Archive for August, 2012

critic’s pick 243

Loosely translated from Greek, anastasis means resurrection. So the word is a fitting title to Dead Can Dance’s first studio album since 1996. Aside from the assorted reunion tours, solo projects and anthologies in recent years, Anastasis brings the Australian duo of Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard – the Mulder and Scully of contemporary pop – back to creative life with another fascinating set of tunes that plucks at will from different lands and different centuries. In short, their music is beautifully unclassifiable. If one descriptive word had to be pinned to the group’s collective lapel, it would probably need to be “otherworldly.”

On its acclaimed ‘80s and ‘90s albums for the 4AD label, Perry and Gerrard created music that surveyed global plateaus. It weaved elements of Eastern ambience, Gregorian chant and richly percussive fabrics from multiple regions. But it was Gerrard that always tipped the stylisic scales into the unknown. She continues to specialize in a style of vocalizing known as glossolalia where speech-like sounds are employed in place of words. So to whatever nationality hears the music, the language will sound foreign.

Curiously, Anastasis keeps Gerrard in check at first by letting Perry have the vocal reign on the more conventional, English language album opener Children of the Sun. Here, synths calmly ride in like Medieval brass before a percussive roll that is half militaristic and half incantatory sets up a majestic sweep of pseudo strings. The lyrics may be a touch on the celestial side, but the music is grand and transportive.

Gerrard then enters for Anastasis’ title tune amid jungle-like giggles of electronics and modest percussive chants before a chiming keyboard melody glides in to pull the music’s sense of Eastern intrigue into the Orient. Her singing, mixed slightly back in the mix and soaked in reverb, possesses raga-like solemnity one moment and operatic splendor the next. The following Agape settles into a Middle Eastern sway buoyed by a looped, contemporary groove. Gerrard’s vocals, full of sage-like calm that still seems a few steps removed from serenity, float above the music like a dispossessed spirit.

The concluding All in Good Time brings such fascination back to earth, but, in the process, sends us to another age of literal and metaphorical shipwrecks from the Sargasso Sea. Perry wails with might for the plight of lost souls and the personal will for patience while the melodies move at an elegant but glacial pace.

“Turn back your clocks, open up your memories,” he sings as the keyboard orchestration swells with the drama of a latter day Peter Gabriel album. That, in essence is what Dead Can Dance does with the upmost grace on Anastasis. May its resurrection continue.

in performance: bob dylan/leon russell

bob dylan.

On the drive home last night from Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion, I listened to two of my favorite Bob Dylan albums, 1967’s John Wesley Harding and 1989’s Oh Mercy in an attempt to discover what had been missing from the typically carnival-like performance Dylan had just delivered.

Don’t get me wrong. The concert was a hoot, with Dylan appearing to be having the time of his life deconstructing and, in some cases, completely obliterating the framework of his finest songs. Dylan has long been known for taking liberties with his music. But in recent decades, his sense of reinvention has been so spontaneous than even his band seems pretty out of the loop as to what’s happening next.

The keenest sense of organization surrounding last night’s show consisted of Dylan signaling longtime bassist Tony Garnier when we wanted a song to wind down (or, perhaps, when he had simply grown tired of it). Garnier then signaled the rest of the band and the tune at hand would finish.

Outside of that, the songs were like quick sketches. Some, like the show opening roadhouse blues transformation of Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat and the ragged jamboree revamping of Blind Willie McTell were borderline rapturous. Others, like the set closing All Along the Watchtower – where lyrics disintegrated into a series of indecipherable vocal grunts – were bruised almost beyond recognition.

Dylan seemed to be having a blast either way. Playing grand piano for the majority of the evening, there was an air of vaudeville about his presence. He would grin, he would gesture grandly and then he would take a sledgehammer to some of his most prized work.

The ride home triggered one thought as to why a folk icon like Dylan would use his classic songs for target practice. Both albums on the car stereo made expert use of veteran producers – Bob Johnston for the folk (and occasionally pop and country) fortified John Wesley Harding and Daniel Lanois for the more ambient and atmospheric Oh Mercy. Maybe, just maybe, leaving such a massive creative intellect strictly to his own devices isn’t the greatest idea in the world. Maybe having a music director for his tours to add just a modicum of order and organization might unleash the new musical possibilities Dylan searches for in almost whimsical fashion onstage.

That will never happen, though – not at this stage in Dylan’s career. What we are left with is a restless folk genius determined to work within his own scattered flight pattern. It probably wouldn’t be a Dylan show anyway without the requisite number of stylistic train wrecks. But it sure would be cool to see what would happen if he would enlist some objective help to clear some of the wreckage away.

Fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell opened the evening with a very rushed 40 minute performance that blended hits (Back to the Island), concert favorites (Prince of Peace) and an unusually heavy number of cover tunes for so short a set, especially considering what an extraordinary stock of original works he has to draw from.

Russell’s concert last spring at Buster’s was vastly preferable and definitely more audience involving. This was an entertaining outing, to be sure, especially in the still-robust barrelhouse tone of Russell’s piano work. But ultimately, the performance felt a little phoned in. Maybe Russell needs some fresh ears to flesh out his shows, as well.

in performance: alison krauss and union station featuring jerry douglas

alison krauss and union station. from left: jerry douglas, alison krauss, ron block, dan tyminski and barry bales.

Last night at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts, Alison Krauss exhibited the conversational ease of a folk stylist, the rustic fervor of a true bluegrasser and the harmony-savvy phrasing of pop professional. But in the end – literally the end, during a sterling five song encore – it was her vocal delicacy, a sound Krauss could probably patent if she so chose, that still astounded most.So absorbing and focused was the closing medley – which had Krauss, sans fiddle, camped around a single microphone with various members of her long running Union Station band – that the dead quiet offered from the sold out audience almost became part of the music. At the very least, it enhanced the encore segment’s beautifully plaintive feel, from the whispery emotive cast of When You Say Nothing at All to the stark country heartbreak of Whiskey Lullaby to the stoic spiritualism of Down to the River to Pray to the folkish contemplation of Your Long Journey to the pastoral resolve of There is a Reason. It was less of a collective performance coda than it was a performance unto itself.

But then such regal, effortless delicacy is what we have come to expect from Krauss. What happened in the 90 minutes preceding the encore, while not an earthshattering surprise, certainly toyed with such expectation.

The ensemble dynamics of Union Station were established right out of the gate with two songs from Krauss’ 2011 album with Union Station, Paper Airplane. The title song opened the evening by introducing Krauss’ lusciously hushed tone. Guitarist and co-vocalist Dan Tyminski, ever the traditionalist, followed with a suitably rootsy reading of the Peter Rowan folk classic Dust Bowl Children. As if to further showcase stylistic credentials, Krauss then struck up the fiddle and led the entire Union Station ensemble through the bluegrass turns of Who’s Your Uncle, the evening’s lone instrumental.

But there has been some noticeable growth since Union Station last played the region. Krauss’ recording and touring with Robert Plant a few years back seems to have strengthened the bottom end of her vocal range. While she has always been capable of belting out a verse amid atmospheric ambience, last night’s medley of Daylight and Sinking Stone revealed deeper colors and shadings in her singing. All of them were displayed in moderation, though. The crispness of Krauss’ music remained, regardless of the vocal maturity, a study in taste and tone.

The Union Station crew got their licks in, too. Jerry Douglas’ solo dobro medley of Paul Simon’s American Tune and Chick Corea’s Spain was an intuitive, soulful and technically dazzling tour de force while Tyminski’s keen vocal command during a solo rendition of Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty re-established the program’s roots driven foundation.

Still, Krauss remained the belle of the Union Station ball. When she drew the feathery but potently emotive ambience of Richard Thompson’s Dimming of the Day to a close late into the concert, several audible gasps and sighs could be heard from the audience. Sure, they seemed to enjoy the evening’s pop and bluegrass just fine. But singing sweetly with heart openly on sleeve was the Alison style this bunch clearly dug the most.

in performance: hugh laurie and the copper bottom band

hugh laurie. photo by michael wilson.

“I realize this represents a gigantic leap of faith on your part,” remarked Hugh Laurie to a sold out audience last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

In theory, he was spot on. Laurie was in town not as the famed British comedian of the’90s (although there were hints of that peppered in his stage profile) or the actor who, for eight television seasons, inhabited the dour, tortured title role of House. No, last night Laurie visited Lexington as one of those great artistic curiosities: a musician and singer without a hit or even a signature tune playing to a capacity crowd that knew him almost exclusively for non-musical endeavors.

Admittedly, past dramatic television or film actors that have dabbled in music have usually played off of dreary, ultra-calculated pop personas where they served as a mere figurehead (Don Johnson comes to mind). But on the basis of last night’s immensely entertaining, two hour performance – a program devoted largely to vintage New Orleans blues, jazz and soul – Laurie’s investment in such a career shift runs considerably deeper.

A very capable pianist versed in stride, blues and boogie woogie playing, Laurie proved to be as much of an historian last night as a musicmaker, generously crediting the scores of Crescent City-area greats – Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, and James Booker, among others – that either penned or popularized the material he took on.

There was an obvious emotional investment, as well. Though technically not the sort of singer capable belting out the full measure of the bluesier, more gospel-directed songs, he nonetheless utilized a singing voice rich in conversational ease that effectively illuminated a version of Careless Love that was delivered as a cross between a lullaby and a dirge.

The real fun, though, erupted when Laurie meshed the full dynamic range of his piano work with the expert support of his six-member Copper Bottom Band. For instance, he approached a parlor piece like Swanee River initially as a blues meditation before his fingers pounded the tune into a jubilant boogie woogie party piece. Similarly, Yeh Yeh strutted along within a parade of merry, punctuated funk colored by flute, baritone sax and neatly orchestrated keyboards.

At the other extreme were passages of casual reflection. Dear Old Southland, the evening’s lone instrumental tune, pared the band down to a duet setting that highlighted the rolling stride of Laurie’s piano work and the tenor saxophone compliments of Vincent Henry.

The Copper Bottom MVP, though, was clearly drummer Jay Bellerose, a longtime T Bone Burnett sidekick who created huge, textured grooves often by pounding the skins with multiple sticks, mallets, tambourines and shakers (not to mention a maraca strapped to his ankle) simultaneously. It was Bellerose’s feel – intense, direct and powerfully soulful – that kept the band engine running.

Devoted to this roots music homage as he obviously was, a bit of the pre-House Brit emerged in some of Laurie’s between song banter, from the recounting of a motorcycle journey taken from Louisville to Lexington earlier in the day that accidentally landed him behind a locked gate at “an unmanned storage facility” to the remembrance of a piano teacher from his youth that wanted to dismiss Swanee River from his practice repertoire.

“And so,” he said in a stoic British mumble, “I killed her.”

Laurie couldn’t help but apologize for the latter quip, though, given the university environment he was performing in.

“I mean, here we are, in the seed of higher learning. What an appalling thought.”

flight log of the paper airplane

jerry douglas.

Is playing in a bluegrass band – albeit, a progressive minded, platinum-selling, multi-Grammy winning bluegrass band – akin to riding a bicycle? In other words, if you spend extended time away from your mates, will you rediscover that ensemble magic you are known for when the time comes to regroup?

Will you still know how to ride?

That may very well have been on the minds of Alison Krauss and the members of her longstanding acoustic music troupe Union Station when work began on their most recent recording, Paper Airplane. After touring duties were completed for their last album, 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways, Krauss cut the T Bone Burnett-produced Raising Sand with Robert Plant. Union Station guitarist and co-vocalist Dan Tyminski used the period to work with his own, more traditionally minded bluegrass band. And dobro great Jerry Douglas, a one time Lexingtonian and 15 year veteran of Union Station, toured with Elvis Costello as well as with a roots/fusion combo that included the celebrated jazz drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Viktor Krauss (Alison’s brother).

“We did bring something back to Union Station that wasn’t there before,” Douglas said. “But from the first song we played together, there was still that sound. It was the sound we had left two years before. It was those people. It was the way Dan plays rhythm. It was the way Barry (Bales) plays the bass. It was Alison’s singing. It was the way I try to frame her in. All those tones were there. But there was some extra stuff too.

“There was some extra sensibility that may not have been there before. I know I came back a little harder edged compared to when I had left. It was sort of like during the time we didn’t play with Alison and weren’t doing the sensitive songs, we went the opposite direction. If there was any adjustment at all when we came back, it was to bring everything back down – you know, tame the music back a little bit, but holding that power in reserve.”

The only problem in getting Paper Airplane off the ground had nothing to do with music. During early studio sessions, Krauss was beset with debilitating migraine headaches that, for a time, shut down work on the album entirely. The headaches eventually required hospitalization for treatment.

“It was really awful for her,” Douglas said. “These were literally blinding kinds of headaches that would just stop you in your tracks. It became hard for her to even be objective about anything. Her head hurt so bad she couldn’t even think.”

When Krauss’ head literally cleared, recording resumed on a set of songs borrowed from bluegrass pioneers both established (Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan) and comparatively new (Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan), folk-based veterans (Richard Thompson, Jackson Browne), gospel stylists (Sidney Cox) and even Union Station’s own ranks (bassist Bales).

One tune cut during the sessions that Douglas was especially fond of was a composition by Nashville songsmiths Jeff Black and Jon Randall Stewart called Frozen Fields. Its arrangement placed the whispery delicacy of Krauss’ singing side by side with the wiry ingenuity of Douglas’ playing. But the tune didn’t make Paper Airplane’s final 11 song cut.

Douglas knew what to do with it, however. He was already in the planning stages for a new solo album, Traveler, that was going to enlist many of the musical friends Douglas had produced, recorded and toured with outside of Union Station – namely, Eric Clapton, Mumford and Sons, Paul Simon, Keb’ Mo’, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Del McCoury. He figured why not include Frozen Fields and, in essence, invite Union Station into his solo career?

“I was sort of crushed when Frozen Fields didn’t make it onto Paper Airplane,” Douglas said. “But at the same time, a bell went off in my head. It was like, ‘I know what we can do with that one.’ I never had all of Union Station on one of my records, so the song fit into the whole picture perfectly.”

An alumnus of J.D. Crowe’s famed mid ‘70s New South lineup, Douglas became a highly sought after studio musician throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. He also produced recordings for Krauss long before he joined Union Station. But his actual membership in the band was initially designed as a temporary stay.

“I came into the band to play for the summer. Two weeks into it, they asked me if I would just become a permanent part of it. And I was ready at that point. That was in ’98. I was really ready because I was burned out doing three sessions a day in Nashville playing on country records and whatever came through the door that day. It was perfect timing, a good place for me to jump off and be in a working band, in a situation where we all worked together.

“It was like the sum of the parts. That’s what you get with this band. We’ve got this great voice out there and all of this powerful musicianship to back it up. So it’s really a dream band. A lot of people would love to be in a situation like this.”

Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas perform at 8 p.m. Aug. 25 at Newlin Hall of the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. The performance is sold out.

in performance: john hiatt/steve earle

john hiatt. photo by jack spencer.

The defining moment of last night’s doubleheader concert by John Hiatt and Steve Earle was also the most outwardly unrefined one.

Sharing a single centerstage microphone at the end of the evening, the two veteran songsmiths took a stab at Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got No Home. It was ragged from the word go with both artists swapping verses they read off of a lyric sheet. Even then, Hiatt got lost. Twice. But the tune was deliciously unpretentious and, ultimately, joyous. It wound up encapsulating a folk spirit that drove the entire show – even the segments that turned soulfully electric.

steve earle. photo by ted barron.

Earle’s entire set (each artist was given just over an hour of stage time) had folk at its very core. Shifting between banjo, mandolin, bouzouki and acoustic guitar, he summoned a wonderfully antique atmosphere, especially when playing off the violin colors of multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore. A loose limbed version of Harlan Man was indicative of such folky construction, although Earle also allowed himself a moment at the political pulpit by offering a grim postscript to the Bush era with Little Emperor (“no more pomp and circumstance, no more shock and awe; he’s just a little emperor, that’s all”).

Trademark tunes like Guitar Town and Copperhead Road were dispensed with little fanfare during the middle of set. Far edgier was Meet Me in the Alleyway, sung with dirty, bluesy distortion and a hearty, punctuated groove powered by drummer Will Rigby, and The Revolution Starts Now, a rally cry underscored by guitar colors from George Masterson that stressed feel over flash.

Hiatt’s closing set was positively nostalgic in comparison. It also opened with a sense of folk design with predominantly acoustic readings of Drive South, Crossing Muddy Waters and Cry Love. But with the slide guitar colors of Tennessee Plates, supplied by longtime Patty Griffin sidekick Doug Lancio, the evening took a turn for rock ‘n roll that never looked back.

What was surprising, though, was how little Hiatt relied on new material. Aside from Blues Can’t Even Find Me, a rootsy affirmation from his upcoming Mystic Pinball album and the aforementioned Crossing Muddy Waters, Hiatt junked his entire catalogue from 1995 on. That meant plenty of favorites from his two late ‘80s breakthrough albums, Bring the Family and Slow Turning, including a jubilant Real Fine Love that roared to life from a prelude of chiming guitar ambience by Lancio.

Riding with the King brought the whole immensely fun evening home with a lean slab of funk, rock and soul that had Hiatt grinning and grooving not like a pop elder, but like a mischievous youth in throes of some great pop discovery. 

getting to know john hiatt

john hiatt

The first time I saw John Hiatt perform was in 1983. All these years later, that evening still stands out – a good trick considering I had no clue who he was at the time.

It was a late winter night at Louisville Gardens. The lure was my first opportunity at witnessing Eric Clapton in concert. But the thrill was magnified because opening the show was the great Ry Cooder, then in the beginnings of a career renaissance as a star film score composer.

Clapton was okay. Cooder was out of this world, largely because of his ridiculously potent band. Among the ranks were pianist, producer and roots music pioneer Jim Dickinson, renowned drummer Jim Keltner and the killer vocal combo of Willie Green and Bobby Charles. Completing the band at stage right was a lanky framed figure adding rhythm guitar to the party – a solemn, almost distant presence.

This, I was told, was John Hiatt.

The name had already made the rounds among my musical pals. Even then he was receiving acclaim as the sort of songwriter one was introduced to more through cover versions of his works rather than through his own recordings. I also remember a friend sitting me down and practically forcing me to listen to Slug Line, his 1980 album of modestly brutish pop.

So the seeds were planted. Hiatt remained on my radar after that 1983 show. The songsmith did a little plotting of his own, too. Later that year, he released an album called Riding with the King. Ironically, Clapton would re-cut the title song some 20-odd years later as the namesake tune for a collaborative hit album with B.B. King.

Like many, though, the wake up call in late 1987 when Hiatt released the breakthrough Bring the Family album. With a lifetime of serious substance abuse behind him and bolstered by the support of a new marriage, Hiatt served up a collection of world class love songs.

Some were astounding in their vulnerability (Have a Little Faith in Me). Others were deliciously seedy (Memphis in the Meantime). The remainder shifted from vivid family snapshots (Your Dad Did) to gorgeously bittersweet ballads (Lipstick Sunset). And it didn’t hurt that Bring the Family’s most carefree work, Thing Called Love, would re-emerge two years later as the first single from a commercially reborn Bonnie Raitt. Again, the world heard Hiatt’s music without, in many cases, knowing who Hiatt was.

Things snowballed from there. The exquisite Slow Turning followed in 1988. The more streamlined Stolen Moments came in the summer of 1990 and with it, Hiatt’s first Lexington shows – a pair of sold out performances at the long-since-demolished Breeding’s on Main. On Memorial Day of 1994, he returned to headline a day-long bill at the Red Mile. Hiatt wound up including a few recordings from the show on a live album later that year cheekily titled Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan. His last headlining concerts were a pair of Kentucky Theatre dates in 1997.

The years have hardly slowed Hiatt, who turns 60 on Monday. He will release his third album in as many years next month (Mystic Pinball) and is currently following a string of summer concert dates in Europe with a fall tour that includes six double-header shows with Steve Earle, including a Wednesday performance at the Opera House and a Thursday follow-up at Cincinnati’s Taft Theatre.

While Hiatt has never released anything resembling a weak album in the last 25 years, the newer New West albums are strong enough to rival the late ‘80s/early ‘90s succession of Bring the Family,  Slow Turning and Stolen Moments.

The same kind exuberance that fueled the earlier records is still in abundance on the New West albums. Sure, some pretty dark roads are traveled on 2011’s Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns through such deliciously desolate songs as Damn This Town and Down Around My Place. But a listen to We’re Alright Now, the leadoff tune to Mystic Pinball, reveals the same kind of lean, electric redemption that distinguished Slow Turning. The personal and creative rebirth that fortified Hiatt’s songs over two decades ago still thrives.

“Sun comes up every morning, even when it’s too cloudy to see,” Hiatt sings over a steady, swampy groove. “I was willing to lose that years ago. I don’t know what was the matter with me.”

“You know, I kind of signed up with the idea that writers are supposed to write about what they know,” Hiatt told me in an interview prior to a 2009 duo concert with Lyle Lovett at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts. “Not that I know any damn thing about love. But I came from a place of such despair back when I was an addict and alcoholic. I was freakin’ out of my mind. To come from that into putting a family together with a woman who cared for me and who I cared for… it is a continual source of inspiration. And so that just seems to be what I’ve decided to write about.”

John Hiatt and the Combo with Steve Earle and the Dukes performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Vine. Tickets are $55.50-$95.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or (859) 233-3535 or go to

critic’s pick 242

For the past three decades, the music of pianist Keith Jarrett has been exhibited in two primary settings – a solo piano environment that capitalizes on his extraordinary gifts as an improviser, and in a trio alongside bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette exploring new voices for jazz and pop standards. The wonderful duo interplay between Jarrett and bass great Charlie Haden on the 2010 album Jasmine suggests a third setting could also surface.

But during the latter half of the ‘70s, there was also an outstanding quartet that mixed hard bop expression, bold improvisational exploits and the lyricism inherent in all of Jarrett’s playing.

That band – which featured saxophonist (and longtime ECM mate) Jan Garbarek, along with the rhythm section of bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen – was exhibited on a pair of fine studio recordings (1975’s Belonging and, in what is perhaps the ensemble’s finest hour, 1978’s My Song) as well as an overlooked concert set (1980’s Nude Ants) before largely fading from view as the decade drew to a close.

To that somewhat limited catalogue we can now add Sleeper, a previously unreleased concert recording forged from an April 1979 date in Tokyo – a performance held only a month prior to the Village Vanguard shows that make up Nude Ants. But, if anything, the musicianship and interplay sound fresher and more expansive on Sleeper.

Part of that is because we haven’t heard any new music – archival or otherwise – from this quartet in over 30 years. As such, one can’t help but approach Sleeper with fresh ears. But there is also no denying the textures and temperaments that are continually shuffled during the seven tunes the quartet spreads over Sleeper’s two discs.

The 21 minute album opener Personal Mountains begins with a deep percussive piano rumble one might associate with Jarrett’s solo piano works. But in time, Christensen locks down a light, unobtrusive groove that sets the stage for Garbarek’s rich tenor sax lead. The tune then takes all kinds of boppish turns, allowing Garbarek to switch to a more fanciful stride on soprano sax before decelerating into the more whispery tenor/piano dialogue of Innocence.

Other highlights include Jarrett’s feathery piano support for a rugged Danielson bass intro on Prism (the two then effortlessly reverse roles), the piano-less percussive chant dominated by flute and bowed bass that comprises the first half of the 28 minute Oasis and the richly melodic coda of New Dance.

It’s an immensely satisfying adventure, one that took about 90 minutes to make and some 33 years to release. Still, what a treat it is to hear Sleeper awaken.

in performance: todd snider/patterson hood

patterson hood.

“Everything in moderation – including moderation, I suppose.”

That was one of the many credos Todd Snider dispensed with last night at the Opera House. It was a disarming enough line on the surface, masking a sense of displacement that ran rampant through the tune it was home to (Too Soon to Tell) and, to a degree, much of the East Nashville songsmith’s works. But placed in the context of last night’s concert, there was ample truth in these words.

todd snider.

That’s because this was unlike any performance Snider has given in nearly a decade. Instead an evening devoted to his poetic mischief, the show was a summit with longtime pal Patterson Hood, co-pilot of Drive-By Truckers. The two performed side by side for two hour-plus sets without a backup band. Thus, moderation was the order of the evening – that and the response of a hearty and vocal crowd that was obviously quite generous in their patronage of the Opera House bar.

The balancing act was quite fascinating at times. Snider would offer tunes with Dylan-esque wordplay (Stuck on the Corner), a stoner’s sense of askew humor (Big Finish)and themes where social and even political themes would come out to play (Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republication, Straight, White, American Males). The delivery of such material was ragged and playful in a way that still seemed almost traditional by folkie standards.

Hood, however, was more focused with his delivery and intent. And while he was every bit as jovial as Snider (and became increasingly so as the evening progressed), his material was far darker, as sensed by such morose Drive-By Truckers fare as Used to Be a Cop, Sink Hole and The Deeper In or newer music from his forthcoming Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance solo album. Especially intriguing was 12:01, a snapshot of a rural community where social activity reaches a zenith during the few post-midnight hours when liquor sales are allowed.

Concluding this first full collaborative Snider/Hood concert in nine years was a brief encore segment where each artist shrugged off the heavier designs of their own work for cover tunes. Snider chose the Temptations classic Ain’t to Proud to Beg while Hood more artfully went for Big Star’s September Gurls. Neither performance exactly reinvented the originals. But both allowed for the distinct stylistic boundaries separating these two artists to merrily crumble.

Sure, all things in moderation. Except at encore time, that is. Then, anything goes.

todd and the hood

patterson hood. photo by andy tennille.

They remain friends, allies and, in essence, musical co-conspirators. But at the dawn of the ‘90s, when their careers were just starting, Todd Snider and Patterson Hood came together by chance.

“Back in 1991, I lived in Memphis and was running a booking agency that occasionally booked shows for Todd,” said Hood, co-founder of the acclaimed Alabama rock troupe Drive-By Truckers. “I was already familiar with his music and had already seen him live a couple of times. So I knew what he was doing. That was before Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues (the Dylan-esque novelty tune that became a rock radio hit for Snider in 1994). That was before that little burst of fame.”

todd snider

“I was hanging out with Patterson down in Memphis before he ever became a Drive-By Trucker,” added Snider. “I’ve watched him become this really incredible songwriter. That’s something you try not to like too much, though. I’m not supposed to like someone who writes better songs than me.”

Throughout the ensuing decades, both songwriters established loyal fanbases with tunes saturated in vivid literary narrative. Snider’s music leaned slightly closer to country. But it also balanced socially informed storylines colored by streaks of wry humor with starker, darker folk contemplations. Hood’s songs reveled in tales of what the Truckers have long termed “the Dirty South.” Recently, however, the works he has penned for the band, as well as for a mounting solo career, reflect an inspiration that brings them closer in line with Snider’s music.

In short, both artists have been reflecting a lot on family of late. But how those influences manifest themselves is strikingly different.

“It seems my music has always been going through this long family argument,” Snider said. “I grew up in a household that worshipped Ronald Reagan. But as a 12 year old, I looked up to Hunter Thompson. After that, my life seemed like it was one verbal decision away from being a free sprit or a freeloader.”

The rebellious voice of a free-thinker in a hard-and-fast conservative environment resulted in Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, one of two new albums Snider released in the spring. The other recording is a tribute to one of Snider’s musical heroes, the veteran Texas songsmith Jerry Jeff Walker, titled Time As We Know It.

“I remember thinking long ago that if I ever got myself a guitar and started to sing about my life, the music would sound like a Jerry Jeff song. But things didn’t turn out that way. Actually, his songs set an undertone that was telling me to be myself.”

And how did Walker take to a stylist like Snider covering his songs?

“Well, he kissed me on the cheek after he heard it,” Snider said. “So he must have liked it.”

The family view that surfaces in Hood’s songs is a bit sunnier – so much so that some of the songs on his forthcoming solo album Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance stand in marked contrast to the often shadowy rural spirits that frequent his songs on Truckers albums.

“A lot of these new songs were really influenced just by being homesick and missing my family during a period when the Truckers were touring all the time,” Hood said. “We were in the midst of, essentially, a two year tour for The Big To Do and Go Go Boots (the band’s most recent studio albums).

“But I was also saying goodbye to one of my most beloved family members. I had a great uncle who was kind of a second father to me. I wrote the title cut about the sadness of losing an older generation of people that you love but also mixing it with the joy of having children and watching them play.

“The song is set at the old homestead where he had lived 88 years of his life. Right after I recorded it, he passed away (at age 91). About three weeks later, I found myself out at that homestead for the memorial service watching my kids run around and play while we were all feeling sad. So this is a very heartfelt and personal record for me.”

With the Truckers on hiatus (save for a few isolated performances) until next spring, Hood will tour extensively following Heat Lightning’s release next month with a newly assembled band called The Downtown Rumblers (which will include two fellow Truckers, keyboardist Jay Gonzalez and drummer Brad Morgan). But the bill he will share with Snider tonight at the Opera House will dispense with bands entirely. The two songsmiths will perform their sets without ensemble accompaniment but with plenty of the high musical spirits that have marked their respective careers.

“Todd and I played a show together at the Georgia Theatre (in Athens, Ga.) about nine years ago,” Hood said. “That’s the only time we’ve shared a bill as far as I know. We had a pretty amazing time, too. Fans on our websites still trade bootleg tapes of that show and talk about it, because it kind of degenerated into a rather bawdy evening of storytelling and song.

We can only hope that will happen again.”

Todd Snider and Patterson Hood perform at 8 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short St. Tickets are $28. Call (859) 233-3535 or (800) 745-3000 or go to

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