Archive for June, 2012

in performance: bruce hornsby and the noisemakers

bruce hornsby.

At the halfway point of his rich and remarkably animated performance last night at the Kentucky Theatre, Bruce Hornsby seemed ready to write his own review.

“He wasn’t that good, but he laughed at his own jokes, that Hornsby.”

Though an abundant sense of playfulness fueled the concert, this show was no joke. Operating from a set list that relied heavily on audience requests, Hornsby assembled a pop sound with a nearly boundless range. At various points, his music referenced bluegrass greats The Stanley Brothers, jazz piano icon Bill Evans, avant rock icon Captain Beefheart and roots music champion Levon Helm. And, yes, there were a few extended jams that briefly echoed the pianist’s days with The Grateful Dead. But these were supplements to a pop sound that was very much Hornsby’s invention.

The nearly 2 ½ hour concert was, almost simultaneously, exact and ever-changing. That crisp, percussive piano tone that ruled Hornsby’s radio hits during the late ‘80s, along with the very appealing melodic strides that came with it, were still very much in evidence. But in the 25 years since those songs were issued, Hornsby has delighted in being something of a mad scientist onstage. Last night was no different. Sometimes, it was the ensemble sound he messed with, moving from open pop lyricism to more abstract improvisation. In other instances, his very hits became test subjects.

The performance reached back to Hornsby’s 1986 debut album for the show-opening The Red Plains. More precisely, it began with a series of dizzying piano runs that recalled the devilish playing of modern piano jazz stylist Matthew Shipp. Then the tune’s familiar melody surfaced, introducing an efficiently orchestrated sound that backed Hornsby’s piano work with the support of electric keyboardist (and Beefheart alumnus) John “JT” Thomas.

As for the hits, they took a generous beating – and sounded all the better for it. The End of the Innocence, Mandolin Rain and the set-closing The Way It Is sported entire sections that completely altered the composed melody. Mandolin Rain, if any anything, sounded even more plaintive and elegiac within the newer, starker setting that enveloped its first verse than it did on the original arrangement, which the song eventually reverted to. Ditto for The Way It Is, which grew out the prog-ish ambience that concluded the snake-handling spiritual Preacher in the Ring, Part  2.

The highlight? Hard to say. Hornsby’s turns on dulcimer during I Truly Understand, The Good Life and Prairie Dog Town came close. But in the end, Rainbow’s Cadillac, where Hornsby briefly aped the vocal honk of the great Beefheart while playing accordion, won out. It was a beautiful moment with a modern day pop journeyman honoring one of rock music’s most deviously dissonant intellects.  

the right home for the right noise

bruce hornsby.

After a quarter century of furthering a sense of songcraft that shed one stylistic skin after another as it evolved, Bruce Hornsby figured the time had come for a sit-down.

It wasn’t just that the Grammy-winning pianist, vocalist and composer needed a break, although in a career that had sailed non-stop through radio stardom, a tenure with the Grateful Dead and recordings that embraced jazz, bluegrass and various rock and classical accents, Hornsby could have probably used a breather. But taking 2010 off from the road proved necessary to find the rights means of promoting a performance career with distinct, dual personalities.

In short, he wanted to find the best avenues to showcase his solo piano performances (which first brought him to the Kentucky Theatre in the late ‘90s) and concerts with his longrunning band The Noisemakers (which brings Hornsby back to the venue on Saturday). 

“Interestingly enough, I felt it was time to kind of reinvent how we presented ourselves as concert artists,” Hornsby said in a phone interview last week. “For the last four or five years, we’ve observed that my solo shows have been outdrawing my band concerts. So I thought, let’s try and ingratiate ourselves to the festival circuit and kind of mine that area for the band more.

“The solo shows, by nature, go down easier for certain audiences. There is an older crowd we play to that really prefers to just sit down and listen to the music. That’s why I tend to play solo at theatres and performing arts centers. The Grateful Dead audience would be kind of disappointed by that. That kind of setting would be a drag for them and I totally understand that. So we will see how this Kentucky Theatre show goes. That’s usually not the kind of place we play for these band concerts because they are more rowdy, unbridled and a little crazy. It’s just a joyful noise.”

Such a sound abounds on Hornsby’s 2011 concert album, Bride of the Noisemakers. Pulled from three years worth of performances, the repertoire offers a crash course in just how stylistically expansive Hornsby’s music has become. It revisits ‘80s songs cut with his breakthrough band The Range (Defenders of the Flag), progressively minded works from ‘90s era solo albums (Shadow Hand) and newer, leaner music forged by The Noisemakers (the title tune to 2009’s Levitate album). But there are also diverse covers (Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, Keith Jarrett’s The Wind Up and the Grateful Dead’s Standing on the Moon) as well as hints of Hornsby’s fascination with numerous classical inspirations (snippets of Anton Webern, Elliot Carter and Samuel Barber pepper the album). Bride of the Noisemakers luxuriates in a sound that it as clean and exact as it is flexible and adventurous.

“Listen to my first record (1986’s The Way It Is) and listen to Bride of the Noisemakers,” Hornsby said. “They are completely different. I’m in a constant search for inspiration. It’s funny, though. The two areas I’m most involved with now are polar opposites.

“One is songwriting. It’s not quite as informed by jazz as it once was. I’m into more of this very basic, gutbucket songwriting. The other is modern classical music. I’ve inflicted some of that on my audiences – a little Webern, a little Schoenberg. That’s informing a lot of my newer music.

“I’m still very passionate about three chord music. But I do get restless for going over to the dark side and dealing with the black keys, if you know what I mean.”

The coming months will see the release of a live collaborative album with Kentucky-born country-bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs (the two released a studio record in 2007), a soundtrack to the Spike Lee documentary Red Hook Summer and a solo concert album. Already out is Dirty Ground, a tune Hornsby penned and recorded for the veteran jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new Sound Travels album. And in the works is new music that marks a blooming songwriting partnership with the prolific Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

“Our first attempts are already in a beautiful area. On New Year’s Day, he sent me an email that said, ‘Happy New Year. Here are some words.’

“You know, my wife tells me I work and study harder at music now than I did when I was in my 20s. I guess I’m sort of a proselytizer in that respect. I’m always interested in making people as interested in music as I am.”

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers perform at 7:30 p.m. June 16 at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main St. Tickets are $45.50-$87.50. Call (859) 231-7924.

angel in a straitjacket

los straitjackets: pete curry, jason smay, danny amis, eddie angel and greg townson. photo by jake guralnick.

You would think the seemingly specific concept behind Los Straitjackets would be the product of intense pop strategizing. After all, the notion of four artists donning Mexican wrestling masks while performing vintage-flavored guitar rock instrumentals doesn’t exactly present itself by chance.

Except that it sort of did.

“There was no plan, no blueprint for what we did other than we all were big fans of 1960s music” said co-founding Straightjackets guitarist Eddie Angel last week by phone while enroute to a Harrisburg, Pa. performance. “We were an instrumental band, but we wanted to be entertaining. Besides, people were accustomed to looking at something when they went to a show. What they looked at with most in bands was a singer. So we had to do something different.”

Of course, the first degree of difference was the music. Los Straitjackets songs sported lean but very sturdy compositional foundations, from the bottom of their economical backbeats to the heights of their clean but potent guitar harmonies. Stylistically, the sound suggested retro – a ‘60s style format that expressed itself through covers of period pieces like the pop serenade Sleepwalk, Link Wray’s I’m Branded and the space age confection Telstar. But those were simply the hooks. By also accessing elements of rockabilly, garage rock and all kinds of roots-driven inspirations for a wealth of original material, Los Straitjackets proved it was no musical novelty, even though its look suggested otherwise.

First in the stage profile plan came the masks. They were brought in by Los Straitjackets’ other guitarist, Danny Amis, a major aficionado of Mexican pop culture.

“Danny came up with the idea of the wrestling masks from all these trips he had made to Mexico City,” Angel said. “After that we added the Spanish (introductions), the matching guitars and the choreography. But outside of that, this was really everybody’s idea.”

Though an initial lineup with Angel and Amis formed 1998, Los Straitjackets became a full-time recording and touring enterprise in 1994. As the decade progressed, their popularity grew locally (through frequent appearances at the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club) and nationally (through regular appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien). Growing almost as rapidly as the band’s notoriety was its musical scope, which began to encompass surprises like the swing classic Sing, Sing, Sing and the Titanic love theme My Heart Will Go On. The music also expanded for collaborations like the 2001 album Sing Along with Los Straitjackets, which featured a guest list that included Raul Malo, Nick Lowe, Dave Alvin, Allison Moorer, Big Sandy, Exene Cervenka and The Reverend Horton Heat.

But two years ago, the party was derailed when Amis was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable form of plasma cell cancer. That’s when the many friends of Los Straitjackets stepped up to help with benefit concerts to offset Amis’ mounting medical expenses. Among the more high profile events was a Los Angeles gathering last July titled El Beneficio for Daddy O Grande that featured Mike Campbell (from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) and one especially popular pack of longtime pals.

“We’ve played on Conan O’Brien’s shows eight times and have gotten to know his band (Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band) really well,” Angel said. “Conan has been a great friend, too. All of helped them out. Conan even played guitar.

“Danny’s had a stem cell transplant and is doing a lot better. We’re hoping he will be able to make a few appearances with us at some shows this fall.”

Amis figures prominently on the new Los Straitjackets album, a collection of all original music titled Jet Set due out in August. Produced by Janne Haavisto of the Finnish surf band Laika and the Cosmonauts, Jet Set features the full Straitjackets lineup – rounded out by longtime bassist Pete Curry, drummer Jason Smay and Amis’ touring replacement, Greg Townson  – as well as help from Vivino and the Basic Cable Band.

“You know, there was no way I thought the band would have lasted this long,” Angel said. “I figured we would be playing out once a month just for fun. I spent years and years in bands that were trying to ‘make it.’ Then the one band I wasn’t all that serious about at first was the one I wound up making a living at.”

Los Straitjackets and Eilen Jewell performs at 10 p.m. June 14 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $15 at the door. Call (859) 309-9499.

television blackout: richard lloyd cancels cosmic charlie’s concert

richard lloyd

Received word last night that Richard Lloyd has cancelled his June 19 performance at Cosmic Charlie’s and has scrapped the remaining dates of his summer tour due to “health reasons.”

I interviewed Lloyd a few days ago for a story that was scheduled to run on Sunday to advance the concert. Though polite and welcoming throughout the conversation, Lloyd was a frustrating interviewee, offering only outlines of remembrances, observations and comments before latching onto entirely unrelated topics and running at length with them. But here is what was hammered out of the fractured pieces of that discussion.

* * * * *

Long before he became co-guitarist in the long-celebrated New York post-punk band Television – in fact, prior to taking up the guitar at all – Richard Lloyd was a drummer. And when he played, he saw colors.

Now, what comes next in this ongoing saga of an acclaimed musical journeyman might seem a little fanciful. That’s because, like his guitarwork, Lloyd’s sense of conversation doesn’t operate on a constant or conventional plain. Not surprisingly, he referred to himself in a recent phone interview as an alchemist as much as a musician. Nonetheless, when the colors he saw as he played started to fade, his true musical path was revealed.

“Sometimes when I heard tones, I heard colors,” said Lloyd, 60. “So one day I was practicing on the drums and all the color went out. That’s when I had a psychedelic experience, an auditory hallucination.

“A voice came. It has come to me before from time to time and has never told me anything that was incorrect. This time, it said, ‘You will need to play a stringed melody instrument – the guitar.”

And so Lloyd was diverted from potentially joining his cousins in a rockabilly band based out of his native Pittsburgh. Ahead instead was a booming club scene in New York that used a soon-to-be-famous Bowery club by the name of CBGB’s as it de-facto performance headquarters.

Out of a scene that cultivated garage rock, punk and eventually New Wave came The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, The Patti Smith Group and a quartet that teamed Lloyd with fellow guitar pioneer Tom Verlaine, Lexington-born bassist Richard Hell (soon replaced by Fred Smith) and drummer Billy Ficca. The band became known as Television. In 1977, it released a debut album, Marquee Moon, that remains a cornerstone work of the punk era even though its music reflected a dual guitar sound that was artful and harmonically progressive. Today, Marquee Moon sits at No. 123 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest all-time rock recordings.

“There were times when Television would play and I would come offstage and think to myself, ‘Four human beings cannot do what we just did.’ The synergy was so profound because the music always involved the audience. All that energy was reciprocated.”

While so many punk followers were rebelling against music of the past, Lloyd embraced it. His teen years included a diet of The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and The Allman Brothers Band. Lloyd also proudly declared himself an attendee of Woodstock that stayed awake for the entire three-day festival save for a nodding-off period during Sly and the Family Stone’s set (“They were singing I Want to Take You Higher and I just kept going lower”).

“You know what the gloaming is? It’s that very strange, beautiful blur between daylight and night time. Well, a lot of us growing up at the time were caught in the gloaming between the beatniks and the hippies.”

Among those who shared his musical likes was a Brooklyn youth Lloyd befriended named Velvert Turner.  Turner was unusually connected. He was a protégé of Jimi Hendrix and was given permission to pass on to Lloyd what he learned on guitar from the legendary artist. As a memoriam to Turner, Lloyd recorded a striking selection of Hendrix tunes for his 2009 solo album The Jamie Neverts Story (Neverts was an alias Hendrix sometimes used while touring).

“Velvert and I used to follow Jimi Hendrix around,” Lloyd recalled. “We would also go see The Chambers Brothers and Buddy Guy a lot. We were always backstage at the Fillmore (East). I remember one day the supermarket next door caught fire and everybody left the building except Velvert and I. He said, ‘You smell smoke?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ He said, ‘You want to leave?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ That was part of our adventures together. So I made that record to kind of pay off my debt to him.’

Lloyd’s current tour with Danny Tamberelli on bass and longtime Television mate Ficca on drums will feature songs off of the seven solo albums he has recorded over the last 33 years (from 1979’s Alchemy to the recent rarities compilation Lodestones). But unlike the Television years, Lloyd will be the only guitar voice on display.

“Jimi was once asked in an interview, ‘Why do you play so loud?’ And his reply was, ‘Man, we’re just trying to get a message across. But there are so many sleeping people.’ I think there still are.” 

critic’s picks 232

On their respective new albums, Grace Potter and Kelly Hogan offer a combined soundtrack for a full summer’s day.

Potter’s The Lion The Beast The Beat, despite being co-billed to her band The Nocturnals, is the daytime record – a youthful blast of anthemic pop and rock that approximates a slightly less throat-grabbing version of Heart in its heyday. Hogan’s I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, which sounds scholarly in comparison, is full of torchy laments that often recall longtime performance mate Neko Case. It’s more of a solitary, late night companion.

“Gas up the easy rider and head out to Nevada,” belts Potter at the onset of The Lion The Beast The Beat’s album opening title track. “Somebody let the beast out, baby.” It presents an appealing call-to-arms as the meditative war chant of an intro gives way to arena-friendly rock and soul. It also largely defines the mood of the record’s 11 songs. This is a sleek, commercial effort, but one that is nowhere near as claustrophobic sounding as Potter’s last three studio works, none of which pack the bravado of her live shows. The Lion doesn’t either, but it sounds much more at home in its recorded surroundings, from the expansive and thoroughly modern pop of Never Go Back (one of three tunes co-produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach) to the dance floor appeal of Keepsake to the contemporary soul lament of Timekeeper. As such, there is more beat than beast in The Lion, which all but guarantees itself a place in the summer sun.

Hogan’s I Like to Keep Myself in Pain is more worldly and more world weary. It gathers songs by Vic Chesnutt, Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford, M. Ward, Andrew Bird and Robyn Hitchcock and makes them all sound – thanks to a singing voice that is effortlessly expressive in intent and crystalline in tone – like classics from the Great American Songbook.

But the musical backdrops are just as exquisite. Hogan receives back-up from legendary pop-soul keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Scott Ligon (of the new NRBQ) and bassist Gabriel Roth (of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings). Understandably, such company provides Pain with a touch of late night soul typlified by Margaret Ann Rich’s sumptuous Pass On By. But the record also turns briefly but proudly sunny during John Wesley Harding’s Motown-tinged Sleeper Awake.

The defining song, however, is Bird’s We Can’t Have Nice Things (with lyrics by Jack Pendarvis). It places Hogan’s clear, cool vocal command within a world of whiskey stains and cigarette burns – a domestic purgatory where she is an empowered but seemingly reluctant queen.

in performance: roger waters – “the wall”

roger waters.

As the final brick was put into place just before intermission at Roger Waters’ grandiose revival of The Wall last night at the KFC Yum Center in Louisville, it was hard not to summon the image of Marley’s Ghost. After all, there has always been a modern Dickensian slant to the work, which has grown more extreme with every telling since it reignited the career of Waters’ band, Pink Floyd, at the close of the ‘70s.

It wasn’t hard at all to imagine Marley going at it with Waters in only a slight variation of the fabled Christmas Eve rant with Scrooge: “Your Wall was as long and heavy as this 30 years ago. You have labored on it since. It is a ponderous Wall.

Boy, is it ever. Last night’s production – and make no mistake; this was an operatic production, not a concert – was one for the books. Within the opening In the Flesh? alone, we had Waters greeting the crowd heroically before donning stormtrooper garb as a team of flag waving militia were hoisted on a plank above the stage. Then fireworks erupted as a makeshift plane crashed into the already-half-assembled wall and burst into flames.

Huh?

Some of this was practiced Pink Floyd trickery, like the huge, graffiti-splattered pig that sailed over the crowd in the second set. Some was dressing that reflected the totalitarian slant the story took once its protagonist got way loopy from his self-imposed isolation. And some of it was simply pure flamboyance. Regardless, it set the crowd up for a show that was never less than completely absorbing, even when it went ridiculously over the top.

The most elaborate accessory of last night’s rendering of The Wall was also the most expected – namely, a massive wall that stretched across the full length of the stage. The sections that weren’t assembled at the start of the show were filled in – brick by stagecrafted brick – until the band, artist and stage were completely hidden after Goodbye Cruel World led into intermission.

The gist of all this was a character that Waters more-or-less portrayed when singing the two-dozen-plus songs that make up The Wall. Brow-beaten by his schoolmaster, mortified of women and afflicted with some serious mommy issues, the character is also something of a pop star. Imagine that. Last night, though, the storyline came loaded with anti-war imagery that was as subtle as a volcano.

Bombastic as it became, especially when the stormtrooper bit was reprised in the second set during Run Like Hell and Waiting for the Worms, the anti-war message was expressed far more convincingly during intermission. That’s when images of war victims – from unknown civilians and soldiers to a few notables (Salvador Allende, Mahatma Gandhi) – were projected on the massive wall.

Some of the effects were truly astonishing, like the group of Louisville school children that were invited onstage during Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2 to taunt a giant (and undeniably creepy) schoolmaster puppet. The finale, where the entire wall crashed down, was similarly spectacular, although having stage hands run out to clear some of the bricks so Waters could finish the show was a touch anticlimactic.

It was tough to get much of a handle on the show from a musical perspective, especially since Waters’ substantial band was either obscured or completely hidden by the wall’s construction. Still, guitarists G.E. Smith and Snowy White nicely imitated the few extended solos David Gilmour was afforded on Pink Floyd’s original version of The Wall.

Oddly enough, the most refreshingly reimagined tune of the night was the closing Outside the Wall, where Waters and his players performed amid the stage rubble like a Salvation Army band. But by then, the patrons started pouring out. The wall was down and the spectacle was over. A clever, handmade song seemed to hold little interest.

the business of bluegrass

alison brown

The concept of “do-it-yourself” as it relates to contemporary music is hardly new. From folk to punk to jazz to Americana and more, artists have regularly recorded and released music on their own. It is the very cornerstone practice of what we today know and appreciate as indie music.

But few have taken the idea to such fruitful extremes as Alison Brown. As co-founder – with husband, bassist and bandmate Garry West – of the Nashville-based Compass Records, Brown has provided a recording home for some of the country’s (and in some cases, the world’s) most prestigious names in folk, bluegrass, Celtic and Americana music.

Acts that have released albums on Compass include the esteemed traditional Irish music ensemble Altan, multi-stylistic fiddler Darol Anger, Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon, veteran bluegrass stylist/songwriter Peter Rowan and the Irish-American folk troupe Solas.

Of course, Brown is also one of the label’s A-list artists. Her Compass recordings (which were prefaced by several fine albums for the veteran folk label Vanguard) continually expand bluegrass-bred music for the banjo into numerous contemporary settings. As such, the Grammy-winning Brown has been rightly regarded alongside stylists like Bela Fleck as one of the banjo’s most innovative voices.

So where did the love of banjo and bluegrass meet the drive to run a record label? It started with the desire to put into practice her education and work history – which includes a BA in history and literature from Harvard, a MBA from UCLA and tenure with the investment firm Smith Varney. That was before she set business and academics aside to join Alison Krauss and Union Station for two years.

“I suppose it was an obligation,” said Brown, who performs Sunday at Willie’s Locally Known. “I love playing music. But I had this MBA and this drive to do something that was involving the business side, as well, as did Garry. So doing both things at once makes sense for me. I don’t really advocate it for a lot of artists. It’s really, really hard to carve out the space for each of the different things. There is so much going on with do-it-yourself labels these days and with do-it-yourself releases that I really caution people who want to be artists against doing that because, from my own personal experience, I can see how the business obligation that goes along with putting music in the market can cannibalize your time and spirit for the creative side.

“We literally started the company not knowing anything about record labels except the experience we had with Vanguard and with Alison Krauss. But my thinking was that it made more sense for artists to be running a label than suits, you know? We got to work with artists that were on our fantasy list right at the beginning. We still can’t believe we get to represent their music. That part has been a dream come true. But it is incredibly challenging.”

The most recent Alison Brown Band album for Compass is 2009’s The Company You Keep. Among its more distinctive aspects is the harmony that arises within the compositions between Brown’s banjo work and the piano playing of longtime band member John R. Burr. The bluegrass inspiration is there, but so are aspects of Celtic, jazz and swing.

“When I started writing music for the album, I was kind of surprised that it came out as non-bluegrassy as it did,” Brown said. “So then initially, my challenge was to figure out the best way to put that music across. I didn’t expect it to be through a collaboration with a pianist, but that’s how it turned out. So a lot of what we wanted to do was to bring that to the forefront. John R has been playing in the band ever since I’ve had a band. I think that’s maybe 18 years now. So a lot of the goal with The Company You Keep was to celebrate that instrumentation and also our collaboration.”

As if juggling duties as bandleader, record label chieftain and mom (she and West are parents of two children), Brown also serves as adjunct artist/teacher of banjo at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School or Music. It is that connection, in part, that brings her to Lexington. Among her Blair banjo graduates is Arthur Hancock, co-operator of Willie’s Locally Known.

“I was Arthur’s teacher when he was an undergraduate. I gave lessons to him for four years. He was my star pupil, and that stands for all the years I’ve been teaching at Blair. He’s by far and away the best banjo player that I’ve had the privilege of teaching.

“I don’t have a lot of time for teaching, but I really believe in the importance of passing the tradition of this music along. And it’s incredibly rewarding to have been able to spend some time with Arthur and then watch him play it forward with his club. I just know that Lexington will be the richer for his efforts.”

The Alison Brown Quartet performs at 7 p.m. June 10 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 281-1116.

in performance: elizabeth cook

elizabeth cook.

“Well, here’s another one now that I’m all sweet and Jesus-like,” remarked Elizabeth Cook before setting sail on Mama’s Prayer, a country meditation initially penned as a gift to her mother.

Both the intro and the song, parts of a very appealing 90 minute early evening performance last night at Cosmic Charlie’s, flirted with – and eventually shredded – stereotypes. The intro’s suggestion of hallowed country corn proved to be no joke as it followed jubilant roots-gospel readings of Hear Jerusalem Calling and Every Humble Knee Must Bow, two of the seven traditional spirituals making up Cook’s new Gospel Plow EP disc (due for release on Tuesday).

Just as deceptive was any hint of the country sentimentalism that often undermines even the most good-hearted of Nashville songs. Mama’s Prayer, like much of Cook’s concert, relied on an arresting but effortless mix of country tradition (the set also boasted healthy covers of The Louvin Brothers’ Cash on the Barrelhead and Merle Haggard’s Today I Started Loving You Again) with original tunes that graduated from several schools of hard knocks (like the sobering sibling portrait Heroin Addict Sister, which was performed with stoic, earnest grace earlier in the evening).

If you think Cook’s performance, based on those observations, was all solemn, spiritual solace, then you needed to experience the lean honky tonk fire she summoned on Yes to Booty (don’t look for that one on the radio any time soon), the rockish swagger of El Camino or the hysterical between between-song stories dealing with getting groped at the Grand Ole Opry and sagas of preachers from her youth that “would lay their hands upon you… for a long, long time.”

As seriously country as the performance was, Cook’s musical scope regularly looked outward. Her trio included guitarist/husband Tim Carroll (who goosed the homespun narratives of He Got No Heart and his own The T.G.V. with ample electric twang) and, of all people, Aussie bassist Bones Hillman (a veteran of Midnight Oil’s heyday lineup). Similarly, the show concluded not with a country classic, but with a fanciful, lullaby-like version of the Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning that provided this often exquisite country outing with a knowing, worldly air.

in performance: average white band

average white band: klyde jones, onnie mcintyre, rocky bryant, alan gorrie and fred vigdor

Taking in a performance by a way-past-their-prime outfit like the Average White Band in 2012 is pretty much asking for trouble. The Scottish-bred R&B band’s creative fire peaked in the mid ‘70s and was extinguished completely after the ensemble first disbanded in 1982.

Judging by the fairly meager turnout for a performance last night at Buster’s by a regrouped AWB (which became active again in 1989), many fans share that skepticism. But what resulted in a 90 minute, late evening set, was performance that remained loyal not only to the band’s vintage repertoire but to an organic soul-funk sound devoid of the synthesized grooves that has suffocated soul music from the ‘80s onward.

Last night, the charge was maintained with an energetic, rockish flair by drummer Rocky Bryant and, especially, tenor saxophonist Fred Vigdor, whose meaty solo phrases did an impressive job of filling the expansive ensemble brass arrangements created on AWB’s ‘70s recordings for Atlantic.

Founding members Alan Gorrie (on bass and, sporadically, guitar) and Onnie McIntyre (on guitar) did a fine job from a predominantly rhythmic standpoint. But the set was largely driven by Vigdor, who drove the beefy soul instrumental Oh, Maceo (the evening’s only post-reformation song), the still luminous soul ballad A Love of Your Own and, of course, the band’s signature 1975 hit, Pick Up the Pieces (served as an encore).

The void the current AWB still can’t seem to fill is the one left by co-vocalist Hamish Stuart, who declined to rejoin the new AWB. Last night, the band took on several tunes that were showpieces for Stuart’s discreetly urgent high tenor singing back in the ‘70s (Cloudy, Queen of My Soul and the aforementioned A Love of Your Own). The results were safer, soother and certainly competent. But that magical, desperately human soul presence from the past was simply not there.

A few set list surprises compensated somewhat (1979’s When Will You Be Mine and 1980’s What’cha Gonna Do For Me). But the performance – richly organic in musical design as it was – wound up as a tempered and incomplete view of AWB’s glorious soul catalog. In pop nostalgia terms, that translated to a glass that was definitely half-empty.

fashionably late for the festival

jim lauderdale.

 In a two decade career that has honored and enhanced most every aspect of Americana music, Jim Lauderdale has somehow managed to never wind up as a performer at the Festival of the Bluegrass. But he knows the event well. He was a wide-eyed patron over 35 years ago.

“I went to it back in 1975,” said the two-time Grammy winning songwriter and performer, who makes his festival performance debut on Friday. “I was graduating from high school at the time and went there to help a guitar player I used to have a duo with. He was selling guitars and strings.

“I remember seeing J.D. Crowe and the New South back when they had Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice and Jerry (Douglas). That band was right up there as one of my favorites. So it’s meaningful for me to get to come back and play the festival after all these years, after it made such a strong impression on me.”

A North Carolina native, Lauderdale was a vital presence within mainstream country circles during the early ‘90s (his songs have been recorded by Vince Gill, the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless and George Strait) and with alt-country and Americana audiences as the decade progressed thanks to albums like Persimmons and Whisper.

While bluegrass didn’t surface on his recordings until a 1999 collaboration with string music patriarch Ralph Stanley titled I Feel Like Singing Today, the music helped forge Lauderdale’s artistic voice long before country took command.

“Oh, bluegrass definitely came first. Back in 1975, when I first came to the Festival of the Bluegrass, my goal was to be a bluegrass banjo player, recording artist and singer. And it just never happened. Eventually, I let the banjo go. I knew I wasn’t going to be great on it, so I started doing more traditional country and singer-songwriter stuff. It took me years to finally do a bluegrass record. Luckily the first one was with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, so that kind of made the earlier disappointment seem okay.”

A second album with Stanley, Lost in the Lonesome Pines, won Lauderdale his first Grammy and cemented a working partnership that remains strong to this day. In fact, shortly after our interview concluded, Lauderdale hit the road to perform at Stanley’s annual bluegrass festival in Virginia.

“Ever since I was a kid, Ralph has been one of my heroes. I just love his singing, his playing, his choice of material and the bands he has put together since the Stanley Brothers. He is just a true original. I’m so grateful that I have gotten to know and work with him and sit in the wings at shows and just watch him. I’m amazed by his endurance.”

The 2007 album The Bluegrass Dairies earned Lauderdale a second Grammy. But increasingly, his newer bluegrass music has relied on a songwriting partnership with Robert Hunter that began with 2004’s Headed for the Hills. Hunter is best known as lyricist on Grateful Dead songs composed by Jerry Garcia. Lauderdale’s third and newest album with Hunter is 2011’s Reason and Rhyme, although a fourth is already completed and ready for a possible late summer release. The two are also working on songs for an album Lauderdale is cutting with the new generation electric roots troupe The North Mississippi All-Stars.

“Robert and I write pretty quickly together. The melodies will come out or he will give me a lyric. You never know what is going to be written. It’s really unpredictable. Sometimes, I can give him a melody and have no preconceived notion of any kind. There will be no storyline, no concept lyrically. And I just let him run with it. Some of the things he can come up with I would never have been able to record on my own.”

Bluegrass may be Lauderdale’s foremost musical preference but it is by no means his only one. He toured in recent years with Elvis Costello and Hot Tuna and maintains a wildly prolific recording career. Aside from the upcoming Hunter projects – the in-progress North Mississippi All-Stars record and the finished bluegrass follow-up to Reason and Rhyme – Lauderdale has cut a record in England with the band of British pop vet Nick Lowe (described as a mix of soul and Beatles-esque pop) and a second record with his Dream Players ensemble that includes guitarist James Burton and steel guitarist Al Perkins (“some of that is more straight-ahead country and some of it really pushes the envelope”).

“I’ve recorded a lot in the past (to be exact, 20 albums in as many years leading up to Reason and Rhyme) but never as much as I have this past year. But I really enjoy it. I feel like I’m on a roll. I’m usually pretty slow about everything else in life, so this is a good thing.”

The Jim Lauderdale Bluegrass Band performs at 4:20 and 10 p.m. June 8 as part of the Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. Tickets rage from $40 to $95. Call (859) 253-0806. For ticket info and a complete festival schedule, go to www.festivalofthebluegrass.com

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