Archive for October, 2012

‘del rio’ redux

Radney Foster. Photo by Marshall Foster.

For many a touring performer, the merchandise table is part social club, part shopping mall. For country and bluegrass acts playing clubs and theatres, such duality is often magnified. It becomes a place where audience and artist can mingle over conversation and the hopeful sale of a CD or T-shirt.

Radney Foster knows the marketplace savvy of the merch table well. Night after night, the veteran country/Americana songsmith would listen as his fans dug through the goods for sale in search of his first – and what many think is his finest – solo album. And each time Foster had to sheepishly reply that he didn’t have any copies to sell. Nobody did. The record, Del Rio, Texas 1959, has long been out of print.

But the fan demand triggered an idea – one that would allow Foster to fashion new music out of his earliest solo work and honor a career milestone in the process.

“For about the last 12 years, that record has been out of print,” said Foster, who performs a solo acoustic concert Thursday at Natasha’s Bistro. “I had to fight even to get BMG (the music conglomerate that absorbed Foster’s ’90s-era record label, Arista Nashville) to keep it up on iTunes. And yet, I couldn’t get them to let me reprint it.

“I’d be standing there signing autographs at the end of a show at the merchandise booth and not a night would go by that someone wouldn’t go, ‘Oh, do you have a copy of Del Rio, Texas 1959?’ And I would have to go, ‘No. It’s not available.” So I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got to rectify this in some way.’”

So Foster decided to go the route numerous artists have taken when trying to satisfy audience cravings for recordings that are either legally or logistically out of their reach. He recorded the Del Rio songs again for an album he has full ownership of. But there was also a personal slant to giving a new voice to his old songs. As 2012 marked 20 years since the record’s initial release – and Foster’s inauguration as a solo artist after a successful run in the country duo Foster & Lloyd – a new Del Rio album would also be a means of celebration.

But re-creating the original Del Rio album was definitely not the intention. Foster wanted his new project to possess a sound and intent of its own. So he re-recorded the original album’s 10 titles in a stripped-down, bluegrass-leaning acoustic setting, came up with a new running order for the tunes and even slipped a new song (Me and John R.) in the middle. The result was a critically lauded new recording called Del Rio, Texas Revisited: Unplugged and Lonesome.

“I’ve seen what can happen when an artist goes into the studio to completely redo an album exactly as it was done the first time. It’s usually a disaster. So I started talking with my friend Steve Fishell (producer of the original Del Rio record who now oversees the Music Producers Institute in Nashville) and told him about doing this project as a sort of a live bluegrass thing. And he was like, ‘Why don’t you come to the Institute and record it live to tape in front of some of my students?’ And I thought, ‘Wow. That is a great idea.’ And that’s exactly what we did. Everything was done basically by sitting in a circle – open microphones, no headphones, trying to capture the sound of the whole band all at once.”

For Foster – whose songs have been covered by Nashville celebs Keith Urban, Sara Evans and Gary Allan since the first Del Rio was issued – the opportunity to shift the musical setting of his early songs was only half of the fun. Revisited also meant excavating the emotions and story lines of songs written during a different chapter in his life.

“That’s very true in some ways,” Foster said. “But in another way, it was like visiting old friends again.

“There are certainly songs in there that I’m very proud of. A good example is A Fine Line. It was this sort of Springsteen-esque rocker on the first record. And my co-producer this time (Justin Tocket) was just adamant that the song should be a ballad. ‘These are such devastating lyrics. The arrangement needs to be all about the lyrics and less about the musicians.’ So we kept slowing it down and trying different things. And, finally, I started fingerpicking the song. And he was right. It came out fantastic.

“When I’ve done it live, audiences have just been crushed. There are even people crying. And I’m like, ‘Cool. I used to make people dance. Now I make them cry.’”

Radney Foster performs at 8 p.m. Nov.1 at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Tickets are $20 in advance, $24 day of show. Call (859) 259-2754 or go to Beetnik.com.

critic’s pick 252

It seems a touch obvious to label Psychedelic Pill, a two-disc manifesto of garage rock jams and sagely angst, as an indulgence. After all, has there ever been a Neil Young album that wasn’t?

Reteaming with Crazy Horse, the pre-and-post grunge rock combo that he has been in-and-out of cahoots with him for over four decades (although Psychedelic Pill is their second album together in only five months), Young unwinds a maze of luxuriant but unrefined electric strands on these eight new songs. At their core lurks tales of lost hippie dreams (an increasingly favored theme on Young albums), lost love and to a degree, lost minds.

The latter figures into the titanic album-opener, a 27 minute jam called Driftin’ Back that opens as a brief acoustic meditation before quickly dissolving into an unyielding, mid-tempo thud. Lyrics, sparse and repetitive as they are, fragment into a parade of non-sequiturs (“I used to dig Picasso, “I’m gonna get me a hip-hop haircut”) until the sentiments take a curious turn with a rant against modern recording technology (“Don’t want my MP3… blockin’out my anger, blockin’ out my thoughts”). Through it all, Crazy Horse’s sedated charge and the stampeding fuzz of Young’s guitarwork are unrelenting to the point of being minimalist.

And that’s just the first song. The real fire ignites on Psychedelic Pill’s second disc. She’s Always Dancing initiates a saga of a free spirit with a group chorus that is sung like a chant. It leads into an accompanying electric rattle as seamlessly as the acoustic intro did to the fury of Driftin’ Back. This one is a comparatively brief trip, though, clocking in at a mere 8 ½ minutes.

The crescendo comes with Walk Like a Giant, a remembrance of a change-the-world ideal that dates back to the ‘60s counterculture that gave Young and his music their start. Young holds fast to the dream, though, and energizes it with the kind of nerve-ripping guitar intensity that fortified such past Crazy Horse collaborations as Rust Never Sleeps and Broken Arrow. The guitar squeals in a squall-like frenzy before bellowing with a deep static roar.

It is in moments like these that you wonder how this Neil Young and the frail folkie spirit that popularized Heart of Gold could be one and the same. The rampage runs on for 16 minutes, over four of which are devoted to a wildly dissonant coda. It’s like watching a tornado continuing to uproot everything in the distance after it has torn through town.

Several briefer tunes, running four minutes or less (Born in Ontario, Twisted Road and album’s title tune) serve as interludes. But the bulk of Psychdelic Pill belongs to the unexpurgated range and rage of a rock ‘n’ roll original – and the Horse he rode in on.

 

in performance: tony bennett

Tony Bennett

“I guess you can tell by now that I only sing old songs,” Tony Bennett said the close of a typically charming performance last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. “That’s because I don’t like any of the new ones.”

If one didn’t know the singer’s work or his masterfully conversational way of interpreting a standard, such a remark might be interpreted as the confession of a curmudgeon. But if any performance attribute outweighs his scholarly command of the Great American Songbook, it’s his onstage attitude. As the 75-minute performance again underscored, Bennett’s class act status comes from an unassuming love of the stage, his music and his audience.

In short, the crowd had a ball soaking in the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne and others. From all outward appearances, though, Bennett seemed to be having an even better time. And at age 86, to retain that level of joy, freshness and integrity and have it come across as thoroughly honest is a wonder indeed.

The reasons, as is always the case with Bennett’s shows, are twofold. Last night, he remained, at heart, a jazz singer. He propelled the limber They All Laughed and especially I Got Rhythm with subtle but playful swing. Later, he scattered merrily over clapping audience accompaniment during a wonderfully frisky Sing, You Sinners.

The jazz mood also permeated material that wasn’t jazz at all, as shown by the light-hearted sentiments that Bennett injected into one of the most devastating country heartbreak songs of all time, Hank Williams’ Cold, Cold Heart.

All of that led into the second big reason for Bennett’s timeless appeal: his phrasing as a vocalist. Calling Bennett a crooner oversimplifies his talent. Last night, he was more of a conversationalist. The classics The Good Life, But Beautiful and, yes, I Left My Heart in San Francisco were studies in vocal cool that allowed story lines to unfold like quiet confessionals that were as eloquent as they were emotive.

But Bennett could roar when necessary. He did just that during the Cabaret favorite Maybe This Time, with a blast of vocal drama  proving that, for all his endearing performance cheer and reserve, Bennett can conjure a mighty storm when his music demands one.

the new georgia headliner

Brantley Gilbert

Back in the spring, Eric Church, a country artist with a pronounced leaning to Southern-infused rock, found himself on his first headlining tour playing to surprisingly sizable crowds from coast to coast. Among them was a turnout of 13,000 eager fans at Rupp Arena.

Whereas in the weeks leading up to the performance, many pop enthusiasts replied “Eric who?” when told of his Rupp date, Church now stands as one of the most bankable touring acts in the business.

Among Church’s opening acts that night was a Georgia songsmith with a similarly eclectic electric sound by the name of Brantley Gilbert. Once again, all but the most devout of fans had little or no clue as to who Gilbert was. Now, here we are – six months and two No. 1 singles later. Guess who is bringing his first headlining tour to Lexington?

But here’s a switch. Add to the list of those that have yet to absorb Gilbert’s seemingly sudden popularity the name of Gilbert himself.

“Man, it’s a crazy feeling,” said the singer, 27, who tops a country-rock bill on Sunday at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum that includes Brian Davis, Greg Bates and Uncle Kracker.

“I was telling somebody the other day about a venue that was 20 minutes from my house called the Georgia Theatre. I sold it out when I was 19. It held 2,300 people. Now that was ‘making it’ to me. But that was also as far as I ever thought I would get. So everything since then has been like an added bonus. Having my own tour with all this equipment and all these lights…I mean, this is just crazy.”

While Gilbert’s hometown of Jefferson, Georgia may not have exactly been a metropolis of musical inspiration, he was situated near a city that was. The artistically fertile Athens sat a mere 20 miles away. The city’s obvious star exports – R.E.M., The B-52s and Widespread Panic – couldn’t help but catch his ear. But Athens was also home to Corey Smith, the indie folk-rock songsmith with an insanely loyal following among college-age audiences. Smith became one of Gilbert’s first touring pals.

“That’s my buddy. I actually got started playing my own songs with Corey when touring for me was just me and a guitar. He had a guitar player with him and tour manager, and we all just rolled around the Southeast playing shows.

“Before that, I was in a couple of bands and we would play rough, rough, rough joints. We would play cover songs but during breaks they would let you stand up there onstage and play your own songs. But I think I was right about 17 when I was out with Corey and we had a ball. He’s a great guy and almost a mentor in so many ways.”

Gilbert’s first two albums – 2009’s Modern Day Prodigal Son and 2010’s Halfway to Heaven created sufficient buzz in Nashville. But that wasn’t how mainstream audiences came to know his music. Such an introduction was made once country star Jason Aldean forged major hits out of two Gilbert songs – My Kinda Party and Dirt Road Anthem.

“Most of the time, ideas for songs come from my life,” Gilbert said. “I’d never write about anything that I haven’t experienced or been through. And if I go through something with somebody else, like a hard time with a family member and I feel really close to that person, I’ll feel like that’s my experience as well, so I may write about that.

“But having Jason cover those songs really helped us out a lot. We were at a point in our career where having me release a song like Dirt Road Anthem would have been insane. We needed somebody with Jason’s status to push that song to where it could go. Those songs are still on my records and I still play them every night. So it’s not like I gave them away or sold them to somebody. They’re still my babies.”

But sealing the deal on stardom were Gilbert’s own hits, specifically a pair of successive No. 1 singles – Country Must Be Country Wide and You Don’t Know Her Like I Do. The songs also turned a reissued edition of Halfway to Heaven (aptly titled Halfway to Heaven Deluxe) into a gold-selling hit.

“It’s a thrill,” Gilbert said. “If you would have told me just a year ago I would have two No. 1s, I would have said you were crazy. But it’s definitely a great feeling to be kind of on top of the mountain for a minute.”

Brantley Gilbert, Brian Davis, Greg Bates and Uncle Kracker perform at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at Memorial Coliseum. Tickets: $25 (public) and $10 (student). Call (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

in performance: felix cavaliere’s rascals

Felix Cavaliere

Add to the list of pop pioneers still doing their legacies proud as they zero in on that once-unfathomable rock ’n’ roll age of 70 the name of Felix Cavaliere.

Last night, during the first of two shows at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort, the mainstay vocalist, keyboardist and singer for The Rascals, who hits the big 7-0 in November, put an ageless vocal assuredness that was the vehicle for one of the most engaging pop-soul bands of the’60s on display. While his singing was a touch less meaty and tireless than it was during The Rascals’ heyday, Cavaliere’s vocals nonetheless displayed a tone full of crisp detail and surprisingly youthful vigor.

The brotherhood anthem People Got to Be Free, for instance, still revealed a gospel foundation both loose and urgent while the radio classic Groovin’ remained full of a summery radiance and accessibly that didn’t sound the least bit shopworn.

This wasn’t a revelatory performance by any means. Cavaliere and a very functional three-piece Nashville combo (collectively dubbed Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals) devoted the 75 minute show exclusively to hits from the golden age of The Rascals, even to the point of including an initial hit that Cavaliere didn’t even  sing lead on (1965’s I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out y Heart Anymore, with bassist Mark Prentice taking on vocal lines originally created by Eddie Brigati). As such, this was a nostalgia show, pure and simple, aimed at honoring the plentiful hit parade The Rascals constructed between late 1965 and mid 1968.

One could argue that Cavaliere shortchanges himself somewhat by adhering to this type of performance game plan, as some of The Rascals’ greatest music came during the jazz and jam experimentation of its later recordings. Similarly, his first two solo albums (1974’s Felix Cavaliere and 1975’s Destiny) were artful updates of The Rascals’ blue-eyed soul sound.

But for a concert built around songs he has been singing for well over four decades, the music on display last night sounded remarkably fresh. Propelling the arrangements on a Korg keyboard (which covered the piano and brass accents of the hits, even though it meant supplying a retro sound more reflective of the ‘80s than the ‘60s) and Hammond organ, Cavaliere ignited hits both obvious (A Beautiful Morning) and overlooked (You Better Run).

Several of the tunes were oddly augmented with snippets of cover tunes by contemporaries of The Rascals, like the fragments from the Motown staples My Girl and Just My Imagination that were tacked onto the end of Groovin’ and the expanded oldies medley unleashed during the show closing Good Lovin’.

Such trappings were unnecessary, though. The honest, youthful cheer of Cavaliere’s singing and the agelessly soulful charm of the vintage Rascals hits already had all the bases covered.

dead man’s tales

Tom Constanten

You can’t ignore the connection. It’s the weekend before Halloween, and who do we have playing in town? Why, an alumnus of the Grateful Dead. Talk about timing.

But more than seasonal coincidence is bringing Tom Constanten to Willie’s Locally Known tonight for a performance with the Dead tribute band Terrapin Flyer. The keyboardist has become a semi-regular in the region of late, although he hasn’t always played in the most conventional of concert settings.

Constanten has become a part of a performance program with Versailles photographer Don Aters called The Grateful Experience, which mingles music, conversation and the latter’s portraits of seminal West Coast counterculture heroes from the 1960s. In fact, the two turned up at The Woodford Inn in Versailles earlier this month for such a presentation along with fellow keyboardist Bob Bralove (an auxiliary member of the Dead in the late ‘80s and Constanten’s partner in the keyboard duo Dos Hermanos) and former Dead manager Rock Scully.

Tonight, however, the Dead lives with Constanten performing with the Chicago-rooted Terrapin Flyer.

“Every night we go back to the well and we find interesting things,” said Constanten, 68, by phone last week. “But it’s also an ongoing process. I’m been touring with them since 2006. I started filling in for Vince Welnick (the late Dead keyboardist who was a frequent Terrapin Flyer contributor) and they kept calling back. So something must be working.”

Constanten’s time with the Dead was fairly brief – from 1968 to early 1970. But that was a period when the Dead solidified itself as a premier band in a very active San Francisco psychedelic music scene. He appeared on three pivotal Dead recordings – Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa and Live Dead. His playing is also prevalent on several fine archival concert recordings of the band’s music released in recent years. Among the best is Fillmore West 1969, which resourced the same performances that made up Live Dead.

“It’s a miracle,” said Constanten of the continued popularity of the Dead’s music. “Like I said in my book (the 1992 memoir Between Rock and Hard Places: A Musical Audiobiodyssey), I don’t believe in miracles, I rely on them.”

That odyssey is hardly limited to the Dead’s legacy. He has collaborated with modernists like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, studied with avant-garde pioneers like Karlheinz Stockhauden and Pierre Boulez and released recordings that have run from an entire album of variations on the Jorma Kaukonen instrumental Embryonic Journey (with Kaukonen himself him as a duet partner) to a collection of solo piano performances that cover everything from Brahms to Bill Evans (2006’s Deep Expressions, Longtime Known).

“One of the attributes of the 1960s cultural revolution was that we broke down barriers – not just between different types of music but between entire genres. Frank Zappa interacted with Boulez, too. There was a collaboration between Salvador Dali and Alice Cooper. We were awash in possibilities.”

While the future may keep Constanten a regular in Central Kentucky, the keyboardist is streamlining his work schedule somewhat after suffering a heart attack over the summer.

“My world changed when that happened on July 28. I’ve been taken care of pretty well, but there are a lot of other things I now consider frivolous that I’m no longer doing. I’m concentrating on the tours with Terrapin Flyer, the Jefferson Starship (Paul Kantner’s ongoing outgrowth of Jefferson Airplane, to which Constanten also contributes) and Dos Hermanos.

“It’s pretty much like taking all of your things off the shelves and dusting them off once something like this happens. Everything is new and exciting again.”

Tom Constanten and Terrapin Flyer performs at 9 tonight at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 North Broadway. Cover charge is $10. Call (859) 281-1116.

you rascal you

Felix Cavaliere

In just about any picture you see of him, Felix Cavaliere will be smiling.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a shot of from the 1960s, when the singer/songsmith was spinning pop-soul into gold with The Rascals or today, as an elder but still very active pop ambassador that has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Whatever the era with whatever music he was creating, Cavaliere has kept smiling.

“I guess that’s another good fortune thing for me,” said the singer/keyboardist, who performs Friday at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort. “I see a lot of people that are so negative. I just feel that if you’ve got a plus and a minus, then put me over on the plus side.”

Admittedly, Cavaliere, who turns 70 next month, has had plenty to smile about throughout his career. His hits with The Rascals, nearly all of which he penned with bandmate Eddie Brigati, helped to define pop-soul in the latter half of the ‘60s. Songs like Groovin’, A Beautiful Morning and I’ve Been Lonely Too Long were created on Atlantic Records at the same time the label was promoting the R&B triumphs of Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett.

Cavaliere, who sang lead on most of the group’s hits, especially early ones cut when the quartet was billed as The Young Rascals, was more than thrilled by the company.

“The philosophy behind Atlantic Records came from a jazz school,” Cavaliere said. “By that I mean they captured a moment and they recorded it. Those moments were really magical in the studio. The entire cast, from the musicians to the people who were in the room assisting in production, like Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd (who became two of Atlantic’s most famed producers), was so musically tuned in to the songs. The energy was so positive. I think that enthusiasm permeated the grooves of the records.

“So when somebody hears, say, Beautiful Morning, they feel that joy that was being sung and written about. It was the upward kind of feeling that music brings.”

By 1968, The Rascals began straying from its pop-soul base and journeyed into more progressive and psychedelic turf. As such, albums like 1968’s Once Upon a Dream and 1969’s Freedom Suite earned greater critical notice even as the band’s sales and chart visibility began to slip.

“The beginning of our career was based on radio and the AM hits,” Cavaliere said. “Then as time progressed and the FM stations came in, the album-oriented world started to take over. You know, you try to adapt to what’s going on in the world. But your audience can be very reluctant to let you change. They like to hear what they like to hear. So it was kind of a constant battle between, ‘Well, you guys are supposed to sound like this’ and what we really did sound like.

“When the group broke up, I really felt we had an opportunity to extend and go into a more of an adventuresome thing. But the audience has to accept that. And that’s a tough, tough, thing because people have this typecast idea of what you are and that’s it. That’s what they see, that’s what they hear and that’s what they want.”

Still, there were great moments on those final Rascals recordings. Its last Atlantic album, 1971’s Search and Nearness – the making of which saw the departure of Brigati and founding guitarist Gene Cornish – was among the group’s best works and yielded a minor radio hit, Glory Glory, that was less psychedelic soul and more overtly gospel.

“Eddie was not singing with us at that time. So to complete that album, I had the good fortune of using Cissy Houston. Of course, there’s the gospel for you, right there. As soon as she opens her mouth, it’s gospel.

“The interesting thing to me about the ‘60s was that we kind of grew up in front of people. All of us did. The Beatles, The Stones, we all grew up musically and grew up with what was going through our lives, be it relationships, whatever we were studying, politically motivated things, etc., etc. That’s what was happening at that time. Search and Nearness. Exactly. I’m still searching.”

The original Rascals are scheduled to reunite for a series of New York concerts in December, although Cavaliere said he has mixed feelings about the event. “I’m just hoping that everybody’s health and shape are good enough for them to really come to the plate.”

Regardless of how the reunion turns out, he continues to perform with a Nashville-based unit (dubbed Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals) to offer what he calls “unique paintings” of a celebrated pop-soul past.

“We kind of fit the songs to a new pattern. They’re the same songs, but different. Being able to make new ideas and new thoughts work keeps me young.”

Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals performs at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $20, $30, $35. Call (502) 352-7469 or go to

www.grandtheatrefrankfort.org

critic’s pick 251

Peter Gabriel’s leap from prog rock journeyman to global star in 1986 remains one of pop music’s most unexpected transformations. Today, over 26 years after its initial release, the singer’s fifth studio album, So, can be easily viewed as the catalyst of this career reinvention.

So was a record that had it all – a pair of jubilant, though slightly heady, hit singles (Sledgehammer and Big Time), a densely patterned rocker to satisfy the prog holdovers (Red Rain), a bold affirmation of Gabriel’s world music preferences (In Your Eyes) and a dark meditation inspired by, of all artists, Anne Sexton that stands as perhaps Gabriel’s greatest recorded moment (Mercy Street).

Add to that an extraordinary core band (bassist Tony Levin, guitarist David Rhodes, and drummer Manu Katche), an A-list of collaborators (Kate Bush, Stewart Copeland, Youssou N’Dour, Laurie Anderson and others), direction from who would soon become one of pop’s most innovative producers (Daniel Lanois) and a taste of for groundbreaking music videos that made Gabriel a regular fixture on MTV and So couldn’t miss at becoming one the signature pop works of the ‘80s.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this fall (curiously, a year late) are three reissued editions of So. The first is a straight remastered version of the album. The third is a massive (and expensive) box set full of DVDs, documentaries, vinyl and more. Reviewed here is the second reissue, the three-CD 25th Anniverary Deluxe Edition that matches the original album with a complete, unreleased live album taken from a 1997 stadium performance in Athens at the conclusion of the So tour.

It’s a beaut, too, with Gabriel singing like a man possessed during a petulant, keyboard orchestrated Mercy Street. The second live disc contracts into the post-apocalyptic cocoon of Here Comes the Flood before igniting the global block party feel of In Your Eyes with Senegalese singing star/activist N’Dour.

The big difference in the live material and the comparative studio reserve of So is French drummer Katche, who plays like an unleashed beast on the Athens tracks. He whips Shock the Monkey into a volcanic frenzy, pounds Intruder full of We Will Rock You-like physicality and invests No Self Control with a near militaristic drive.

Curiously, this reconstituted So coincides with the release of Katche’s self-titled fourth album, a straight-up jazz record for the European ECM label.

Katche often recalls another prog rocker-turned-jazzer, Bill Bruford, on the album, especially as the playful percussive chatter that initiates Running After Years opens into warm piano/trumpet greetings from Jim Watson and Nils Petter Molvaer. But when Manu Katche employs brushes to color the reserved, brassy chill of the Jon Hassell-like Slowing the Tides, we hear the true range of the drummer’s resourceful but crafty vocabulary.   

in performance: drive-by truckers

drive-by truckers: mike cooley, patterson hood, jay gonzalez, john neff and brad morgan. photo by danny clinch.

Leave it to Patterson Hood to take notice of one of rock music’s darkest and perhaps least commemorated anniversaries as last night’s Drive-By Truckers show roared into gear at Buster’s.

The evening marked 35 years since the Mississippi plane crash that claimed the lives of several members of the landmark Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Truckers have never been Skynyrd clones or even Southern rockers in any familiar sense, as this tireless 2 ¼ hour performance proved. Without a new album to promote, Hood and co-frontman Mike Cooley dug into the band’s catalogue and pulled songs from each of its nine studio albums. The tunes were fortified by hearty twang that sounded more Western than Southern (Sink Hole), Neil Young-style grunge (Heathens) and a redemptive roots hybrid that balanced old school country with Muscle Shoals soul (Mercy Buckets).

But the album that formed the show’s narrative arc was the 2002 opus Southern Rock Opera. Hood and Cooley ripped through nine tunes from the recording. But it was Hood’s pairing of the spoken word recitation The Three Great Alabama Icons (performed with slight updates) and the confessional The Southern Thing that placed the Skynyrd anniversary in proper perspective. The works underscored Hood’s long held notion of Southern “duality” – which translates into a pride in the South’s culture and embarrassment at its politics (“proud of the glory, stare down at the shame”).

The near capacity crowd took it all in, too – often singing along word to word to such unobvious Southern Rock Opera songs as Guitar Man Upstairs and Dead, Drunk and Naked. The album’s thematic and stylistic depth was enforced by a four song selection that served as a hearty encore: Cooley’s dark religious romance saga Zip City, Hood’s celebratory Let There Be Rock, Cooley’s Chuck Berry-meets-Georgia Satellites death march Shut Up and Get on the Plane (with the priceless lyric, “Your visions and your feelings, your bad dreams and intuitions are about as much use to me right now as a brand new set of golf clubs”) and Hood’s country lament Angels and Fuselage.

If the Skynyrd crash weighed on the band’s mind last night, the resulting performance served as one mighty wake.

in performance: birdland big band

tommy igoe. photo by rob shanhan.

“Welcome to Birdland,” said Tommy Igoe, leader, drummer and very vocal frontman of the Birdland Big Band last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts. But Igoe also offered an almost immediate disclaimer that “we know exactly where we are,” referencing the fact that his immensely popular New York ensemble is currently in the midst of its first tour away from home. But there was likely a deeper meaning to the remark. “Where we are” could also be read as a mission statement underscoring the fact that the band prides itself on a somewhat contemporary repertoire, even though it is named for the New York club (where the band maintains a weekly residency) that is a descendent of a jazz epicenter from the 1950s and early ‘60s.

The execution of this game plan proved quite fearsome. The band played with near flawless cohesion, abundant energy and a sense of intuition that honored not only the arrangements its musicians worked from but the rich compositional sense that was at the heart of the tunes. Fine examples included Chick Corea’s Armando’s Rhumba, which magnified not only the composer’s piano/violin design but also the Argentine hand clapping that ran through last night’s version (both literally as well as through Igoe’s percussive chatter) as though it was the ensemble’s native tongue. Just as commanding was the Mike and Lani Stern ballad Common Ground, which established a gorgeous ensemble stride under an equally lyrical alto sax lead from Nathan Childers, and the cheerfully complete big band re-imagining of Josef Zawinul’s fusion staple Birdland.

The only drawback to the performance was its odd, self-congratulatory air. Igoe devoted extended passages between tunes extolling the band’s popularity, power and intent in tones that bordered on rock star bravado. There’s nothing wrong with figuratively blowing your own horn now and then. But for a band that clearly has the musical goods to stand on its own, the constant sales pitches from the bandstand seemed amateurish, distancing and wildly unnecessary.

Even in the Birdland of today, artists that perform let the music do the talking. That’s one element of tradition Igoe might want to retain.

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