Archive for February, 2013

Critic’s pick 268: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, ‘Texas Flood,’ and Fleetwood Mac, ‘Rumours’ (reissues)

Stevie Ray VaughanHow do you reawaken new generations to decades-old albums that, despite their career-defining popularity in another era, have essentially been pushed aside over time?

Simple. You do the same thing everyone does when you want to command attention. You offer a tasty bonus.

Two new reissues of records that completed the pop makeover of the veteran Brit blues brigade Fleetwood Mac and introduced the world to Texas guitar slinger Stevie Ray Vaughan do exactly that by including full bonus discs of unreleased concert material cut as their hit studio counterparts solidified the artists’ stardom.

We won’t waste time here rekindling praise for Vaughan’s 1983 debut record, Texas Flood, or Fleetwood Mac’s landmark 1977 chart-topper, Rumours. Consult the history books instead or, better yet, give both a fresh spin. They remain incendiary works.

Instead, let’s examine the new treats.

Vaughan’s bonus disc is devoted to an hour’s worth of white-hot Lone Star blues, soul and guitar jubilation from a single October 1983 concert in Philadelphia. As soon as the show-opening Testify kicks in, we are reminded of two performance attributes that made Vaughan’s guitar work so enchanting.

The first is obvious: the ability to be a monster soloist with blistering, elongated guitar lines that would stretch with voice-like qualities. That’s the sound that regularly and somewhat rightly brought on mountains of comparisons to Jimi Hendrix. But the second quality is less heralded. As Testify also reveals, Vaughan was an equally wicked rhythm player. The tune kicks around a chunky groove, turning it inside out but staying in glorious time as Double Trouble’s Tommy Shannon, on bass, and Chris Layton, on drums, fall into the groove. A seriously funky jam ensues.

The Hendrix parallel is addressed head-on with Voodoo Chile (mistitled on the reissue as Voodoo Child), a tune Vaughan would essentially make his own in the years to come. But the treat is when the guitarist puts on the brakes for a slow, seething version of Tin Pan Alley. That’s where you hear Vaughan for what he truly is: a giant of a bluesman.

Fleetwood-MacThe bonus disc to Rumours is pulled from four summer concerts that Fleetwood Mac gave in 1977, a time when the band all but owned pop radio. The performances aren’t revelatory, but they are certainly revealing. Without the studio sheen, Fleetwood Mac resorts to its primary strength: the rhythm section of bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood. Toss in the guitar work of a young Lindsey Buckingham, and the music skyrockets from pristine pop into some rather immediate rock ’n’ roll, as shown by denser, muddier readings of Go Your Own Way and Monday Morning.

The melodic appeal remains. But what fun it is to spread some dirty Rumours for a change.

In performance: Branford Marsalis Quartet

branford marsalis

Branford Marsalis.

One doesn’t normally associate the dramatics and dynamics of a jazz artist, especially one as heralded as Branford Marsalis, with a stage move. But Tuesday night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond, the multi-Grammy winning saxophonist and bandleader came up with one, whether he realized it or not, that was literally in step with the cool and wildly adventurous music conjured by his quartet.

In short, after completing a solo on soprano or tenor sax, he did an about-face and walked to the back of the bandstand. Admittedly, that’s been a Marsalis performance trademark for decades. But last night, with the quartet members situated in such close proximity to one another on a huge, starkly lit stage, Marsalis’ exits gave the illusion of a disappearing act into darkness.

That was a telling move to boot, as every completed Marsalis solo simply shifted the focus to the quartet’s other three titan members: pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jason Faulkner.

For example, Calderazzo’s show-opening The Mighty Sword (one of five compositions during the 95 minute concert pulled from the Marsalis Quartet’s new Four MFs Playin’ Tunes album) used a piano intro rich in Thelonious Monk-style fancy as a set-up to a darting soprano run by Marsalis. Then the saxophonist vanished, leaving the remaining trio to engage in a series of rugged rhythmic skirmishes before closing ranks around Marsalis, who strolled back out of the darkness at tune’s end as casually as he had entered it.

Such playfulness was magnified when the group took on Monk music directly with a cover of the jazz legend’s Teo that balanced Calderazzo’s meaty, modal playing with Marsalis’ tenor lead.

But the killer was a second Calderazzo tune, the sumptuous ballad As Summer into Autumn Slips. Performed as a 20-minute suite of sorts, the piece began with ensemble exchanges that drifted between the atmospheric and the freely improvisational, with soprano sax playing off ripples of piano and percussion. Marsalis eventually did his disappearing act again, only to reappear for a coda that shifted the focus entirely to a furious solo by Faulkner. The tune then subsided to a simple, metronomic bass riff from Revis.

An encore of Tiger Rag flipped on the New Orleans party lights. It was great fun. But the concert’s truly enticing moments came when Marsalis disappeared into the darker recesses of his quartet’s remarkable repertoire.

The jazz arrival of Justin Faulkner

branford marsalis quartet

Branford Marsalis Quartet: pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and drummer Justin Faulkner.  Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson.

Purely in terms of social standing, Justin Faulkner knew exactly where he stood when joining the Branford Marsalis Quartet.

For instance, he knew he was teaming with one of the most prestigious jazz combos in the country. But given the fact that the band had just parted ways with its longstanding drummer, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Faulkner was also aware it was experiencing its first personnel shift in over a decade. And since he signed as the quartet’s new drummer on his 18th birthday, he was throwing himself in with a pack of jazz pros that were over twice his age.

Adjusting to all of that simply proved to be the latest step in Faulkner’s rapid maturation as a professional musician. But the music – the volcanically intense jazz that has long been a signature of the Marsalis Quartet? That was an altogether different matter.

“Being around the guys in the band was actually pretty easy because they treated me as an equal,” said Faulkner, 21, who will perform tonight with the Marsalis Quartet at the EKU Center for the Arts. “There has never been an underlying factor of ‘Oh, he’s a kid. Let’s treat him like a child.’ From day one, they said, ‘OK, listen. This is manhood now. You have to step up and be accountable for all of your actions and for all of the things you don’t do but should be doing.’ So in terms of camaraderie, it’s always been really easy to get along with the guys.

“Now in terms of music, that was a horse of a different color completely. I mean, I had never played music that intense in my life. There is an intensity at work that I feel not a lot of people really understand. Branford understands the intensity of the John Coltrane Quartet. He understands the intensity of the Count Basie Band. He brings those elements and more to the stage.

“To be honest with you, after the first song of my first gig, I thought I was going to pass out. I was going, ‘OK. That’s the gig, right?’ And Branford was like, ‘No, man. We have six or seven songs left.’ I mean, I was soaking wet. I was sitting there hyperventilating. I drank, it must have been, four or five bottles of water. I was terrified.”

While the Philadelphia native held great respect for the years his new bandmates – saxophonist Marsalis, pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis had played together (“They had been playing almost as long as I’d been alive”), Faulkner soon came to realize they were all also still students of the music.

“The day that I joined the band, they said, ‘OK, here is a ton of music you have to learn.’ They gave me records upon records – at least 100 gigabytes of records. And I’m still figuring those records out. But the beautiful thing is they are too. Even though these guys are masters in their own right, everyday is a new chapter for them. Everyone is still exploring the music. They are exploring the depth of emotion that goes into the music. And that’s inspiring for me.

“Branford says all the time, ‘The day I’m no longer a student of the music is the day that I should probably stop.’ Look, my first jazz concert was the Branford Marsalis Quartet. That was when I was in fifth grade. So it was really important for me to figure out what my role was in the band.”

Several shades of that role are revealed on Faulkner’s recording debut with the Marsalis Quartet, 2012’s unceremoniously titled Four MFs Playin’ Tunes. There he propels the joyously combustible combo swing of Calderazzo’s The Mighty Sword, glides gently under Marsalis’ delicately mischievous soprano sax lead on Revis’ Maestra and conjures a New Orleans groove that smooths out into vigorous bop on the Thelonious Monk gem Teo.

“Branford’s philosophy is that he wants to get to the soul of the music in two takes,” the drummer said. “And if you don’t, well, that’s what’s going on the record. Once you start doing four, five, six, seven takes, you’re just chasing your tail. As much of the music as you’re going to get will happen in the first two takes.

“I’ve done other recording sessions where we spent a week in the studio and it was great. It was a different experience. But doing just a few takes almost puts a sense of urgency in you where you have to realize that, ‘OK, I only have two times to actually figure this song out, so let me see what the total arc of the song is. Working that way has been a very, very interesting experience.”

Branford Marsalis Quartet performs at 8 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $50-$60. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

Outside the Boxcar


the boxcars: keith garrett, ron stewart, harold nixon, john bowman and adam steffey. photo by dean hoffmeyer.

When a band take The Boxcars as its name, the imagery begins to flow.

You picture music in motion that is constant and unhurried, yet still urgent. You sense songs with a folklorish sense of longing, distance and wanderlust.

In the case of All In, the second and newest album by this all-star bluegrass collective, all those topics and attitudes apply. The recording runs along the brisk but desperate sideroads of Alone and Wondering Why, travels back to the Depression Era with the dark orphans saga Crawford County and settles briefly under the cautiously shady shelter of Old Hollow Tree.

The music bears a lightness, a delicate and harmonious acoustic accent devoid of the kind of narrative and melodic sentimentality that has made a lot of contemporary bluegrass sound like modern country music. Credit that to the hearty traditional streak that runs throughout All In – especially the four tunes penned by Boxcars guitarist Keith Garrett. But toss in a patiently brewed version of Earl Scruggs’ I’ve Lost You, and the extent of the band’s roots-friendly journeys is revealed.

While The Boxcars may still be a new name to some, despite a hearty showing at last year’s International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual awards ceremony (where it won honors for Instrumental Group of the Year). But its personnel should be familiar to even the most casual of regional bluegrass fans.

Let’s start with bassist Harold Nixon and banjoist Ron Stewart, both of whom put in six years with J.D. Crowe and the New South about the time their Grammy nominated album Lefty’s Old Guitar was being constructed.

Stewart stuck to fiddle during that time. No need for another banjo picker when Crowe is in the band. In The Boxcars, however, fiddle is handled primarily by John Bowman, another Crowe alum who played bass during his brief New South tenure. He is perhaps better known for an extensive run with The Isaacs and, for about a year and a half, Alison Krauss and Union Station, where he played guitar ahead of Dan Tyminski.

Another Union Station veteran, mandolinist Adam Steffey, who later co-founded Mountain Heart, completes the lineup. But he also performed with The Isaacs.

Shoot, you need to jump aboard a boxcar just to keep up with where these guys have been, much less where they are going. On Saturday, though, The Boxcars’ travels take the band to Meadowgreen Park Music Hall in Clay City. Blue River will open.

The Boxcars perform at  7 p.m. Feb. 23 at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, 303 Bluegrass Lane in Clay City. Tickets are $12. Call (606) 663-9008.

Doyle Lawson to sub for IIIrd Tyme Out at WoodSongs

Doyle Lawson

Ahoy, bluegrass mates. The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour will swap one classic string band for another at its Feb. 25 taping at the Lyric Theatre. Due to an illness within the band, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out are postponing. But look at who is the replacement – Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, the very ensemble whose early alumni members formed IIIrd Tyme Out in the first place.

The multi-stylistic Northeastern pop troupe Lake Street Dive will also perform on Monday’s bill.

For reservations, call (859) 252-8888.


Critic’s pick 267: Wayne Shorter Quartet, ‘Without a Net’

It seems only fitting that the first notes of Wayne Shorter’s new concert recording, Without a Net, go to someone else. A masterful composer for the past five decades and a saxophonist of intense invention for equally as long, Shorter (who turns 80 this year) has rightly been hailed as one of the most important and influential jazz artists of several generations. But part of his genius comes in knowing how to operate in gifted company, and when to let that company have its say.

So it is on Orbits, the introductory tune from Without a Net. It’s an original composition that dates to 1966, when Miles Davis cut it on his album Miles Smiles with the famed group that included Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.

The original version was a darting, lyrical dash, with Davis and the young Shorter matching wits. The intro on the Without a Net version, all stark and ominous, comes from Danilo Perez, the pianist in the extraordinary quartet that Shorter has led for more than a decade. The piano rumbles with the sort of dark, askew motion that brings modern stylist Matthew Shipp to mind. When Shorter enters on soprano sax (he played tenor on the Davis version), his voicing approximates a court jester, with a joyous bounce that counters Perez’s doomsday prelude. Then the melody lightens and takes shape with a musical will that separates it forever from the days of Miles Smiles.

Without a Net later offers a similar facelift to Plaza Real, a forgotton relic from 1983’s Procession, the first post-Jaco Pastorius album by Weather Report, the champion fusion band that Shorter co-piloted with Josef Zawinul during the ’70s and ’80s. The Procession version was built around a jungle of keyboard atmospherics that included a melodeon-like chant. On Without a Net, Shorter and Perez cut to the chase (or in this case, the song’s chorus) and forge a sunny duet for piano and soprano. With rugged support from bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, Shorter’s sax lead builds to a hearty boil but then gracefully deflates.

The joys simply mount from there, culminating in a 23-minute suite, Pegasus, that brings in the Imani Winds for a sound that further excavates bits from Shorter’s past for a light orchestral romp that eventually yields the record’s most devilish playing from Shorter and Blade.

But even that level of thrill-seeking pales next to the playfulness that guides Flying Down to Rio, a retooled theme from the 1933 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film of the same name, with Shorter and Perez engaging in colorful exchanges, meaty solo passages and, ultimately a conversational tone that sounds undeniably youthful.

blues from a honeybear

black joe lewis.

Joe Lewis knew he had to stand out. He had no other choice.

Growing up in Austin, Tx. – the city that lays claim to the title of “live music capitol of the world” – the singer and guitarist was surrounded by bands of every style and sound. Lots of practiced ones, too – acts that would conceivably intimidate a young artist that wasn’t just in search of his own musical voice, but one that was still learning how to sing and play.

“Austin is just the same as anywhere else, really,” said the artist professionally known as Black Joe Lewis. “You just have to have your own sound. You have so many other people trying to do the same thing that it takes a little more to stand out in front of everyone else. They’re all doing the same thing, so you’ve just got to have your own sound. It’s just that in Austin, we have a lot of really good bands, so it’s hard to do that.”

So Lewis went about forging a sound rooted in the blues that wasn’t the blues. It was wilder, like something fried up hot and spicy in a rural Southern juke joint. But there was also a smoothness at times – not studio processed spit-and-polish, mind you. But a soulful flow that was more in line with vintage rhythm and blues. So Lewis signed up a horn section. Then there was the matter of his guitarwork. It possessed the scorched, jagged immediacy of numerous rock ‘n’ roll generations.

So what do you have when you mesh up these roots-driven ideas? You get a singer and ensemble called Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears.

All of the sounds that go into the Honeybears’ big, brassy groove stem back to Lewis’ childhood and music that circulated in his home. But that wasn’t all he heard.

“Blues and R&B were around when I was growing up,” Lewis said. “My dad really liked soul music and stuff like that. But I didn’t really partake in that until I was older. I always thought, ‘Oh, that’s what old dudes listen to.’

“Once I got through high school, I started getting into Jimi Hendrix as well as whatever else was around me. Nirvana was big back then, and Stone Temple Pilots. I used to listen to a lot of hip hop growing up. (The Memphis rap duo) 8Ball & and MJG were probably my favorite group back then. Then I just started expanding my musical tastes as I got older.”

The catalyst for creating his sounds, though, came not from a particular artist or recording, but from a vocation – specifically, a period in his early ‘20s when Lewis worked in an Austin pawn shop.

“That’s where I got my first guitar at. Got it at a discount, too. I kind of fiddled around with that for a few years until I figured out if I wanted to try and play in a band.

“I actually grew up outside of Austin, the south side of it, and moved into the city when I was probably 23 or so. My neighbors at the first place I lived were in a band. That’s where I got the idea. I didn’t know you could travel around and party and make a living. So I wanted to try that. But I barely knew how to play, so I started hanging out with other musicians, picking up what I could and I slowly built my way up to where I’m at now.”

“Now” translates into a smattering of EP and indie discs and two albums cut with the Honeybears for the acclaimed Americana label Lost Highway with another Austin-ite, Spoon drummer Jim Eno, as producer.

The newest of the two is 2011’s Scandalous, which serves as a fine summation of Lewis rock/soul/blues hybrid. The album opening Livin’ in the Jungle slips from a brassy soul intro undercut with Lewis’ coarse guitar colors into a furious funk groove. Mustang Ranch, on the other hand, is all turbo-charged, rockabilly-greased propulsion. But on the album closing Jesus Took My Hand, the music’s roots-savvy sound turns primal with a guitar-hook that sticks in your head long after the song’s four minute ministry has had its say.

Capping off this roots music roughhousing is Lewis’ singing, a wail that is as soulful and unrefined as his guitar chops.

“I’ve never really considered myself to be the best singer around,” he said. “When I started, I just kind of sang quietly. Actually, I was kind of scared of singing with anyone. Then it turned into where I started screaming all the time.

“From there, I just learned how to use my sound. I figured it out just by doing it. It was trial by fire. I guess that’s what gives me my own style.”

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears/The Yellow Belts perform at 10 tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Save. Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 day of show. Call (859) 309-9499 or go to

in performance: the who

the who’s roger daltrey during saturday’s performance of “quadrophenia” at the kfc yum! center in louisville. herald-leader photos by timothy d. easley.

One of the many telling moments in last night’s grand nostalgia ride by The Who at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, a show dominated by its 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia, came within the opening minutes. There, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, the band’s surviving members, played The Real Me against huge projected images of their former, more youthful selves.  As if undertaking a complete performance of a mammoth work that is nearly four decades old wasn’t enough, the Who chieftains, both on the cusp of 70, pitted themselves against equally visual representations of the past. Find “the real me” in that.

pete townshend.

For the most part, though, Daltrey and Townshend were up to the task. By doubling the lineup The Who has toured with for roughly 15 years to 10 musicians (three keyboard players and a two man horn section were the additions), Quadrophenia came to life with bold, orchestral color. As such, the key ingredients usually downplayed (or missing altogether) when the band has taken this music to the stage before – specifically, piano, synthesizers and brass – – were in rich display, from the horns that drove 5:15 (truly one of rock music’s great mass transit songs) to the regal synths unveiled for the finale of Love Reign O’er Me.

The two lost Who members – drummer Keith Moon (who died in 1978) and bassist John Entwistle (who died in 2002) – made video cameos, further pitting the present day Who against the past. Entwistle was featured in a lengthy bass solo at the end of 5:15 that was played in tandem with the very spirited live battering of present day Who drummer Zak Starkey.  Moon “returned” to sing the refrain of Bellboy. One of the performance’s most genuinely moving turns came when the video screens captured a beaming smile from the live Daltrey during Moon’s video rampage.

Vocally, the Who is a pretty ragged bunch these days.  Daltrey seemed to know his limits and skirted the higher notes and most of the screaming crescendos. Townshend, when he remained in the light mid register he normally sang in, was fine.  For some reason, though, he often reached downward for lower, guttural expression – a sort of bluesman’s bravura. When he did, his singing simply flatlined.  Younger brother Simon Townshend played rhythm guitar and helped flesh out several ensemble harmonies.  He also took a mighty vocal lead on one of Quadrophenia’s  great unsung (and most restless) anthems, I’ve Had Enough.

The 2 ¼ hour performance – performed without intermission or encore (leaving, as Townshend put it, “no time for coffee and biscuits”) – wound down with a very capable run of five true Who hits (Who Are You, Behind Blue Eyes, Pinball Wizard, a still-rapturous Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Get Fooled Again). But the show closer was a surprise, an acoustic version of Tea and Theatre from 2006’s Endless Wire, the only new studio album released by The Who since 1982. The song pared the band to just its two leaders for a weary but affectionate reverie.

Quadrophenia was the feast – and a satisfying one, too. But Tea and Theatre was the after dinner cigar, a quiet conversation piece between The Who’s glorious past and its more grizzled but content present.

Big thumbs up also to opening act Vintage Trouble, an energetic, upbeat Southern California foursome with a singer (Ty Taylor) that dispensed James Brown-level vocals and stage moves and a three man rhythm section that countered his soul demeanor with ‘70s arena rock chops.  Definitely a band to keep an ear out for.

times of the temptations

nate evans, center, with the temptations revue.

As a child, Nate Evans knew the life he wanted to lead, the people he wanted to meet and the job he wanted to land. What he didn’t foresee were the kinds of artistic legacies he would help fortify in realizing those goals.

As a vocalist that has clocked time with two veteran pop/soul ensembles, The Impressions and The Temptations, Evans has helped preserve and revitalize an entire musical era.

During the ‘70s, when he worked in a regrouped version of the Chicago pop soul troupe The Impressions, he became friends with most of the soul and R&B giants from the previous decade, including Wilson Pickett, Walter Jackson and the cornerstone members of The Temptations – David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Dennis Edwards. When the latter three decided to tour as a new Temptations group in the late ‘80s, dubbed The Temptations Revue, they recruited Evans. He has served as a Temptation ever since.

“I had a dream at eight years old of what I wanted to do with my life,” said Evans, who will perform with the current Temptations Revue lineup (Ricky Stanley, Reggie Reed, Ollie Boles, and Lawrence Jefferson) tonight at the Lyric Theatre. “And by the time I was 14, I was already doing it. I just love singing.

“You know the old saying, ‘Anytime you go to work doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I love this. This is what I do. I don’t do anything else. I sing all the time. I was friends with all the greats – Wilson, Walter, The Chi-Lites, Don Cornelius, everybody from back in the day. I miss these guys because it seems like the music they made is just gone.”

That’s why for the last two-plus decades, Evans has devoted himself to keeping one of those names from the past in front of pop audiences of the present – the classic Motown vocal troupe The Temptations.

There are several other acts today serving the same mission, including one led by Otis Williams, the only surviving member of the group’s original lineup, and another overseen by Edwards, Evans’ former touring mate and longtime friend.

“Here’s the thing,” Evans said. “We all pay tribute to The Temptations. Otis Williams, he’s paying tribute to his own group and himself. Dennis Edwards is paying tribute to himself and his group. And that’s what I do. I pay tribute to my friends, the ones that I sang with – David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Dennis Edwards. We take you back to those times when they did The Way You Do the Things You Do, Since I Lost My Baby, Who You Gonna Run To. We take you back to a time that was good.”

Touring now with a production titled A Tribute to Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, Evans’ Temptations Revue is highlighting the most prominent vocalists behind the Temptations’ signature hits.

Kendricks was the high tenor voice that gave life to The Way You Do The Things You Do (which, in 1964, became The Temptations’ first Top 20 hit) while Ruffin’s meatier soul shout propelled My Girl (the group’s first No. 1 hit, also from 1964). Ruffin died in 1991. Kendrick succumbed to cancer a year later.

“Eddie and I were running buddies,” Evans said. “We would hang out together, go out to clubs together. Whenever you saw me, you saw him. He lived in Atlanta and I lived in Atlanta. So we hung out together all the time. I knew them all of them as friends before I joined the group. We did tours together when I was with the Impressions.

“I remember asking Fred Cash of The Impressions one time, ‘Fred, back in the day, you guys kept getting hits, hits, hits, hits. Who else has had the hits?’ He said, ‘Them five brothers from Detroit, The Temptations. When they came out, everybody was imitating what they was doing.”

The Temptations Revue: A Tribute to Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin performs at 7 tonight Feb.15 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third St. Tickets are $35, $55. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to

critic’s pick 266: jim james, ‘regions of light and sound of god’

There are instances on Regions of Light and Sound of God, the new and profoundly contemplate solo album from Louisvillian Jim James, when one can’t help but think of Van Morrison.

It’s not a matter of style or sound, really. Yet within in the grooves sits a mix of yearning, reflection and spiritual release that could have been plucked right out of Morrison’s mighty back catalogue. It’s just that in lieu of the latter’s Celtic fancy, Regions of Light favors a predominantly one-man-band sound that employs ambient orchestration, trip-hop beats and vocals that shift from plaintive contentment to otherworldly wonder.

In other words, this is music that, like Morrison’s greatest songs, reaches for the heavens, knowing all too well how unobtainable they can be.

“Lost in the world, it seemed,” James sings in Know Til Now. “Caught. At a loss for words. I didn’t know ‘til now.” Sung essentially as an unapologetic confession (“How could I have known how sweet life could be?”), the tune’s atmospheric epiphany is colored by twilight hued keyboards, mantra-like beats and a vocal falsetto that sounds stuck in the stratosphere with all intentions of moving upward. It is equal parts funk parade (as shown by an interlude of fuzzy synth beats), space age surf (think the Beach Boys at their most melancholic with a Radiohead rewiring) and soul affirmation (the farthest reaches of James’ singing bring to mind – no joke – Marvin Gaye).

You could play spot-the-influence all day long on Regions of Light. Actress, which is probably the closest the album veers to James’ music with My Morning Jacket, recalls John Lennon, especially in the song’s aggressive chorus, while Dear One is one of many bits of homemade spiritual electronica that would be at home on any number of Todd Rundgren albums.

James doesn’t tackle everything himself on Regions of Light. Longtime friend Dave Givan play drums while a pair of prized Lexingtonians – Emily Hagihara and Ben Sollee, add percussion and strings, respectively. But James unquestionably dominates with music that dances between retro and futuristic and full circle lyrics that search for change while celebrating the here and now.

No wonder the album’s 38 minute running time skips by in an instant. But then, the speed of life (and, perhaps, afterlife) is part of what makes Regions of Light so fascinating, as shown by one of its most absorbing songs, a lullaby of change and return titled Of the Mother Again.

“Nothing ever stays the same way for long,” James sings. “Good or bad, short and sweet, skip a beat, close your eyes and it’s gone.”

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