Archive for June, 2012

in performance: vince gill

vince gill.

On the surface, Vince Gill’s sold out, all-acoustic marathon concert last night at the Opera House was a celebration of string music spirit – a robust but relaxed overview that honored bluegrass standards by Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers and a few fine, like-minded tunes penned by the host. And on that score alone, the show came up a solid winner.

But the concert reached far deeper than that. By balancing the bluegrass material with a cordial, unaccompanied segment devoted to his ‘90s hits and an unexpected gift of performance gab, the concert formed an expansive yet intimate portrait of a veteran country music celebrity that was celebrating his past (as well as his music’s heritage) while remaining remarkably at home with where his career has placed him today. 

The 2 ½ hour set opened with a pair of chestnut tunes – East Virginia Blues and Lonesome Wind Blues – that introduced the stately string music firepower of an all-star band (fiddler Stuart Duncan, guitarist Jeff White, bassist Dennis Crouch and banjoist Jim Mills) and the three-part harmonies (the combined force of Gill, Duncan and White) that formed its front line.

Sometimes the tradition Gill and his band zeroed in on was very specific, like the elastic tuning adopted by Mills during Earl’s Breakdown (one of two tunes honoring the late Earl Scruggs; the spry Pick Along, played near the show’s conclusion, was the other). But there were other instances where tradition was generously adopted and adapted.

A three-song run of the Gill originals Sweet Augusta Darlin’, High Lonesome Sound and Give Me the Highway smacked of Bill Monroe. While none of the tunes were built for bluegrass speed, each possessed effortless harmonies and gentle country-ish strides that remain less obvious trademarks of Monroe’s best tunes.

The solo section, where Gill switched from mandolin to guitar, was a real delight. Again, bluegrass tradition informed songs not necessarily bluegrass in design. For instance, last night’s solo version of the 1989 breakthrough hit When I Call Your Name was more plaintive than the bluest of the bluegrass tunes. It also remained a regal vehicle for Gill’s high tenor singing, which last night sounded slightly huskier and more sagely than in the past.

The evening’s biggest surprise was its presentation of Gill as a raconteur. The singer offered jokes, impersonations and lengthy between-song stories, the best of which revolved around his late father, who was described as “a lawyer by trade and a redneck by birth.” An earlier reflection centered on the realization Gill was now eligible, at age 55, for the senior menu discount at Denny’s was also a hoot.

And just when you thought the chat might overtake the show, the bluegrass came roaring back by way of a ferocious flatpicking duet with White during Black Mountain Rag, a spry take on Martin’s My Walking Shoes (which Gill dedicated to Martin alum and Central Kentucky banjo great J.D. Crowe) and a crisp, efficient encore of the Monroe gem My Rose of Old Kentucky.

It made for a grand and comprehensive visit with a country giant on acoustic holiday having the onstage time of his life.

back to the bluegrass

vince gill.

That Vince Gill devotes roughly a dozen shows a year to a predominantly bluegrass oriented repertoire shouldn’t come as a surprise to his more longstanding fans. After all, the veteran country star’s roots run deep into string music territory, from the year he lived in Lexington at the height of the city’s mid ‘70s bluegrass boom to a 2001 Grammy Award (one of the 20-plus he has won) for an all-star version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

What does rattle expectations, however, is that on the day before our conversation, Gill wound up on Good Morning America singing not bluegrass or country, but a pop jazz version of Randy Newman’s Losing You alongside Chris Botti. The trumpeter is the latest entry in a growing roster of diverse collaborators that includes Emmylou Harris, Joe Bonamassa, Gladys Knight, Dire Straits, Daughtry, wife Amy Grant and Kermit the Frog. Does such company reflect a fondness for music that runs beyond country borders?

“I sure hope so,” replied Gill, who presents one of his bluegrass concerts tonight at the Opera House. “I love all kinds of music. Always have. I tell people I learned as much from Led Zeppelin as I did Bill Monroe. All things, anything in between – I just love anything that’s great.

“But what’s really cool about bluegrass music is the democracy it has always represented within a band. Even if it was Bill Monroe, it was still Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. It was always Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Bluegrass always had a band mentality to it, and that offered a great learning curve for me. It’s like being a kid. You learn how to play well with others. You really depend on each other. And you support each other.

“It’s not just the front man out there and you’re the stuff in the background that nobody notices. With bluegrass, you notice the entire thing. It’s one unit. And when it works together, it rocks as hard as The Rolling Stones.”

Long before Gill was playing to full arenas in the ‘90s armed with sterling high tenor vocals and equally radiant country originals like When I Call Your Name and Pocket Full of Gold, he was honing his vocal and instrumental prowess with the Bluegrass Alliance in Louisville and with Boone Creek in Lexington. The latter was a short-lived gig (about eight months) but teamed Gill with two young alumni from J.D. Crowe’s landmark 1975 version of the New South – Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas.

“I wound up playing bass with Boone Creek. And I was not a bass player. I mean, I could play bass. But here were all these great virtuoso musicians out there doing what they do, and I was playing bass and not getting to sing. Jerry and I used to play some twin dobro stuff in Boone Creek, too. But I don’t play dobro so much anymore. Jerry will do that to you. He’ll make you never want to play the instrument again.

“So even with as much as I was learning, it just wasn’t the best fit. After about eight months, I went back to Louisville for a short time and then wound up going to the West Coast. That opened my mind to a lot of new music, a lot of different things. So in hindsight, it was a great move for me.

“But I loved Lexington while I was there. Great college town. Became a Big Blue fan and all that. Crowe was there, so Lexington was a Mecca. And Louisville, too. Those two cities, just an hour apart, presented music that proved to be really pivotal for me. That time in Kentucky impacted my entire career. So I’m excited to come back and play and have the night be about bluegrass and not so much about the big country artist who had a nice career.”

Gill referred to his country career in the past tense several times. That doesn’t mean he has forsaken it. But with a 23 year stretch as a country artist contracted to Universal/MCA Records now behind him (his final album for the label, Guitar Slinger, was released last fall), Gill is eager to hit the studio for some altogether different music.

“I would probably be a fool if I didn’t make a bluegrass record now,” Gill said. “Life, at this point, should be about having some fun. I have a long history of loving bluegrass music, so a record of that may be ahead for me. Plus, I’m not under contract with Universal/MCA anymore. That kind of thing, for the most part, would prohibit you from doing a lot of outside, off-the-wall, whatever-you-want-to-call-it type projects. So I am pretty excited about my future.

“I don’t want to say I’m starting over but it’s like I get to go do anything I want now, and I’m sure that will include making a bluegrass record. Maybe it will include an instrumental record. I love big band music. I love standards. I’ve got several ideas in my brain for 10 or 15 ways I could go and the kinds of records I could make. I think, in all honesty, I’m going to do them all.”

Vince Gill performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short St. Tickets are tickets $75.50-$95.50. Call (859) 233-3535 or (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com

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critic’s picks 234

Fusion music, maligned as it has been over the ages, has always worked off of jazz tradition in ways many audiences choose to ignore.

For instance, fusion die-hards are often rock ‘n’ rollers at heart, favoring performance flash over compositional and improvisational form. Traditionalists, on the other hand, still view fusion as jazz heresy, even though it is a direct outgrowth of bop and post-bop creativity.

On two new albums, Return to Forever and Pat Metheny use fusion as part history lesson and part progressive catalyst to explore dynamic new music largely rooted in tradition.

Return to Forever, a cornerstone jazz-rock brigade from the ‘70s that tends to work today only in reunion situations, sounds both sagely and youthful on The Mothership Returns, a CD/DVD chronicle of a summer 2011 tour that teamed mainstay members Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White with two new but practiced recruits – violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale.

True, Mothership sometimes luxuriates in fusion excesses that make traditionalists cringe, like Corea’s darting synthesizer rolls on the opening Medieval Overture and the party funk of Clarke’s bass-popping School Days. But chamber-style dynamics fuel Corea’s Romantic Warrior and Ponty’s still-regal Renaissance. And when a piano/violin duet on Concierto de Aranjuez leads into the playful flamenco/bop staple Spain, all links to fusion dissolve.

As such, Mothership is a best-of-both-worlds deal. It reflects the electric might of younger years while regularly referencing jazz inspirations that gave rise to fusion in the first place.

Guitarist Metheny, like Corea, has always been something of a journeyman. He remains best known for the progressively minded electric music he pioneered in the Pat Metheny Group, yet he has continually worked outside that ensemble on projects to embrace bop, free jazz and solo acoustic guitar music.

Unity Band seems like a safe exercise at first with Metheny fronting a traditional quartet for a set of nine original compositions removed totally from fusion. Yet, the instrumentation couldn’t be modern. He often colors Unity Band with guitar synthesizer sounds (especially on the robust Roofdogs) that have so long been part of his musical vocabulary that they are now fixtures within his tunes’ more traditionally minded frameworks.

The difference, this time, is veteran saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Potter. Metheny infrequently records with reed players, although when he does – as shown by recordings with Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker – the collaborations become quite dramatic. Sparks fly again during Unity Band with the mingling of acoustic guitar and tenor sax on This Belongs to You and the darker, denser terrain of the boppish Breakdealer.

Such tunes heavily suggest tradition, but the playing that fortifies the album – be it solo or ensemble – can’t help but sound progressive.

looking for fall 2012, pt. 1

andrew bird.

As we enter the home stretch of a week where temps may well hit the 100 degree mark, The Musical Box would like propose that, no, is not too early to start looking to fall.

Of course, the fact that two fine concert picks have just been confirmed for September and October only add to the anticipation of what is shaping up to be a very cool autumn.

First up is an addition to the Singletary Center for the Arts’ upcoming season, which in itself is news since the schedule was only announced last week. The update: Andrew Bird will perform his first Lexington concert in over eight years at the Singletary on Sept. 29 (7:30 p.m.; $25, $30, $35).

The multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter was a club regular at now-defunct venues like The Dame, Lynagh’s Music Club and High on Rose over the past 15 years. Of late however, his multi-stylistic folk and pop tunes – not to mention wonderfully atmospheric albums like the new Break It Yourself – have gained international followings.

Advance tickets are already available for the Bird show and the good Singletary folks are allowing us to share the pre-sales password (SCFA, all upper case) with you. Click here for more info.

jorma kaukonen.

Then we have a real shocker from Natasha’s, 112 Esplanade. The bistro’s website lists an Oct. 7 performance by Jorma Kaukonen, the extraordinary blues and roots music guitarist.

A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for his co-founding role in the landmark psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen still maintains co-piloting duties with fellow Airplane alum Jack Casady in Hot Tuna as well as a healthy solo career. He has played Lexington before, mostly through WoodSongs appearances. But a full up-close Sunday evening with Jorma is a true rarity (8 p.m., $35).

Go to www.beetnik.com for tickets.

in performance: the crimson projeKct

the crimson projeKct. from left: tobias ralph, markus reuter, adrian belew, julie slick, pat mastelotto and tony levin.

When is a tribute act not a tribute act? In the case of The Crimson ProjeKct, the answer isn’t a direct one. The sextet is actually the combined forces of two trio offshoots from the veteran prog ensemble King Crimson – the Adrian Belew Power Trio (featuring longtime Crimson guitarist and Kentucky native Adrian Belew) and Stick Men (featuring the Crimson rhythm section of bassist/Chapman stick ace Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastellotto). Having toured together as a package act last fall, the units are out this summer strictly as a living, rocking homage to Crimson. And with Crimson kingpin Robert Fripp seemingly retired from touring service, this may well be the closest we ever get again to any stage version of the band.

If that makes The Crimson ProjeKct sound like something of an also-ran, it shouldn’t. Last night’s 45 minute opening set at Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre for Dream Theater packed a massive electric and percussive wallop that embraced Crimson’s louder, darker side.

With the exception of 1974’s Red, which raced by with a dense fury drenched in multiple colors of stick and bass, the entire repertoire was pulled from two Crimson albums – 1981’s Discipline and 1995’s Thrak. The latter’s selections, curiously, introduced the set. A nicely propulsive drum duet by Mastelotto and Belew Trio percussionist Tobias Ralph with touch guitar ambience added by Stick Men’s Markus Reuter brought the show-opening B’Boom to life. Generously animated ensemble versions of Thrak’s title tune and Dinosaur followed.

But two Discipline gems that closed out the performance played especially well to this sextet’s strengths. Thela Hun Ginjeet let Belew go wild with guitar bursts that roared out of the tune’s hearty funk foundation and solos and shrieks that resulted from especially torturous whammy bar workouts.

The finale of Indiscipline belonged to the two rhythm sections. Specifically, Mastellotto and Levin (on stick) traded playful but potent skirmishes with Ralph and fellow Belew Trio mate Julie Slick (who countered with noticeably fatter-sounding grooves on electric bass). Belew joined in eventually, but half the fun was watching him sit on a centerstage stool, grinning like a child at recess as the rhythm sections duked it out around him.

And then it was over. Due to a semi-emergency, we couldn’t stay for Dream Theater’s set. But, in all honesty, that wasn’t the thrust of our evening in the first place. The appeal of this road trip show was in watching a few of the King’s subjects hold court and uphold a rather majestic prog-rock legacy – well, a slice of it, anyway.

Wonderfully projeKcted it was, too.

in performance: bodeans

bodeans: ryan bowman, kurt neumann, warren hood, michael ramos.

The task before the BoDeans – specifically, frontman Kurt Neumann – last night at Buster’s was a mighty one. The mission? To take 26 years worth of expert pop and Americana-driven rock ‘n’ roll crafted for the very distinct harmonic blend of Neumann and co-founder Sammy Llanas and credibly reinvent it now that the latter singer has flown the coup.

The answer came by way of an absorbing 100 minute performance that unveiled an industrious seven member Llanas-less BoDeans lineup, a smattering of new songs from its fine new Neumann-led American Made album and an assortment of cleverly re-arranged older works.

The new lineup didn’t offer a dramatic stylistic detour. Instead, it simply cemented a more relaxed and orchestrated sound the BoDeans had adopted on several recent independent recordings. At the forefront of the music – even more so, in some cases, than Neumann – was fiddler Warren Hood and co-guitarist Jake Owen. Their playing helped ignite healthy ensemble jams during the chestnut tune Fadeaway that sandwiched a tough knuckled shuffle between two sections rich in dub and reggae grooves.

But add in longtime BoDeans keyboardist Michael Ramos, who bolstered much of the program with accordion accents that shifted from Cajun-flavored spice to Dropkick Murphys-level Celtic spunk, and the show truly began to kick. Case in point: American, one of four strong tunes from American Made that possessed a fervent but refreshingly non-jingoistic narrative as well as a pumped-up roots drive that further empowered fiddle and accordion.

Neumann wore the crown of rock ‘n’ roll elder with unassuming distinction last night. Among his craftier moments included the transformation of Good Work – a true smoker of a tune from the band’s late ‘80s shows – into a leisurely mix of traditional honky tonk and Chicago blues.

After taking a serious hit in the personnel department a year ago, the music the reconstituted BoDeans offered last night seemed less the product of an aging band running without a co-pilot and more the work of a flight team of seasoned vets and industrious newcomers. All appeared to be equally enjoying the ride.

superlative man

kenny vaughan.

When considering the performance of his 2011 debut album V – a record that serves a roots-savvy menu of traditional country, Americana and more – Kenny Vaughan offers a kind of conditional optimism.

“It’s done quite well for an unknown guy like me.”                      

If you were to gauge Vaughan’s notoriety with mainstream audiences by name recognition alone, such an appraisal might seem spot on. But chances are good you have heard his expert guitar playing whether you know it or not.

For over a decade, Vaughan has served as one of the Fabulous Superlatives, the white hot band that backs country star Marty Stuart. Prior to that, he toured extensively with Lucinda Williams as she promoted her career-defining Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album. And if you were a regular at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club during its alt-country heyday, you caught Vaughan supporting soon-to-be songwriter celebs like Allison Moorer and Kim Richey.

“I wanted my record to be versatile but I also didn’t want it to get too far outside of something your average Marty Stuart autograph table customer might like. I didn’t want them to take it home, put it in the player and go, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ And that could have easily happened.

“Marty has been on me for awhile to do this. He said. ‘You’re losing money by not putting out your own CD. They could be flying off the (concession) tables at the shows.’ So that’s why I made a conscious effort to keep Marty’s audience in mind a little bit and not stray too far out of my comfort zone with the record.”

Still, the music on V – which features Stuart and the other Fabulous Superlatives (bassist Paul Martin and drummer Harry Stinson) as the core band covers a lot of country ground. The opening Country Music Got a Hold On Me is ripe with the Bakersfield accent of Buck Owens, the instrumental Wagon Ride recalls the great Byrds guitarist Clarence White and Mysterium (another instrumental) sounds like Merle Travis sitting in after hours with soul maestros Booker T and the MGs.

Such inspirations represent only a fraction of the sounds Vaughan – an Oklahoma native who grew up in Denver – was exposed to as a youth. From his dad’s record collection, he picked up on jazz. Through TV, he heard The Beatles. Through records by the likes of The Rolling Stones, he gained an appreciation of the blues. And when it came to furthering his own guitar abilities, Vaughan had the benefit of a teacher who, in short order, would go on to become one of the country’s great guitar innovators – Bill Frisell.

“I remember walking into my local music store and there was this guy playing guitar in the corner,” Vaughan said. “I walked up to the owner and said, ‘Man, who is that guy? He sounds great.’ And the owner said, ‘Oh, that’s Bill, my new guitar teacher.’ I said, ‘Sign me up now.’”

But it would be Williams that would give audiences their first serious dose of Vaughan’s guitar abilities. And for Vaughan, it was the three year stretch he spent on the road with the Grammy winning songwriter that gave him his most far-reaching touring experience.

“I knew Lucinda before I worked with her. And I was also familiar with her guitar player back then, Gurf Morlix. He was like her Keith Richards. When Lucinda first called me to work for her, I was fortunately not available. I say that only because I didn’t want to be the guy who replaced Gurf. But then she called six months later.

“While I was with Lucinda, she went from playing to a small cult to a large cult. That was because of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. We wound up doing shows with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. It was incredibly fun to be in that world and work with someone so intently devoted to their own songs. She was such a strong artist with that record.”

With the Williams tenure behind him and a reputation mounting as one of Nashville’s most in-demand session guitarists, the call came to play quartet country with Stuart.

“I didn’t know what that was going to lead to,” Vaughan said. “Turned out to be the greatest thing I’ve ever been involved in. We’re just a four piece band, but the whole thing is so incredibly rich musically. Marty is as much a fan of country music as he is a performer. And he’s one hell of a performer.

“What I do on my own is a side project, really, compared to what I do with Marty. That’s the top priority of everyone in the band. We’re firmly committed to being Fabulous Superlatives.”

Kenny Vaughan performs at 6 p.m June 23 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway, as part of the 3rd June Bug Music Festival. Tickets are $20 and will benefit Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital. Vaughan will perform his own set and also play behind singer-songwriter on Sam Lewis. Also performing will be Brother Barrett and the Barrows, Don Gallardo and How Far West, Tula and Nick Young. Call (859) 281-1116.

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still one of us

joan osborne. photo by thorsten roth.

On the surface, it would be easy to view Joan Osborne’s Saturday performance for an outdoor taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour as a homecoming of sorts.

After all, the Kentucky connection is a strong one. She hails from the Louisville area (specifically, the outlying Anchorage) and still makes her way back to the region for family visits. But nearly all of her professional life has been spent in New York, from her formative years as part of a fertile blues and soul music community to a career that yielded the monster radio hit One of Us during the mid ‘90s. Never mind that she later hit the big screen singing with some smoking soul music vets from Detroit. This New Yorker is still very much in tune with her Kentucky heritage.

“Certainly there was country music around me growing up, and bluegrass music,” Osborne said in a phone interview earlier this week “I remember going to see Bill Monroe as a child. But I don’t know if it was a musical education as much as it was a way of looking at the world that my growing up in Kentucky afforded me.”

The early New York years would figure prominently not only in Osborne’s potent vocal command but in the songs she wrote and the professional company she kept. It also forms the foundation of Osborne’s newest album, a collection of blues and R&B covers titled Bring It On Home. The record re-teams Osborne with some of the first musical pals she made in New York – namely, members of the celebrated soul/blues trio The Holmes Brothers.

“I met The Holmes Brothers when I was taking my first steps as a singer in the blues music that was happening in New York City back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Osborne said. “They were sort of the kings of that scene and were incredibly generous and welcoming to me. It was wonderful to learn from them, be accepted by them and be respected by them as a fellow artist.”

But the defining moment of Osborne’s early career years came with the 1995 album Relish and its spiritually inclined alt-pop hit One of Us.

“That one song definitely dwarfed anything I had done up until that point just in terms of selling and radio play,” Osborne said. “It has also pretty much dwarfed anything I’ve done since. But it was also the thing that brought people into that Relish album as a whole.

“In a way, One of Us overshadowed other things I did. But it also helped me grow. My fanbase goes deeper than that one song. I do shows now for people who have been fans for 15 to 20 years. And One of Us is not their favorite song nor is it the only reason they are interested in me. But they know about what I do because of the visibility that one song gave me.”

Osborne has collaborated with numerous artists since then, including The Dead (the surviving members of The Grateful Dead), Cheap Trick and the band of veteran Motown session men known at The Funk Brothers by way of the performance/documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

“I walked into the trailer on the first day of filming and they thought I was the make-up girl. They had no clue who I was. But there is a moment in the film when we’re at a diner and the guys are breaking down the groove from I Heard It Through the Grapevine. They were banging spoons on sugar canisters and plates and cups and stuff. And yet the sound and the feel of the song was right there in what they were playing. So, of course, I started singing it. And they all kind of looked at each other, looked at me and we just had this really nice moment. It was like, ‘Okay, here we go. This is going to be really fun.’”

Aside from serving as her first Lexington performance in over a decade, Saturday’s WoodSongs show co-bills the singer with another Kentucky music star by the name of Osborne – bluegrass titan Bobby Osborne. But the two artists are not related – or are they?

“Of course, I know of the Osborne Brothers,” she said. “I’ve always wondered if there is some familial connection. When I look at pictures of those guys, they look just like my Uncle Eddie. I wonder if some kind of family free is happening there. Maybe we will find out on Saturday.”

Joan Osborne and Bobby Osborne perform at 5:45 p.m. June 23 at Buffalo Trace Distillery, 113 Great Buffalo Trace in Frankfort for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $25. Call (859) 252-8888.

critic’s pick 233

Just as Miles Davis set his aim on the electric frontiers of Bitches Brew at the close of the 1960s, one his most esteemed alumni was conjuring a plugged-in sound of his own. The musician was drummer Tony Williams and his band, the more elemental and rockish Tony Williams Lifetime, became one of the forefathers of the pagan jazz sound known as fusion.

A new, cross-generational ensemble called Spectrum Road (after Spectrum, one of Lifetime’s earliest compositions) fashions itself after Williams’s landmark sound on a very spirited, self-titled debut album. The record is both a tribute with some serious cred and a groove collective that explores how Williams’ electric music might flourish today.

The Spectrum Road lineup is a workmanlike celebrity crew. John Medeski (of avant jazz/jam band fave Medeski Martin & Wood) approaches the spacious keyboardist duties carried out in the original Lifetime lineup by organ great Larry Young, Vernon Reid (of Living Color) assumes the Lifetime guitar chair of John McLaughlin, Cindy Blackman Santana (known best for the furious beat she kept on Lenny Kravitz’s best records) picks up where Williams himself left off and, manning Jack Bruce’s bass role in Lifetime is, amazingly, still Bruce. Nothing gives credibility to a Williams tribute like re-enlisting one of the chief architects of the band’s initial sound.

Leading this revivalist charge is Medeski and Reid, who resurrect Where and Vashkar, tunes from Lifetime’s 1969 debut album Emergency! – a record cut when the band was an organ/guitar/drums trio. Where is faithful to the atmospheric keyboard intro and guitar set-up of the tune’s original recorded version. Then Reid and Santana drive the music straight through the cosmos with a fuzzy guitar blast that is more indicative of Frank Zappa than McLaughlin and percussion that honors Williams’ youthful vigor without outright aping it.

Bruce has a field day throughout Spectrum Road. His vocals on There Comes a Time (originally from 1971’s Ego, an album cut after he departed Lifetime) reflect a robust playfulness that falls between blues and psychedelia. And on 1970’s Allah Be Praised, the whole band ignites, first with blasts of earthy boogie and then with lighter, more ambient interplay.

Spectrum Road occasionally extends beyond the initial Lifetime repertoire. Wild Life is a spruced up version of a 1975 rocker from a later, prog-funk Lifetime lineup while Coming Back Home, a tense swing vehicle for Reid, was pulled from Williams’ neglected 1979 solo album The Joy of Flying. There is also one original – a nimble jam called Blues for Tillmon. But Spectrum Road is most expressive when it stays the original fusion course plotted by Williams. Over 40 years later, the sights and sounds this quartet discovers along that path are endlessly engaging.

sir paul at 70

paul mccartney

The Musical Box isn’t big on birthdays, you know. When you get to be our age and continue to write about pop, punk and jazz like you’re still in your teens, you are deluded, misguided or just plain nuts. We prefer the latter assumption. Why sugarcoat the obvious?

But how can we not pay respect to Sir Paul McCartney today as he turns 70? To multiple generations, he wasn’t just a Beatle (of course, “just a Beatle” is like saying “just an Olympanian”). McCartney has also, for decades, been the face of pop music’s eternally youthful spirit. It doesn’t matter if you became obsessed with The Beatles during their creative lifetime or were part of the many successive generations to subsequently latch onto their music. The connection remains equally strong.

While a few light years have passed since McCartney has issued a consistently remarkable solo album, he remains a most respectable ambassador for one of pop and rock music’s greatest song catalogs. Just watching him last summer at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park shell out with astonishingly stamina and vigor one classic after another – from Hello Goodbye to The End – enforced that fact. We, of course, still buy into that charm.  Nostalgia, at any age, is a powerful commodity. But McCartney and The Beatles represent so much more than that. They remain the standard, the vanguard enterprise that pop music contenders will forever be judged by. That Sir Paul is still around to uphold such joy and magic is a pure blessing.

So what to listen to celebrate the day? Any Beatles album will do. My choices: a spin of  The Beatles’s Rubber Soul for the sophistication its songwriting represented so early in the band’s career, another listen to the recently reissued 1971 solo album Ram for its homemade and surprisingly ageless drive and a just-before-bed viewing of the newly restored Yellow Submarine DVD for its imaginative psychedelic vision. No doubt, dreams of blue meanies and apple bonkers will follow.

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