybe we were all just getting caught up in our own parts for awhile, because it seemed like any progress at all was a victory. Of course, we were forgetting that we still had to put it all together as an ensemble and play the piece as music and not just a series of technical challenges.

“So people would ask us after they heard the piece at a show, ‘How did you guys memorize all that? How do you keep all that music in your head?’ And my response was, ‘Because this piece has been part of our lives for the past three years.'”

Thile gave a laugh at the remark – not one that insinuated Pikelny’s reflection was at all inaccurate, though. No, Thile was in solemn agreement that The Blind Leaving the Blind, a composition in part inspired by his 2004 divorce, was devilishly difficult to get into performance shape.

“But it’s finally been tamed,” Thile said. “Not that it’s perfect night in and night out. But I think we’re making music out of it now rather than just pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Maybe it’s my own experience with it, since I’m not just trying to hold life and limb together while I’m playing it anymore, but I think it’s easier for audiences to listen to now – especially since it’s easier for us to present.”

There also has been be a simple logistical reason why life as a Punch Brother is a slightly more relaxed ride than life as a Tensions Mountain Boy or a How to Grow a Band member. Specifically, when the group first convened, Thile was just getting ready to launch a year-long farewell show with Nickel Creek (which played the Singletary Center last fall). Similarly, Pikelny was wrapping up dates with Cowan while guitarist Chris Etheridge was finishing commitments to the award-winning bluegrass troupe The Infamous Stringdusters.

While there will continue to be outside projects to juggle – such as, in Thile’s case, an upcoming duo album with bassist Edgar Meyer – the driver’s seat of these five active string music careers now belong to The Punch Brothers.

“I had so much on my plate there for a couple of years,” Thile said. “I was trying to get this band off on the right foot while trying to do right by my bandmates in Nickel Creek. It was a stressful time. But this is so worthwhile.

“You always want to be in a situation where you’re making music with likeminded people who are all in a similar place just as far their lives are concerned. I feel like we’re in that place right now. So it’s time to go to work.” 

The Punch Brothers perform at 7:30 p.m. March 26 at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Tickets are $22 (University of Kentucky students, faculty and staff) and $25 (public). Call (859) 257-4929.

critic’s pick 12

cannonball adderly sextet in new yorkPerhaps the Riverside label is taking its cue from Blue Note Records. In other words, the groundbreaking jazz label has devised a way to market vintage product in a way that would entice listeners to whom its classic music might actually be new.

Blue Note’s primary reissue series lets its groundbreaking engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, remaster sides he helped record four and five decades ago. Similarly, on five new editions, the fourth batch of reissues in its Keepnews Collection series, Riverside lets the recordings’ original producer, Orrin Keepnews, oversee the proceedings and offer insightful new liner notes.

But it all boils down to the music. And in this case, it’s all essential listening. Die-hard jazz fanatics likely memorized these grooves ages ago, although the 24-bit remastering makes them sound sharper than ever. But for novice fans, here are five gems to start a budding collection with. The reissues also come at a bargain price. Past Keepnews Collection reissues frequently pop up in stores for under $10.

Sets by Thelonious Monk and The Bill Evans Trio sets are true diamonds. Monk’s 1956 Brilliant Corners is brilliant indeed with the sort of animated, percussive playing that defined not only Monk’s piano designs but the brassy exchanges of alto saxophonist Ernie Henry and a young Sonny Rollins on tenor sax. Max Roach’s drumming on Bemsha Swing, which is a graduate course in rhythm all on its own, is a bonus.

Evans’ 1959 Portrait in Jazz takes us back to the pianist’s days with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, a lineup many feel discreetly reinvented the jazz piano trio. But the playing here is too unassuming to take such grand appraisal to heart. Who else could fill Autumn Leaves with sunny exuberance and later cast Spring is Here adrift with soft focus wistfulness? Where Monk was out to shatter rhythmic barriers, Evans took refuge in them by making lyricism sound reserved but regal.

The Cannonball Adderly Sextet’s 1962 In New York takes us to the very venue that made Evans’ famous: New York’s Village Vanguard. After a curious recitation about audience hip factors, the saxophonist enlists two then-young jazz titans – saxophonist/flutist Yusef Lateef and pianist Joe Zawinul – and swings like nobody’s business.

Trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s 1959 Blue Soul is the sleeper of the lot, a mix of savory swing peppered by a title tune that indeed is a meeting ground of sleek blues and soul phrasing.

Finally, 1961’s Bags Meets Wes! is coolsville all the way with Milt Jackson’s icy tone on vibraphone and Wes Montgomery’s unmistakable guitar subtleties transforming the bustling swing of Stablemates into a lesson in majestic cool.

chameleon tim

tim o’brienFor the better part of his American roots music career, Tim O’Brien has kept some impressible and sizeable company.

First came the progressive bluegrass ensemble Hot Rize which introduced O’Brien to string music audiences three decades ago. Folk and country duets with sister Mollie O’Brien followed, as did work with The O’Boys, a combo that featured guitarist Scott Nygaard and bassist Mark Schatz; hits with country star Kathy Mattea; worldly folk explorations alongside guitarist Darrell Scott and fiddlers Kevin Burke and Dirk Powell; a record with the all-star string music collective New Grange; and, in support of his Grammy-winning 2005 album Fiddler’s Green, a tour accompanied by fiddler Casey Driessen, banjoist/guitarist Danny Barnes and bassist Dennis Crouch.

All in all, quite a Christmas card list. So when it came time to record his new Chameleon album, who did O’Brien decide to pal around with? Well, nobody.

Instead of more fearsome acoustic exchanges or stylistic adventures, O’Brien packed up an assortment of prized instruments – including a 1937 Martin guitar, a 1922 Carlo Micelli fiddle, a 1924 Gibson Lloyd Loar mandola and more recent models of mandolin, banjo and bouzouki – along with a batch of new songs. Then he went to work. By himself.

“A solo record is just a really good way to present the music,” said O’Brien, who will be the lone guest of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday. “The music is up close to you. There’s very little between you and the listener.”

There is also very little to hide behind. It’s one thing for a folk singer accustomed to performing casual vocal narratives and confessionals to perform alone. In that setting, songs are essentially stories that are communicated better without massive accompaniment.

While O’Brien is an expert songwriter and vocalist (he won International Bluegrass Music Association awards in both fields in 2006), he is also an immensely skilled instrumentalist. He has shown off all these artistic traits in solo concerts for many years. But cutting a studio record where songs, singing and playing are on equal ground without any outside help presents a new and somewhat frightful challenge.

“Yeah, it’s a little scary,” O’Brien said. “Just starting out, I was like, ‘Gee, how am I going to do all this stuff?'”

O’Brien pointed to a Chameleon tune called When in Rome as an example of how he managed to find common ground for contemporary phrasing and rootsy vocabulary in a solo setting.

“On When in Rome, I was trying to play a rock ‘n’ roll groove, but was pretty shy of it. Then I realized if you played like (bluesman) Gary Davis – you know, that old timey, finger picking guitar sound – it gives you some the same thing without turning what you’re doing into a rock song.

“I just tried to find something in each song we did that would make for a good solo arrangement.”

It’s also easy to get caught up in the ageless clarity of the instruments and musicianship on Chameleon. In fact, much of the record has such a fluid yet rustic sound, especially when the vintage instruments are employed, that you tend to overlook the often contemporary slant of the lyrics.

A prime example is Phantom Phone Call. The tune is performed on the Micelli Fiddle and possesses a striking, almost antique tonality. As no other instrument is present to battle with, the solo fiddle sounds even more ageless – that is until O’Brien warps the old timey mood with a parable about missed cell phone calls.

From there, the songs alternate between worldly and whimsical and run from the darkly political to the richly celebratory. Still, after a listen to Chameleon, that one word is left hanging in the air – bluegrass.

It’s a sound that helped establish O’Brien’s career. But like most of the solo albums he has recorded in the wake of Hot Rize, it’s simply one of many components that make up his music.

“I continued to play to the bluegrass crowd after I left Hot Rize,” O’Brien said. “And they’re a great crowd, too. I wouldn’t have a career without them. So in that regard, I’m pretty lucky.

“But what I’m doing isn’t particularly bluegrass. I just like to play music that cooks along, you know? I’m always looking for variety, so I keep changing things up. But it always comes back to the basic elements of American roots music. It’s the blues and bluegrass, country music and jazz, a little of this and little of that.

“The songs come through the instruments. They adjust to the instruments. These old guitars and mandolins, they’ve just got some kind of story they want to tell you. There is a soul inside of them waiting to come out.”

(above photo of Tom O’Brien by Michael Wilson)

Tim O’Brien performs at 7 p.m. tonight at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St., for the WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour. Admission is $10. Call (859) 252-8888.

in performance: bruce springsteen and the e street band

bruce springsteen and the e street band

Just as Glory Days started to wind down last night at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Bruce Springsteen looked at his watch, then over his shoulder at bandmate Steve Van Zandt and finally to the euphoric crowd in front of him.

“Is it quittin’ time?” he asked. How could it be? The encore segment of a typically jubilant and emotively charged evening with the E Street Band was just getting underway. “Is it goin’ home time?” As before, the crowd loudly and playfully replied in the negative. Finally, Van Zandt took the mike and set everybody straight about exactly what time it was: “It’s Boss time.”

Well, that went without saying. While he doesn’t dish out the four hour marathon performances as he did in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Springsteen still fueled this two-and-a-quarter hour show with abundant physicality, immediacy and topicality. Of course, possessing a song catalogue of still-remarkable depth and one of the most effervescent arena rock bands of all time helped keep the drive alive.

As to the former, Springsteen managed an artful balance of material new and old. The cranky guitar anthem Radio Nowhere, the first of seven tunes from the 2007 album Magic, was placed near the beginning after a show-opening Darlington County established a resilient E Street Band spirit. The rest of the new fare reflected varying degrees of personal and political restlessness.

Devil’s Arcade and Long Walk Home – played as dark, propulsive meditations – were littered with snapshots of lost homes, lost causes and lost souls. Long Walk Home summed up the temperament best: “Certain things are set in stone – who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.”

Conversely, Livin’ in the Future gave rise to protest barbs at the current Washington regime (“the sinkin’ sound of something righteous goin’ under”) that even the E Streeters’ penchant for bright pop hooks couldn’t mask.

From the past came plentiful treats: 1972’s Lost in the Flood, where The Boss let loose one his jagged Black & Decker guitar breaks; 1975’s She’s the One, which was built around the Bo Diddley-gone-wild beat set up by drummer Max Weinberg; 1978’s Candy’s Room, with Springsteen and Van Zandt merrily trading solos; 1982’s Reason to Believe, redefined as a Slim Harpo-style blues grind with a swampy Nils Lofgren slide guitar charge and 2002’s Lonesome Day, arguably the finest ensemble piece of the night.

Of course, “Boss time” also meant putting in overtime. After an encore finale of American Land, an Irish-flavored anthem that lined up eight of the nine E Streeters in a row at the front of the stage with pianist Roy Bittan and pinch-hitting keyboardist Charlie Giordano (in for the ailing Danny Federici) on double accordions, the house lights came on, instruments and microphones were hauled away and the audience began to file out of the arena. But Springsteen wasn’t done. He returned for an unexpected second encore: a glorious 15 minute jam of the seldom-performed Kitty’s Back from 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle album.

Such is the way of business at a maverick Springsteen concert. No one goes home until The Boss says so.

(above photo of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band by Danny Crouch)

Health care community faces cost, staffing dilemmas, hospital leaders say.

Ventura County Star (Ventura, CA) February 2, 2007 Byline: Allison Bruce Feb. 2–A way to cope with the rising cost of healthcare must be found soon or hospitals and their patients will face a tough road, hospital leaders said Thursday.

The crisis has made healthcare a top priority for state and national reform, said Barbara Bronson Gray, the moderator of a panel that included the presidents of St. John’s Regional Medical Center, Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center and Community Memorial Hospital.

The group was addressing a corporate leadership breakfast at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

In 2005, the U.S. spent $2 trillion on healthcare, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That’s $6,697 per person and 16 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Health spending rose 6.9 percent in 2005.

Even as spending rose, about half of California’s hospitals were losing money, said Gary Wilde, president of Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura.

That’s because providing healthcare is an expensive proposition for hospitals, which are required to treat anyone who walks through the emergency room doors. About 25 percent of the patients who visit the emergency room at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard don’t have any way to pay, said President T. Michael Murray. go to website los robles hospital

At the same time, government-funded insurance, such as Medicare or the state’s Medi-Cal, falls short of hospitals’ costs, the panel members said.

When that happens, hospitals have to shift the burden of expenses onto private payers, Wilde said.

Part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed healthcare reform would increase the amount hospitals and doctors receive through Medi-Cal.

In 2004, about 44.4 percent of insurance was public, such as Medicare, and about 55.6 percent was private, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In 2005, the average yearly premium for a single worker was $4,024, with the worker paying $610 and the employer paying $3,414. The premium for a family was $10,990.

Health insurance premiums have outpaced both inflation and workers’ earnings.

Meanwhile, the causes behind rising expenses are not going away.

There is the constant and growing challenge of finding enough specialists and nurses to meet demand.

As California raises its required ratio of nurses to patients — it’s 1:5 this year and will increase to 1:4 in 2008 — that demand becomes even greater.

Add in the rising number of patients suffering from the ill effects of smoking and obesity, as well as the aging population, and the challenge of having enough nurses becomes that much harder.

At the same time, it is increasingly difficult to keep doctors in the state. California is a prohibitively expensive state to practice in, and new doctors are leaving, Murray said.

Hospitals are trying to combat these problems by recruiting out of state, supporting local healthcare education programs and training and promoting current employees, such as a medical assistant who wishes to become a nurse.

Wilde noted that the biggest healthcare concern for the future is what will happen to Medicare funding as baby boomers stop contributing to the fund and start taking from it.

Right now, about 40 percent of the taxes going into Medicare come from baby boomers, he said. los robles hospital

By 2010, all of the interest and taxes coming into Medicare will equal what is going out, he said. By 2018, Medicare is expected to be bankrupt under the existing system.

“That’s really the moose head on the table,” Wilde said.

It demands reforms that would require either reducing benefits or increasing taxes, perhaps even requiring retirees who can afford it to pay into the Medicare fund.

Moving some of the cost burden onto the individual is already occurring in private insurance. If individuals pay more, they will try to keep those costs down, the argument goes.

When people buy a car, they do their research and figure out what gets them the most for their money. It’s not that way in healthcare — where the doctor does the prescribing — the patient perhaps pays a little but the majority of the bill is on an insurer, Wilde said.

“That gap — that disconnect — violates all those standards of supply and demand,” he said.

Right now, a single employee carries about 16 percent of the healthcare premium burden. A worker with family coverage pays for about 26 percent.

There also is a need for better education. People need to know how to best navigate the healthcare system to keep costs down, Los Robles Hospital President Jim Sherman said.

If someone avoids going to the doctor with a sore throat and later has to go to the emergency room to be treated for pneumonia, their bills will be much higher than if they had caught it early, he said.

“We have to get the public to access the healthcare system at the right entry point,” he said.

The panelists noted that reform is a high priority, and they expect change in the coming years.

Under the governor’s plan, all Californians would be required to have insurance, with subsidies available for those making less than 250 percent of the poverty level. The plan would require employers with 10 or more employees to offer insurance or pay into a state fund.

It is one of several reform proposals expected in California this year. Another expected to resurface is Sen. Shelia Kuehl’s bill, which would have created a single state insurance program.

It reached the governor last year, but he vetoed it.

However things shake out, panelists said the dialogue has to take place.

“There’s at last a recognition that we have a serious problem,” Murray said.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

current listening 03/22

waco brothersOff-the-clock listening over the past week has included…

The Waco Brothers: Waco Express Live & Kickin’ at Shuba’s Tavern, Chicago – Finally, a concert document by the veteran Anglo-Americana cowpunk rockers. Too bad its blitzkrieg version of Big River is absent. But Cowboy in Flames, Death of Country Music and a renegade reading of Neil Young’s Revolution Blues nicely compensate.

The Chieftains: The Chieftains 8 – Irish music hangs around after St. Patrick’s Day like a sturdy hangover. Even so, The Chieftains 8, the second and best of three late ‘70s records the vanguard Irish music band cut for Columbia, still sounds sweet. Arguably the finest recorded collaboration between piper Paddy Moloney and harpist Derek Bell.

Marcin Wasilewski Trio: January – From Poland via the ECM label comes yet another exquisite and beautifully impressionistic piano jazz trio. Save for a sassy turn on Carla Bley’s King Korn, January is dominated by wintry reveries recorded, oddly enough, in February 2007. Stately. Meditative. Gorgeous. But it won’t hit stores until May.

Jim White: Transnormal Skiperoo – A little bit country, a little bit Twilight Zone, White serves up wily twang, earthy grooves and a touch of rural faith and mystery. The hullabaloo mood of Crash into the Sun may catch your ear at first. But the disarmingly poetic Plywood Superman is a sobering, human snapshot that nicely disrupts the party.

California Guitar Trio: Live – An official bootleg as well as a remarkably immediate performance souvenir. The CGT routinely records its shows, edits out the chat and whips the whole thing into a portable CD duplicator. Within 15 minutes of the close to its March 11 concert in Louisville, you had a recording of it in your hands. Very cool.

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