Chuck Leavell is one of those rare artists that seems to know exactly how blessed he is. Never mind that he has had one of the sweetest gigs on the planet for the last 26 years playing keyboards for the Rolling Stones or that his musical career seems to groove in tandem with his ongoing environmental work. No, it was when Leavell’s fingers dug last night into Don Raye’s Down the Road a Piece, a blast of 1940s boogie woogie cut by the Stones as far back as 1965 (on The Rolling Stones Now!) that a very obvious jubilance all but oozed out of his playing and personality. His left hand kept the rhythm rolling as a steady, tireless stream. The right positively danced, adding percussive bounce to the tune’s juke joint flavor and richly percussive tone.
A similarly buoyant and cheery attitude also marked the other four tunes Leavell served up at the Kentucky Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. There was Professor Longhair’s In the Wee Wee Hours, which also bopped along with a gracious sense of swing. Similarly smoking was Route 66, cut by the Stones on their 1964 debut album but served here with heavy New Orleans spice. A stately, reverential Georgia on My Mind closed the show. But the standout was a Leavell original: the instrumental title tune to his 2005 Southscape album. The tune mixed blues, a tinge of gospel lyricism and subtle melodic grace all played with a jazz-like flexibility. That was all the program had time for. But considering Leavell hasn’t played Lexington since a 1977 Rupp Arena show with his band Sea Level (an opening set for, of all acts, the Electric Light Orchestra), we can consider the WoodSongs outing a welcome, overdue Bluegrass return.
Nashville song stylist Tori Sparks, the program’s other featured guest, stuck to a sampler of folkish vignettes that offered their own sense of surprise. The highlight: Out of the Void, which utilized a Spanish-flavored melody and vocal shades that nicely blended the hush of Over the Rhine with the more exact, almost stabbing articulation of Chrissie Hynde. The encore of Tom Waits’ Jesus Gonna Be Here was a kick, too.