Archive for September, 2012

in performance: andrew bird

andrew bird.

No sooner did his band lean into the animated stride of Effigy last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts than Andrew Bird called a time out.

“That’s a little too swift,” instructed the Chicago song stylist to his backup trio before launching into a second attempt with a slightly dustier rhythm.

It was curious guidance, in a way, because Bird was armed like an artist capable of taking on the entire arrangement himself. He had a guitar slung over his shoulder, a violin raised in one hand, a bow in the other, a pedal board full of looping effects at his feet and a glockenspiel (which, sadly, went unplayed for much of the evening) by his side.

The 1 ¾ hour performance shifted between such one-man-band designs and full ensemble durability that took Byrd’s music into rockier and unexpectedly rootsier terrain.

The show-opening Hole in the Ocean Floor reaffirmed what we already knew about Bird – namely, his ability to summon wistful pop reflection with an orchestra of on-the-spot loops and effects, a beautifully tempered (but classically assured) command of the violin and the light hearted solo stage persona of a minstrel singer. Thank his most distinctive voice, one created by human whistling, for the latter quality.

The band – guitarist Jerey Ylvisaker, drummer Martin Dosh and bassist Alan Hampton – entered for Desperate Breeds…, one of a handful of tunes (along with Ocean Floor) pulled from Bird’s recent Break It Yourself album. Like much of the evening’s repertoire, it offered a brightly autumnal atmosphere that grew out a child-like pop melody created by Bird from plucking and strumming  the violin like a ukulele.

But there were also instances where Bird and company unplugged from the effects and took on folk fare like Railroad Bill, Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You and another Break It Yourself gem, Give It Away, by singing around a single microphone.

Add to that Bird’s remarkably clear and matured singing, which often brought to mind Ryan Adams (especially on the new Three White Horses), and you had a performance with almost vaudeville-like variety and expression but balanced by a musical spirit both assured and restless.

bird is the word

andrew bird

Among the modest breakthroughs in the very unobvious pop career of Andrew Bird was a journey to New Orleans to record with the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band for its 2010 benefit album, Preservation.

It was a homecoming for Bird on several levels. Now an established and stylistically indefinable artist (but we will use tags like classically trained, pop bred and folk informed, for now), he was returning to a city and sound he knew well. Bird cut one of his first albums, 1996’s Thrills, there with his then-band Bowl of Fire at a time when he was infatuated with the vintage jazz has come to define Preservation Hall.

“I went back there thinking they were going to be these grumpy old jazz guys,” Bird recalled. “I was explaining to one of them I used to play this kind of music and he just smiles and goes, ‘Oh, we know who you is.”

These days, a lot of people have come to know Bird, thanks to a sizeable indie fanbase that has latched into a folk-pop sound rooted somewhere between tradition and psychedelia with instrumentation built around violin and animated human whistling and stage shows that blend band interplay with looped melodies and orchestrations.

These are fruits of a career Bird built very much from scratch. A Chicago native, he began classical studies at Northwestern University before branching out into music he found more spontaneous and challenging. Touring relentlessly (he was playing Bowl of Fire shows in Lexington clubs as far back as the ‘90s), Bird developed an audience for a patchwork pop sound that grew steadily with the release of solo albums like 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha, 2009’s Noble Beast and especially 2012’s Break It Yourself.

“I think I now see the benefits of sticking to my guns, enjoying slow growth and not having obvious radio hits that would create expectations. The only expectation I have right now would be that I am always expected to go off the map a little bit, which is great. That’s my impulse. I tend to be restless. I don’t feel satisfied after a show unless I’ve done something that has pushed me, something that is a little new or a little precarious.

“The first eight to ten years were lean. It felt like I was kind of seeing the same 150 to 200 people wherever I played. I wasn’t really growing exponentially. I was like, ‘Man, I could really see the benefit of being associated with some kind of movement.’  I’m so glad now that never happened, because those things come and go.”

The songs for Break It Yourself began coming to Bird as he was composing the score for the 2011 indie film Norman. While the resulting soundtrack album stands as one of his most inviting and atmospheric works, bridging the film’s fleeting sense of innocence with his own darker musical impulses wasn’t always an easy process.

“I was adapting songs to certain scenes and even shifting some lyrics around just to have the music make more sense within that scene. Some of the scenes are these sort of tender, coming-of-age, first love situations. And my lyrics can maybe be a little more, well, cryptic than what would be appropriate for this type of thing. So there was that part of it. The music for the score – for me, anyway – tended to be more dreamy. With Break It Yourself, I wasn’t so into doing that. I was more into a no production, no overdubs sort of realism – you know, just four guys in a room playing these songs together.”

That four-guys-in-a-room feel will be expanded upon with an upcoming EP disc titled Hands of Glory. It’s a grab bag of country work tunes (Railroad Bill), covers (Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You), rootsy revisions of Break It Yourself songs (Orpheo Looks Back) and a psychedelic slant on Ryan Adams-style Americana (Three White Horses).

But what constitutes two of Bird’s most enjoyable and unexpected projects were a pair of 2011 Muppets-releated records – an all-star tribute set called The Green Album, where he covered It’s Not Easy Being Green, and the subsequent film soundtrack recording to The Muppets where Bird whistled rather madly while he worked on an original piece,  The Whistling Caruso.

“They sent me some youtube clips of a professional whistler with an orchestra. I went, ‘OK. I get it.’ Then they heard what I wrote and said, ‘That’s too sincere. It needs to be over the top. It needs to go to a point where people say, ‘Boy, he’s good,’ and then just keeps going.’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa. This is ridiculous.’ But it was fun.”

Andrew Bird perfors at 7:30 p.m, Sept.29 at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Tickets are $25, $30, $35.Call (859) 257-4929.

critic’s pick 247

Given his advancement of the jazz setting known as the piano trio, along with the more-visible restlessness that lurks under the lyrical turns of his playing, one might suppose Brad Mehldau is a stylistic disciple of the great Bill Evans. Certainly there are enough hints in the former’s new covers album, Where Do You Start, as well as in a newly unearthed pair of New York performances from piano pioneer Evans, Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate, to link these two players and jazz generations.

But Mehldau has proved to be a somewhat unwilling disciple and has, both in interviews and (to a degree) on recordings, purposely distanced himself from the Evans legacy. One can only imagine why. Both cultivated strong new audiences for the piano trio, both echoed the music of jazz and pop contemporaries and both revealed deep melodic sweeps in their playing – the kind that can only come from being versed enough with a tune to slice it down to the roots in order to explore its deepest lyrical secrets.

Mehldau does exactly that during Where Do You Start’s centerpiece tune, the 1989 Elvis Costello delight Baby Plays Around. It begins with a whisper of nostalgia, as if it could wander about and become Someone to Watch Over Me. As the Costello compositional base emerges, the rhythm section of drummer Jeff Ballard and longtime bassist Larry Grenadier provide affectionate propulsion. But the piano approach remains subtle, luminous and powerfully emotive. The spirit of Evans’ jazz impressionism is clearly at work here.

Where Do You Start nods to other inspirations, too. Mehldau’s cover of the ‘60s warhorse rock anthem Hey Joe sounds like it was reborn by the riverside with a humid stride and a harder percussive edge that suggests Keith Jarrett while Alice in Chains’ Got Me Wrong possesses an understandably darker base that brings to mind the less busy acoustic music of McCoy Tyner.

Mehldau’s references to Evans, intentional or not, might not be so visible if the work of the latter, who died in 1980, wasn’t still so liberally represented by a seemingly unending library of archival concert recordings. Top of the Gate, spreads two sets from the same October evening across two discs with a stellar trio of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell.

The piano tone is what hits you most. Even though there is noticeable (and, frankly, complimentary) audience ambience, the playing is robust and bright with Gomez lovingly working off of Evans’s lyricism, playfulness and subsequent intensity on separate takes of the Jerome Kern standard Yesterdays that are the tops of Top of the Gate’s two exuberant discs.

troubabour books glen campbell, lindsey buckingham for opera house

glen campbell.

The Troubadour Concert Series looks to close out 2012 with as many as four major concerts. Shows by Glen Campbell and Lindsey Buckingham have just been announced for November. Additional performances should be confirmed soon for December by The Robert Cray Band and Shawn Colvin.

Country Music Hall of Famer Campbell, 76, will perform at the Lexington Opera House on Nov. 13. His concert is part of an extended farewell tour the veteran singer and guitarist has undertaken since being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2011. His career extends back over a half-century and has earned over a dozen gold-selling albums and a library of hits that includes By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Gentle on My Mind.

lindsey buckingham.

Buckingham, 62, is best known for his hit-making tenure with Fleetwood Mac. But since 1981, he has balanced duties in the band with a solo career. A current tour presents Buckingham in a solo acoustic setting and will cover material from the Fleetwood Mac catalogue up through tunes from his 2011 album, Seeds We Sow. He will perform at the Opera House on November 14, the night after Campbell’s concert.

Dates for bluesman Cray (for Dec. 11) and folk-pop songstress Colvin (for Dec.13) are still to be confirmed. Ticket prices and on-sale dates for the Campbell and Buckingham are to be announced. For more info, go to

in performance: the jesus and mary chain

the jesus and mary chain: william and jim reid.

It’s nothing for a veteran band to act (or, at least, pretend to) like it was still in its creative and commercial heyday. Last night at Buster’s, in a headlining performance for the 4th annual Boomslang festival, The Jesus and Mary Chain performed and behaved as if the post-punk days of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were still in fashion.

The musical ambience certainly replicated the era, as evidenced by the textured, industrial tinged pop of songs like Far Gone and Out and Halfway to Crazy as well as by the very purposeful between-song guitar squalls of William Reid that became more prominent as the evening wore on.

One could also detect a few outside inspirations from contemporaries like Echo and the Bunnyman (during the stoic Between Planets) and even forefathers like The Velvet Underground (Some Candy Talking) and The Doors (the roaring set closer Reverence). Mostly, the performance embraced alternative pop as it existed two decades ago in all its detached glory. Nothing, it seems, has changed.

Unfortunately, that also went for the stage demeanor of vocalist Jim Reid (the guitarist’s brother). He was a capable enough frontman, but the trappings – the tossing about of microphone stands, the obscenity-laden between-song mumbling – seemed juvenile 20 years ago. Last night, the bratty behavior came across as a tired gimmick, a variation of perfunctory rock star posturing.

There were certainly intriguing moments, including an encore segment devoted to a trio of roaring tunes from The Jesus and Mary Chain’s1985 debut album, Psychocandy (The Hardest Walk, Taste of Cindy and Never Understand) and the bass-propelled rocker Blues from a Gun (from the underrated 1989 album Automatic)

Mostly, though, this Boomslang finale was a pure nostalgia ride, a sometimes giddy, sometimes dispiriting glimpse of an alt-pop attitude from another age.

in performance: mary gauthier

mary gauthier.


“This song is for anyone who seriously fell in love with a sociopathic narcissist.”


With that qualifier, Mary Gauthier pretty explained why her brand of country music probably won’t be popping up on the radio next to Kenny Chesney’s latest beachcombing hit anytime soon.

With that qualifier, Mary Gauthier pretty explained why her brand of country music probably won’t be popping up on the radio next to Kenny Chesney’s latest beachcombing hit anytime soon.

During a beautifully understated performance last night at Cosmic Charlie’s, the New Orleans bred, Nashville-based songstress favored a stark and often severe country despondency. But her music wasn’t acted out with the kind of video-savvy pathos your everyday country star favors. Gauthier let the dour human detail of her songs spell out the drama.

Aside from whispers of electric guitar ambience from sidekick Tom Hicks and her own acoustic guitar accompaniment, Gauthier’s songs were completely unadorned. The modest-sized crowd on hand took to setting well and awarded her a level of quiet, active listening that allowed the songs – bleak as they were – to thrive.

Adding to the potency of the music was a John Prine level of conversational ease. Songs like I Drink possessed Prine’s gift of homespun gab as well as a melodic appeal that was deceptively bright eyed. But such congenial trappings only made I Drink’s downward spiral storyline even darker. “Old men sit and think,” Gauthier sang. “I drink.”

The autobiographical orphan ballad Goodbye and the love-gone-brutally-wrong confessional Ledge followed in a likewise lyrical but despondent manner. Curiously, the literary wanderlust within Last of the Hobo Kings, a eulogy for a famed railroad drifter that had “caught the Westbound,” proved the sunniest, most folk friendly tune of the evening.

“I’d play you a happy song,” Gauthier after Hobo Kings’ conclusion. “But I haven’t written one yet.”  

in performance: the royal drummers and dancers of burundi

the royal drummers and dancers of burundi.

It began and ended with a bare stage floor earlier this afternoon at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. In the interim, however, there was considerable thunder. Then again, creating and deflating a percussive typhoon has long been standard operating procedure for the Royal Drummers and Dancers of Burundi.

The ensemble’s 12 percussionists, all with the build and stamina of Olympians, exhibited their percussive might on a series of drums created out of hollow tree trunks. The resulting music – usually performed for births, funerals and enthronements in the musicians’ African homeland – could be viewed as incantatory given its cyclic nature. One would be hard pressed, though, to think of sounds with such sustained physical strength as being even remotely meditative. But celebratory and joyous? Absolutely. The performance was like a massive, manhandling embrace from another culture that was as warm as it was demonstrative.

The musicians entered the concert hall from the EKU Center’s lobby and walked through the audience, their massive drums balanced on their heads. The effect could easily be paralleled to the rumble of a gathering storm. Once onstage, the drums were lined up in a crescent formation with one larger drum situated centerstage.

The program notes divided the performance into two “acts,” each containing between 14 and 17 “scenes.” But what the casual ear heard was a sampler of extended segments where four of the drummers established a rhythm by hitting the cowhide heads of their instruments. The rest accented the momentum with cracks created by hitting the side of the drums. Then in solo, duo and trio combinations, the drummers came to the front, offered athletic leaps, dances and electric smiles as their bandmates cheered and chanted them on. The featured musicians then hit the sides of the centerstage drum, cueing the entire ensemble to gather into a singular, seemingly atomic rhythm. The resulting groove was powerfully symmetric.

To some, such a performance might have seemed somewhat lacking in variety. After all, there was no rhythm section, no addition instrumentation and no contemporary concessions of any kind. But the drummers’ joyous athleticism and the music’s intoxicating (if not, intimidating) rhythmic sway never once seemed static.

At the end of the performance’s second 45 minute act, the drummers placed the instruments back atop their heads, circled by the lip of the stage before becoming a silhouetted caravan that slowly and solemnly strode offstage, a portable storm moving on to the next village.

in performance: chris hillman and herb pedersen/jim lauderdale

chris hillman and herb pedersen.

The second and final night of the Christ the King Oktoberfest offered two fine performances that presented Americana portraits from the past within new and immensely complimentary frameworks.

A duo set by Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen had a bounty of influences to draw on just from the artists’ respective pasts – specifically, Hillman’s storied tenures as a co-founding member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as Pederson’s time with The Dillards. There were also spiritually inclined works, pulled mostly from Hillman’s solo albums, and a smattering of traditional country covers.

The kick was that everything was performed with just two voices and two instruments (primarily mandolin and guitar, although Hillman spent roughly one third of the 90 minute program on second guitar). That made for some rather nifty revisionism, like a jam friendly treatment of the Byrds epic Eight Miles High that focused on two artful, almost proggish mandolin solos from Hillman.

But the vocal harmonies, driven heavily by taste and intuition, made the show. During a perhaps less obvious Byrds gem, Bells of Rhymney, the duo refitted the elegant melody for Hillman’s voice. But Pederson managed a conversational variation of the multi-dubbed ensemble harmonies from the Byrds’ recorded version. The result was a tune of organic, folkish beauty.

jim lauderdale

Headliner Jim Lauderdale, a veteran Nashville hand equally versed in country, Americana and bluegrass, utilized an expert band and a satchel full of original songs (many of which were co-penned by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter) to bring Appalachian string sounds of old into the here and now.

Some songs, like Love’s Voice, approached Stanley Brothers-style traditionalism. Others, such as Tiger and the Monkey, operated less out of bluegrass and more within streamlined country contours. And then there were the real thrillseekers like Headed for the Hills that came dressed in a blues feel but sported jazzy turns from dobroist Randy Kohrs (who doubled as a potent harmony wailer) and fiddler Ollie O’Shea.

It should be noted that the sound problems from Friday had lessened somewhat. Assorted pops and feedback were still littered throughout the Hillman/Pedersen set. But they had largely vanished by the time Lauderdale hit the stage. Perhaps the fact the latter took an extended soundcheck before his set began helped.

Soundchecks – what a novel idea.

in performance: riders in the sky

riders in the sky: joey the cowpolka king, woody paul, too slim and ranger doug.

Here are two reasons why last night’s performance by Riders in the Sky at the Christ the King Oktoberfest was such a seasonal delight.

The first was simply the setting. While the Grammy-winning singing cowboy quartet has become a near-annual visitor to local venues, one would be hard pressed to imagine a more flattering atmosphere for their music than the subtle outdoor cool of the last official night of summer. It gave a whole new dimension to campfire classics like Cool Water, Yellow Rose of Texas and Wah Hoo.

The second was the sight of children dancing giddily near the front of the stage for the bulk of the two set performance. The Riders’ vintage Western music has always been very kid friendly, especially thematically. But that didn’t seem to be what was igniting the youthful spirit. This particular dance crowd was fueled by the inherent joy within the group’s more upbeat melodies, especially those driven by the instrumental interplay between fiddler Woody Paul and accordionist Joey the Cowpolka King. In fact, when the two struck up Clarinet Polka (performed proudly sans clarinet), the kids literally jumped for joy. Playtime had come to Oktoberfest.

The down side to all the merriment was the sound. Feedback and weak vocal mixes persistently dogged the concert.  This has been an ongoing problem for Oktoberfest through the years. We’re the first to admit that having acts like Riders in the Sky play for free at what is essentially a neighborhood block party remains a thrill. But the sound issues continue to be a spoiler.

The sound also seemed to visibly throw the group at times. Luckily, a steady flow of new material (new, at least, to the Riders’ setlist) and audience requests kept the performance flow moving smartly.

The new entries included a harmony rich reading of Trail Dust, a gospel savvy Saddle Up and another appropriate blast of polka fun, Hoop De Doo, where the Riders curtailed the cowboy talk in favor of Lawrence Welk impressions.

The highlight of the requests was clearly the Western staple Streets of Laredo, performed by singer/guitarist Ranger Doug with a properly stoic sense of traditional country longing. That was the moment when this joyride through the traditions of cowboy music pulled up next to the campfires of a very real and sobering world.


in performance: jeff mangum/the music tapes/william tyler

jeff mangum.

The sizable and immensely spirited turnout on hand for last night’s Jeff Mangum performance at the Kentucky Theatre triggered this thought. How is it that this crowd became so transfixed upon a series of scruffy, solo acoustic psychedelic folk tunes, most of which were recorded in the late ‘90s by an artist who seldom tours and whose only recordings these days tend to be archival compilations of past work.

Maybe it speaks to the sort of devotion that Mangum’s fabled ‘90s collective, Neutral Milk Hotel, still enjoys. Perhaps it had to do with the fact last night’s program inaugurated the fourth annual Boomslang festival, which kicks into full gear this weekend. Or it could be Mangum’s ties to the Elephant 6 indie pop franchise, which also includes former Lexingtonian Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo.

All of those reasons, along with two intriguing opening acts, played a role. But the bottom line was that the baker’s dozen of Neutral Milk Hotel tunes Mangum offered connected in a remarkably complete way with the Boomslang crowd. From the show-opening Oh Comely to the set closing Ghost, the audience bestowed full rock star fascination upon the performance.

As a vocalist, Mangum often sounded like a homier version of The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy. Between songs, he offered greetings by way of shy mumbles. But when the music was on, as it most definitely was during the fanciful lyric sway of The King of Carrot Flowers and Two Headed Boy, Mangum sounded somewhat akin to a modern day version of Donovan. His delivery wasn’t as flowery. But it terms of modern folk psychedelia, it was poetic in own unvarnished way.

The Music Tapes, led by Neutral Milk Hotel alumnus Julian Koster, preceded with a set of unexpected instrumental vignettes forged into what were essentially psychedelic parlor songs. Pump organ, tuba, a banjo played with bows and the band’s somewhat clownish centerpiece, a seven foot metronome, colored a performance fueled by an eager but ultimately scattered pop sensibility. Far more arresting was Koster’s addition of musical saw to Engine during Mangum’s set to create a pop atmosphere that, for all its sense of fancy, seemed far more grounded the Music Tapes’ mischief.

To be honest, show opener William Tyler was as enjoyable as much as either of the headliners. A Nashville guitarist with an obvious love for the folk traditions and mutations of the great John Fahey, Tyler performed a set of brittle, exacting guitar instrumentals, the best of which (The Cult of the Peacock Angel) were orchestrated by curious but oddly harmonious drones to create music fortified by indie ingenuity but and inhabited by wonderfully antique soul.  

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