Archive for February, 2013

in performance: ladysmith black mambazo

ladysmith black mambazo.

Well, it wasn’t exactly the kind of serenade one expected on Fat Tuesday. But in its own way, last night’s sold out performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort was suitably ceremonious.

Granted, the acclaimed South African vocal ensemble’s songs were removed geographically, stylistically and perhaps even spiritually from the musical bacchanalia of New Orleans. But hearing the a capella group celebrating a child’s beauty (and, repelling the advances of an imposing witch doctor in the process) on Yinhle Lentombi was festive in an manner more poetic and reflective.

Throughout the two set, two hour concert, group leader Joseph Shabalala (even his name is musical) led a nine-member version of Mambazo through songs of peace and playfulness. Some were offered in English, although most were sung in zulu with ensemble movement that was less like dance and more like improvisational gymnastics. While the group included four of Shabalala’s sons, all of the singers, young and old, engaged in moves that promoted the kinds of aerial kicks that would have done 1982-era Van Halen proud.

Still, the elder Shabalala appeared and sounded more frail than in past Kentucky visits (the last was nearly a decade ago), which likely explained why he sat out for long stretches in both sets. In his stead, however were sons Thamsanga and Sibongiseni Shabalala. The former, the youngest of the siblings, employed a high, still-developing tenor during Paulina and King of Kings while the latter exhibited a deeper, more immediate lead on Rain, Rain, Beautiful Rain.

Just as appealing as the singing, and the robust group harmonizing it encompassed, were the song structures. In many cases – the show openers Ofana Naye and Unomathemba, among them – choruses were repeated like chants that, in turn, served as a foundation for all kinds of vocal and physical bedlam.

On Phansi Emgodini, a quiet labor anthem about miners’ rights to fair pay, the music essentially became bedrock for dances performed in pairs that were dramatically physical but deeply animated. Despite the tune’s comparatively heavy subject matter, the music quickly evolved into playtime.

The last word went to father Shabalala, alone onstage after an encore gospel medley framed around Amazing Grace, who offered a parting prayer of peace. All the revelry of Mardi Gras couldn’t have matched a moment so simple and exuberant.

mambazo and america

albert muzibuko, far left, with ladysmith black mambazo.

It is perhaps unavoidable to approach Ladysmith Black Mambazo and not be guided in part by American sensibilities.

After all, the multi-Grammy-winning Southern African vocal troupe was introduced to this country largely through collaborations with Paul Simon’s on his landmark 1986 recording Graceland, even though the a capella Mambazo was singing songs of peace, spiritualism and heritage over 25 years prior to the meeting.

A host of other Americans eventually flocked to the group’s enchanting music. In fact, Mambazo’s 2006 album, Long Walk to Freedom, teamed the group with such domestic celebs as Emmylou Harris, Natalie Merchant and Taj Mahal.

Shoot, Mambazo even once let their singing orchestrate a Life Savers commercial. How much more American can a South African group get?

But the real test comes with concert performances. In the wake of Graceland and the group’s first North American album release, 1987’s Simon-produced Shaka Zulu, Mambazo has toured the United States on a near-annual basis, singing songs mostly in the native Zulu tongue of isicathamiya. And yet, year after year, Stateside audiences seem to absorb enough soul and sentiment from the songs to comprehend at least a portion of the foreign lyrics.

African music. American ears. Strangely enough, the combination continues to work.

“There is no language barrier,” said Albert Mazibuko, who has been singing tenor with Mambazo since 1969. “In fact, it amazes me because the people, they understand the message. I think it’s because the music has its own language. With the music, you receive a feeling and that feeling tells what the song is about.

“I also think that people all over the world are facing the same problems, problems we try to address in our music. I think that’s why people always relate to our singing. So our mission is this – we want to tell people that they should be together and solve their problems and strive to do good things all the time.”

Here sits one of the most curious contrasts within Mambazo’s music. The ensemble’s singing is often pastoral – a fact that is perhaps not surprising given the high spiritual content of its material (among the group’s many in-progress recording projects is an album of American gospel music). But there are also songs representative of social, work and political life within a still-fragile post-Apartheid South Africa. And those tunes sound just as angelic as the spiritual works.

Among them is Phansi Enigodini (Deep Down in the Mines), a tune about native mine workers that has been absent from Mambazo’s repertoire in recent years. It is being revived for the group’s current United States tour, which comes to Frankfort’s Grand Theatre on Tuesday.

“South Africa has been free for almost 18 years now,” Mazibuko said. “But we still have some struggles. Some people still live in poverty. Some people when they work are still not enough paid. So the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider all the time.

“We brought back this mining song and the message that people should share the wealth of the country. We have also brought back those songs that talk about people who refuse to be involved with any violence. Because we see how the violence could come back to our culture.

“In December we were singing for our government, our President. All the government people were there and we performed some of these songs. They were laughing because we’re saying, ‘Be careful. Just treat people right.’ So I can say South Africa is a good country but we still face challenges. I hope those challenges will be conquered because they were conquered before.”

Mambazo is backing that pledge with more than just performance. Under construction at present is the Mambazo Academy, a school and studio to help promote the country’s native music among its youth.

“We just built a small place around Durban, which is easy to reach but is still in the countryside. We’re not trying to build a big one, so we’re going to start with a small one and it’s going so well. I believe we’re on the right track, so our dream is coming true. It’s a cultural center where the young people show their talent and where we have time to work with them.”

This month, though, Mambazo is doing what it does best – serving as performing musical and cultural ambassadors before American audiences. After 44 years, Mazibuko hasn’t tired of the job, especially since several of the group members are literally family – among them is his cousin, Mambazo founder and leader Joseph Shabalala. The current Mambazo lineup also includes Mazibuko’s brother and several nephews.

“We are a happy family on the road. It is always exciting. I was thinking yesterday morning, ‘Were so fortunate.’ Being part of this group keeps me young all the time. It makes me reflect on all of the good things that happens to me and then makes me want to grow more.”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs at 7:30 p.m. Feb.12 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. The performance is sold out.

grammy post-mortem 2013

zac brown and mavis staples at the grammy awards’ tribute to levon helm. photo by larry busacca/getty images.

Host LL Cool J dubbed last night 3 ½ hour Grammy Awards ceremony as The Greatest Music Show on Earth. That’s a bit of a stretch, to be sure. While it was more of a streamlined Grammy-cast compared to years past with no dominate winner, the same highs, lows and infuriations prevailed. Let’s dig up a few in this years Grammy post mortem.+ LL Cool J – An articulate and involving host, but also a choice that underscored the dominance of CBS stars as presenters. Self promotion lives on at the Grammys.

+ Taylor Swift – The night’s first and by far most bloated performance set Swift’s latest hissy fit pop hit in an Alice in Wonderland setting. This was what was known back in the day as a bad trip.

+ Elton John/ Ed Sheeran – The first of many duet/collaborative performances and one of the few that worked. Sir Elton sounded a bit ragged, but the unadorned guitar/piano duet was refreshing unforced.

+ Adele – Best acceptance line of the night: “We work so hard to make it look so easy.”

+ Mumford and Sons – I try and I try and I try to get into these guys, but it doesn’t work. Good performance drive, nice instrumentation, but, ultimately, weak songs.

+ Justin Timberlake – A splashy art deco-decorated performance that reminded us that Timberlake is a genuinely gifted singer. Too bad his performance had nothing to with the Grammys at hand. His record won’t be eligible until next year.

+ Rhianna – Nice to see her in a torchier moment without the glitz and dance marathons. But what was up with Mikky Ekko singing alongside her looking like a longshoreman?  

+ The Black Keys, Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – A technical mess with Dr. John lost in the mix. But the music still conjured some seriously cool ju-ju.

+ Bruno Mars, Sting, Rhianna, Ziggy and Damien Marley – A surprisingly spirited Bob Marley tribute that grew out of equally flattering Mars/Sting exchange. How nice when generations collide that can actually sing.

+ The Lumineers – No sale. Somehow this group discovered the lost, frightening plateau that links Arcade Fire and The New Christy Minstrels. Very scary.

+ Jack White – A two-song segment that shifted from Gothic hootenanny into over-the-top Led Zeppelin crunch. Jolly, discordant mischief.

+ Katy Perry – Best intro line of the night, when announcing Best New Artist: “I was never even nominated in this category and I have my own eyelash line.”

+ Fun – Rudimentary pop full of manufactured cheer wins Best New Artist over Frank Ocean and Alabama Shakes. Then they state in their acceptance speech, “I gotta go pee.” Nothing like a classy winner.

+ Carrie Underwood – Her performance was advertised as a “Grammy moment.” The big deal? Light images that projected off her dress. Well, she’s a shoe-in then for Best Performance by a Light Bulb.

+ Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Kenny Garrett – A wonderful, drummer-less version of Take Five that roped in Blue Rondo a la Turk as a coda for a tribute to the late Dave Brubeck. Then came the buzzkill – the immediate introduction of Ryan Seacrest.

+ All Star Tribute to Levon Helm – Elton John, Mavis Staples, T Bone Burnett, Mumford and Sons, Zac Brown and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard teamed up for The Band’s The Weight. Sister Mavis stole the show.

+ Babel – Mumford and Sons win Album of the Year over The Black Keys’ El Camino? Someone’s gonna pay for that.  

in performance: terry bozzio/tom shelley

terry bozzio.

“Now, let’s see what kind of trouble I can get into,” said Terry Bozzio as he sat down to the drums for a clinic that played out much more like a performance last night at the Okeika Shrine Temple.

If you were even remotely familiar with Bozzio’s performance abilities in rock and prog circles over the past four decades, which have mixed arena rock intensity with scholarly precision, then you had to hope the unsuspecting diners at a Shriners soup bean supper in an adjacent room liked percussion. They were about to get a blast of it that bordered on the atomic.

But the four solo drum pieces Bozzio conjured were most decidedly not drum solos. In other words, they were devoid of the usual rock star showmanship. Instead, the works were compositional in structure and often wildly harmonic in execution.

The first piece opened patiently with a light chatter of cymbals that served as a processional for a groove that briefly flirted with rhumba before settling into an unassuming rockish stride. The second worked off of passages of cymbal-free thunder that created orchestral-like textures. The third constructed a jazz ostinato under melodies with revolving door time signatures, resulting in a playfulness that recalled a very different musical timekeeper (in temperament more than tone) – Dave Brubeck. The fourth (and wildest) had Bozzio soloing over a tight, volcanic Latin groove that sounded like a prog variation.of Santana’s Jingo.

Bozzio later teamed with Tom Shelley, who opened the evening with more overtly clinical snippets of shakers, congas, sleigh bells, gongs and more played live over pre-recorded tracks (ranging from Miami Sound Machine to Gangham Style).

The resulting duet was essentially a suite, a continuous composition (none of the pieces were presented with titles) that moved from a free jazz-style prelude of bells and cymbals to a neo-funk shuffle to a rockish groove punctuated like a chant. During the later, Shelley stuck exclusively to congas as Bozzio built the piece into a lather of dizzying solo runs layered over a lean brutish rhythm.

Best of all, Bozzio’s performance stance was refreshingly disarming. As the evening progressed and the music grew more complex and physically involving, the drummer’s smiles broadened. Away from the formal concert stage and untethered by anything that resembled a traditional rock band setting, he played with a clarity that was muscular but still profoundly playful.

the different drummer

terry bozzio.

Regardless of which scenario wins out, Terry Bozzio knows there is a performer inside him fit for any occasion.

“I’ve never felt more free or more trusting of this intuitive side of myself that will go anywhere and do anything with anybody on anything,” said the acclaimed drummer who will present a clinic tonight in Lexington with fellow percussionist Tom Shelley. “I know that the guy who plays the drums that lives in my subconscious will show up and he will do something amazing. And I just love being able to watch that happen as I play.”

A San Francisco native, Bozzio came up through the jazz and pop ranks to tour and record extensively, between 1975 and 1986 with Frank Zappa, UK (where he replaced another lauded drummer, Bill Bruford) and Missing Persons. That set the stage for compositional and performance innovations for solo drum music as well as gigs and session work with such varied artists as Robbie Robertson, Jeff Beck,  Deborah Harry, Duran Duran and Korn.

While what brings Bozzio to town tonight is technically billed as a clinic sponsored by the Drum Center of Lexington (but presented down the street at the Oleika Shrine Temple), the evening will essentially be a performance. Bozzio wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think this show in particular may not have that much of the seminar thing,” he said. “We call it a drum clinic, but people come there to see you play, to see what you’ve got to offer them. That’s probably the most inspiring part. So yeah, a little demonstration, a little education, a question and answer period… that all helps But the focus of the thing is to go see a guy play on his own in a more intimate setting than you would if I were in a rock band.

“Drums are a passion. Some of us just have that just like other people have a passion for stamp collecting, I guess. In terms of the drumming community experience, these clinics have been some of the most rewarding things I’ve ever stumbled into.

“I went through the Zappa thing, the UK thing and the Missing Persons thing. By the mid ’80s, I was trying to be a singer-songwriter. Having sort of failed at that, I started to practice as meditation and therapy for myself. Then one day someone tapped me on the shoulder to do a drum clinic. I felt, at first, kind of ashamed that a ‘celebrity’ like myself would do a drum clinic. But it also frightened me.

“When you’re up onstage, you have sound reinforcement, so you’re louder than the audience. They have to be quiet. All those things are gone in a clinic. Sometimes you find yourself in a music store under harsh white florescent lights with all these drummers surrounding you watching every beat of sweat form on your forehead. So it’s pretty frightening. But having gone through that really made me stronger and made me realize that there is a group of individuals outside of the music business per se that just wants to hear you play by yourself. So this inspired me to get more and more solo drumming material.”

Bozzio will share tonight’s clinic with Shelley, head of Universal Percussion, which manufactures Bozzio’s drum heads. Each will perform a solo set and as well collaborative music.

“Most people that are in the drumming or music manufacturing industry, like Tom, are musicians. The reason they got into what they have is because they were originally players. And there comes a time in your life where you just go, ‘You know, I want to play.’ I think that’s where Tom is at. He has put together this amazing one-man show with laser lights and it’s all connected to his fingers and to MIDI, video and graphics – the whole shebang.”

Ahead for Bozzio after his run of clinics with Shelley is a brief smattering of UK dates (he hinted at more extensive work with the band in 2014) before jumping into a new ensemble project with fellow drummer Alex Acuna, bassist (and longtime friend and fellow Zappa alum) Patrick O’Hearn and EWI (electronic wind instrument) player Judd Miller.

“I’m into music that can grab your attention and keep it. That’s my feeling about it. I try and go out there and give the people something unique, authentic and different.”

Terry Bozzio and Tom Shelley will conduct a clinicat 6:30 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Oleika Shrine Temple, 326 Southland Dr. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 276-1827 or go to

in performance: vusi mahlasela

vusi mahlasela.

The range, clarity and sheer emotive drama of Vusi Mahlasela’s singing unfolded within the first few moments of a remarkable two-set performance last night at Berea College’s Phelps-Stokes Chapel. During the show-opening Ubuhle Bomhlaba, the famed South African artist and activist sang with in a sustained hum, an almost meditative conjuring of the celebratory spirits that seemed to be by his side for the duration of the performance. But as soon as the tune’s summery melody and Mahlasela’s angelic singing began to act like a lullaby, the vocals recoiled into a tense, muted but quite non-threatening growl. The lyrics were all sung in zulu, but the song’s proud and powerful attitude came through loud and joyously clear.

For the travelogue piece Say Africa, Mahlasela promoted the concept of Ubuntu, a sense of world awareness balanced by national pride. Like much of the repertoire, the song basked in sunny lyricism, the light but heartily rhythmic drive of a three-man rhythm section and a groove that sent a sizeable portion of the predominantly student audience into the aisles for dancing. More decisively propulsive songs like Woza, Miyela Africa and even the career-defining Mahlasela anthem When You Come Back furthered the crowd’s revelry.

Sure, it was wonderful to experience the almost combustible sense of joy within Mahlasela’s vocals and the sense of cultural identity that frames it. One of the show’s most moving moments, in fact, came during an introduction to Khululu Wethu when the singer described the cheers of an ‘80s-era crowd in South Africa that emerged when a portrait was circulated of the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, whose very image was banned during Apartheid. But the show’s most satisfying surprise came from the audience.

Late into the second set, around the time Mahlasela launched into Our Sand, one could look over at the clusters of dancers and witness diversity in effortless and beautiful motion. It wasn’t just blacks and white mingling. There were also youths, elders and students of Asian, Indian and rural American heritage.

It’s doubtful the lyrical content of the songs triggered their joy. But it’s a good bet Mahlasela’s musical might and intent did.

bonus tracks: terry bozzio on frank zappa

terry bozzio, patrick o’hearn, frank zappa and eddie jobson in 1976.

We spoke to drummer Terry Bozzio last weekend for a piece that will be posted on Friday regarding his clinic performance sponsored by the Drum Center of Lexington.

Due to space limitations, we had to exclude the following passage. Here Bozzio describes events leading up to his three-year stint with Frank Zappa, the guitarist, composer and bandleader that essentially introduced the world to the one of the most celebrated rock and prog drummers of the past four decades.

“I have to give credit to my teachers and my music education at College of Marin (in Marin County, California). I went there for two years and got an associate in arts degree as a commercial music major. When I left College of Marin, I immediately got a couple of show gigs in San Francisco and started playing with all the jazz guys there. Before you know it, I was one of the better known guys.

“My first recording experience was playing behind Jack DeJohnette, one of my favorite drummers. He was actually playing piano on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme with Joe Henderson and Eddie Henderson on saxophone and trumpet (the recording session was for trumpeter Luis Gasca’s 1974 album, Born to Love You). I fell into this amazing situation. Then when Frank Zappa had auditioned all the drummers in Los Angeles, he started looking in other towns. (Zappa keyboardist and future funk/fusion star George Duke called Eddie Henderson and asked if he knew any drummers and he said, ‘Yeah, Terry, the guy I played with on this record with me, is really good.’ So I got the audition with Frank and won it, although I didn’t think I was good enough.

“Zappa was 10 years older than me and a true genius. It was an incredible experience, an incredible learning experience. I was challenged and pushed and he brought things out in me that I didn’t know I could do – the character and acting development, ways to sing and play drums at the same time, odd time signatures. It was all stuff I didn’t know I could do.

“He was just wonderful. Always push, push, push, push, push. I ended up doing a movie (Baby Snakes), 10 albums and three world tours with him – orchestral stuff and Saturday Night Live, too. Just an amazing experience. It was like marine boot camp. From there, I’ll take credit for whatever talent I developed through the work I’ve done. But if it wasn’t for Frank Zappa, you wouldn’t know who the hell I am.”

vusi comes back

vusi mahlasela.

As one of the most cherished musical voices in post-Apartheid South Africa, Vusi Mahlasela has been consumed with communicating the spirit and songs of his homeland to any global ears that would receive them.

In his native township of Mamelodi (where he still resides) and throughout South Africa, there were plenty. As Apartheid was ending in the early ‘90s, he issued a song called When You Come Back that served as a call to exiles and political outcasts as well as the celebration that awaited their return.

The song has been viewed as an anthem ever since, as much for the angelic command of Mahlasela’s singing as for the lyrical message. In 1994, he sang it at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. In 2010, he performed at the World Cup in Soweto’s Orlando Stadium. And then there were the times he brought When You Come Back to audiences throughout the world.

So it seemed appropriate to commemorate the song’s 20th anniversary. And what better way to do that than with yet more music. Last month, Mahlasela released a new concert recording titled Sing to the People: Celebrating 20 Years of When You Come Back. He is now in the midst of United States tour that will include his first ever Kentucky performance. He will be the featured artist at a free convocation concert at Berea College on Thursday.

“No, I didn’t see this celebration coming,” Mahlasela said last week by phone from Mamelodi. “But I’m enjoying the fact that this music is still going and still going places, mixing with other musicians. I’ve really enjoyed that. Still, people tell me, ‘You’ve spent all this time being a performing artist, you should honor that. So I said, ‘OK, we will try to do that as well as celebrate this beautiful music.’ So clearly this is good. I’m glad that we did it.

“But I also like to surprise myself, I think. One day I listened back to this recording and thought, ‘Oh, wow. I definitely want to go with this.’”

Musical ability came quickly to Mahlasela as a child despite the fact that music itself was far from plentiful. African and American songs were either banned under Apartheid or unavailable due to a cultural boycott of South Africa set in place by the United Nations in protest of Apartheid. But sounds filtered through nonetheless.

“There was quite a bit of choral music in the schools. I heard a lot of a capella singing, as well. Music was part of many different vocations. There were songs and music playing for parties, weddings, funerals. There was music for church, for when a baby was born. There was music when it was time for harvesting or when the first rain came. The music told our history, of what has happened. It helped us come to understand why there were cultures and creations.

“But it was very difficult to hear music from other places. Even some African music we couldn’t hear because of the cultural boycott. But we did manage to hear some of the music on Radio Freedom. They played some music from America. But they also played music from home. We heard Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and the Dark City Sisters. That’s where we heard the music of Fela (Kuti). That’s where we heard the music from Mali. But elsewhere, it was very difficult. You could not hear it on radio or television.

“They (Apartheid) thought the African music would make us too proud of ourselves. They were afraid of the history of this music and of what it meant. But the lifting of the cultural boycott and the rise of the African National Congress meant a lot for our music and our country in letting the world know who we are.”

In recent years, several American artists have come to champion Mahlasela’s music, including South African-born Dave Matthews (who released Mahlasela’s last four albums on his ATO label), banjo pioneer Bela Fleck (who recruited the singer for his 2009 Africa-inspired Throw Down Your Heart album and tour) and bluesman Taj Mahal (who produced Mahlasela’s 2011 album Say Africa).

But Mahlasela’s truest heroes are those that led the cause of peace, freedom and solidarity in present day South Africa – specifically, Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“They gave me reason and hope to think one day, we will celebrate freedom.”

Vusi Mahlasela performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 7 at Phelps Stokes Chapel at Berea College. Admission is free. Call (859) 985-3000 or go to

giving enough rope

michael trent and cary ann hearst of shovels and rope.

Two nights before making their national television debut with an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent sound understandably excited and a touch nervous. Mostly, though, they seem bewildered.

The husband-and-wife team, better known as the self-contained rock hootenanny troupe Shovels and Rope, are flattered by the invitation. But they can’t help but wonder how years of touring in a van promoting a delightfully combustible blend of roots country charm, punkish instinct and jagged rock immediacy was about to bring them into America’s late night living rooms.

“Well, it is exciting,” Hearst said. “But it was also something we didn’t even know we wanted to do. We never necessarily fathomed that all of a sudden we would get to do something like this. But we’re going to do it and try not to be too nervous. Keep your fingers crossed.”

The Letterman appearance is just the latest bit of good fortune that has helped spread the word on Shovels and Rope. Of course, having its 2012 album, O’ Be Joyful, gather gushing reviews from such disparate sources as the Wall Street Journal, MTV Hive and National Public Radio didn’t hurt. Neither did a few co-billed concerts last fall with Jack White. But that’s just the celebration side of things. The magic of Shovels and Rope is the righteous racket it creates by discovering common ground between seemingly unlikely musical camps.

Hearst was born in Mississippi but grew up with in Nashville with a love of serious, roots driven country. Critics have compared her, vocally, to Dolly Parton. But a better parallel might be to the sass and grit of Lone Justice-era Maria McKee.

Texas via Colorado native Trent was the rock ‘n’ roller before he and Hearst began to gig in each other’s bands in their adopted hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. They soon discovered enough common musical ground to cut a duo record under their respective names titled Shovels and Rope – a reference to the tools of the trade that permeated the record’s plentiful crop of murder ballads.

“I played in rock bands forever,” Trent said. “Cary had mostly played in country bands. About the time of the first album, Cary became real fascinated with (veteran New York punk rockers) The Cramps while I was getting into (iconic Americana songsmith) Townes Van Zandt. So that first Shovels and Rope record was just something to do that let us experiment in those different genres. It’s just what came out.

“That’s why we didn’t want O’ Be Joyful to be an ‘Americana’ record. We didn’t want it to be an indie rock record or anything like that. The music just came out the way it was born.”

O’ Be Joyful’s jamboree-flavored romps also seem the product of what became the very existence Hearst and Trent led for years. They toured the country for year in a van as a two person act. There were no other musicians, no roadies, no help of any kind, really. Their only touring companion was their dog, affectionately and somewhat appropriately named Townes.

“The transportation thing is kind of funny,” Hearst said. “We travelled for several years in a 15 passenger van that we converted into a sort of traveling house. Now we’re even more self-contained in that we have a small RV that we travel in. We also travel now with a tour manager who does front-of-house sound and sometimes sells merch. And we bring Townes. It’s like a little traveling gypsy cart.”

You mean Shovels and Rope can now afford to have some help as it trucks across the country and, as of next month, overseas? Indeed, so. The duo is also hinting that it may also let up, ever so slightly, on what has been a brutish regimen of touring. 

“We’ve had tours where we’ve run ourselves into the ground,” Hearst said. “Some of that was just good old-fashioned dues-paying. When a gig comes along you take it because you never know if they will ever dry up. You’re just happy to be working. But our goal for this year is to set a more reasonable pace. We’ve done so much of the grunt work. I feel like we can kind of put it in third gear and still be plenty busy.”

Of course, you wouldn’t know that by its impending itinerary which has Shovels and Rope zipping through two weeks of Southern and East Coast tour dates, before leaping over the Atlantic for a performance in London. Then it’s back home for more shows in the States and a tour of Canada.

“We giggle at ourselves for going, ‘Oh, we’re going to be so jetlagged,” Hearst said. “Coming out of our mouths, that is pretty funny. Sure, it’s all work. But it’s all stuff that we’ve always wanted to do.”

Shovels and Rope perform at 10 tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $12. Call (859) 309-9499 or go to

Critic’s pick 265: Richard Thompson, ‘Electric’

The teaming of Brit folk/rock impresario Richard Thompson and Americana journeyman Buddy Miller on the former’s new album, Electric, is an alliance as obvious as it is overdue.

Since his days with the vanguard British troupe Fairport Convention, Thompson has forged  new songs and sounds inspired by the roots music of his homeland. In the process, he has become a guitarist and songwriter of great emotive sensitivity and severity. Miller has done pretty much the same thing on this these shores with vintage country music, although he is as visible today as a producer as he is a guitarist and composer.

That said, Electric should not be viewed as some kind of cross-continental summit or an encroachment of Thompson’s hearty British inspiration upon more domestic influences. In short, no one is not out to make a country record here.

What Miller provides are spacious yet concise sonic settings (all recorded in analogue, by the way) for Thompson’s songs. You can hear that at once in the album-opening Stony Ground as the percussive chatter of drummer Michael Jerome and an almost choral vocal moan gives way to the typically searing electric stride of Thompson’s guitar work.

Calling the record Electric might be somewhat beside the point, though. Sure, we get joyous torrents of Thompson’s wiry playing in solos that erupt out of the amplified folk dance Sally B, the modestly Americanized shimmer of Good Things Happen To Bad People and the album’s true wild card – a blast of surf-style groove called Straight and Narrow. But there are equally striking acoustic moments amid Electric’s amplified adventures. It is within those tales that the depth and detail of Thompson’s songwriting is best displayed.

Another Small Thing in Her Favor is the latest entry of Thompson’s rogues gallery of love-gone-wrong songs, depicting a sense of heartbreak that is quietly devastating and not in the least bit sentimental (“She’ll find some other poor pilgrim who’s braver”).

Electric’s two best acoustic reveries close the album. The Snow Goose is vintage Thompson: stark, poetic and disquieting (“Northern winds will cut you, northern girls will gut you; leave you cold and empty like a fish on the slab”). Mournful harmonies from Alison Krauss further heighten the song’s dark beauty.

But love offers salvation on Saving the Good Stuff for You. Accented by the violin of Nashville session great Stuart Duncan, the song is a waltz that tempers festering regret (“I’m glad that you never knew me when I was out of control”) with redemptive purpose (“I got it all out of my system; my heart, it is tested and true”).

In this instance, the music is all relaxed and unplugged. But the sentiments? They couldn’t be more electric.

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