Archive for March, 2013

Critic’s pick 270: David Bowie, ‘The Next Day’

the next dayPrior to the occasion of his 66th birthday earlier this year, David Bowie had effectively disappeared. He had not released a new studio recording since 2003 and hadn’t been seen onstage since a heart attack cut short an extensive world tour a year later. Since then, the word on the atypically absent Bowie was that he had retired.

But in January came word of the prophetically titled The Next Day, an album that Bowie had worked on in secret with longtime producer Tony Visconti for two years. The title suggested a new chapter in the career of one of rock ’n’ roll’s most colorful participants. Yet the songs, all streamlined with a musical and lyrical directness, echoed bits and pieces from Bowie albums that date to the ’70s. And if you think the new record’s title suggests promise, be warned. This is a dark and often dour work. “Here I am, not quite died; my body left to rot in a hollow tree,” Bowie sings over an infectious, guitar-hued grind in the chorus of The Next Day’s title tune.

What the circumstances add up to is this: The Next Day is one of the first truly great major label albums of 2013 and Bowie’s strongest work since 1977’s Heroes (which The Next Day oddly mimics in its cover art).

Credit Visconti for much of the album’s lean, cohesive sound. The songs are all constructed on fabrics of guitar created by stylists Gerry Leonard, David Torn and veteran Bowie sidekick Earl Slick. Together they fortify the dark jangle of The Stars (Are Out Tonight), a true love song to the heavens, and the harsher staccato drills of How Does the Grass Grow, one of two potent anti-war rants (the more vitriolic but dance savvy I’d Rather Be High is the other).

Of course, the primary fascination, as always, rests with Bowie himself. When he plays starmaker on (You Will) Set the World on Fire, a tune that can’t help but be viewed with a hint of irony in the American Idol age of instant celebrity status, Bowie recalls his majestic mid-’70s heyday. Of course, the song’s powerful hooks help the cause. But on the album-closing Heat, he sails out into space, just as he did more than 40 years ago, questioning identity and purpose in a beautiful cosmic haze.

The Next Day is the album you didn’t expect from Bowie only because no one expected to hear from him again at all. Once its music takes hold, you will recognize fragments of a reconstituted pop voice. Its battle cry is powerful, vital and delightfully disturbing.

In Performance: Mike Scott and Steve Wickham

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Mike Scott with Mr. Yeats

There was more than a suggestion of irony in the air at the Lyric Theatre last night. How else do you explain a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Hour that set the works of one of Ireland’s greatest literary figures to music by a Scotsman – all with St. Patrick’s Day less than a week away?

But the merging of William Butler Yeats poetry with the melodies and pop turns of Mike Scott, chieftain of post-punk folk revisionists The Waterboys was an astonishingly flattering fit. Perhaps it was because Scott has lived so much of his life in and out The Waterboys in Ireland that borderlines have ceased to matter. Maybe it was his discovery of a genuine musicality within the Yeats poetry he chose to compose to – an epiphany emphasized last night by the unlikely blues feel he brought to The Lake Isle of Innisfree, the churchy ambience that underscored White Birds and, best of all, the near psychedelic delicacy draped around Song of Wandering Aengus. Or it could have been the accompaniment of the schooled Dublin fiddler and longtime Waterboys ally Steve Wickham, who injected Yeats’ Mad as the Mist and Snow with serene Celtic flair that was spry, lyrical and, yes, a touch mad.

The bulk of the program was pulled from the recent Waterboys album An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, a recorded variation of the tribute show Scott has been touring with for years (it has its North American premiere next week in New York). But there were other delights as well, like a two song encore of Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Passin’ Thru that tossed the Waterboys’ Scots/Irish spiritualism straight into Americana pastures. The piece de resistance, however, was a true St. Patrick’s treat – a version of the classic Waterboys hit Fisherman’s Blues that emphasized the effortless Celtic soul in Wickham’s playing and the sleek Hammond organ support of Nashvillian Paul Brown.

A footnote: the WoodSongs broadcast included a few readings of Yeats’ poetry sans music. Among them was the jocular A Drunken Man’s Praise of Sobriety, read with relish by Alltech founder/president/brewmeister PearseLyons. Talk about irony.

The Appointed Waterboy

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Mike Scott

Collaborators have always been serious business for Mike Scott. Perhaps that’s why he has sided so extensively with so few of them during his three-decade musical odyssey with The Waterboys.

Early on, the Scottish-born songsmith pretty much handled everything for the band: writing, musicianship, production. Among his few lasting collaborators were saxophonist Anthony Thistlethwaite, who helped define the band’s earliest music; Karl Wallinger, the keyboardist who bridged the band’s post-punk beginnings to broader pop visions (he eventually formed World Party); and fiddler Steve Wickham, a valued link to folk traditions who remains integral to Scott’s music to this day.

With 1984’s This is the Sea album and its 1988 followup Fisherman’s Blues, having established Scott and the Waterboys as an international pop force, a different and immensely deeper collaborator came into view. He wasn’t a rocker, but he was viewed as a rebel voice. His lyrics launched a project that would take Scott two decades to complete. There was a hurdle to this partnership, however. The collaborator had been dead for 50 years.

His name was William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet who became one of the most revered literary figures of his day. Thus began a work in which Scott, who long ago had moved to Ireland, would set Yeats’ poetry to music. The result is a new Waterboys recording and performance piece, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats.

The work will have its only fully staged North American performance next week in New York. But Scott and Wickham will offer stripped-down versions of the Mr. Yeats material along with a smattering of past Waterboys tunes at Monday’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre. The visit will be Scott’s performance debut in Kentucky.

“I first had the idea of a show dedicated to Yeats’ lyrics back in 1991,” Scott said last week by phone from Dublin. “I had been invited to perform a Yeats tribute at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1991. The Abbey Theatre was significant because it was founded by Yeats, so it was a good place to have this kind of show in.

“Lots of Dublin-based artists were invited. So I went along, but I misunderstood the brief I was given. I thought we were to set some of his poems to music and then come and sing them – something I had already done on Fisherman’s Blues (for the song The Stolen Child). So I dutifully set four Yeats poems to music and brought them along on the night. Then, to my surprise and disappointment, all the other artists just did their own numbers. There were no other Yeats interpretations.

“I figured for a real tribute to Yeats, we should put his lyrics to music. So I remember standing at the side of the Abbey Theatre stage thinking, ‘There’s got to be a whole show in this. But how is it going to happen? Am I going to do it or is it going be a various artists show?’ And, initially, that’s what I thought it would be. I used to make lists of all the different artists in Ireland who I thought would be good at interpreting Yeats. But I’m not really a show producer like that. So over the years, I kept setting more Yeats poems to music. About 15 years later, I was close to having enough for a show and realized, ‘Hang on. I’m going to do this show myself with my own band.’ And that’s what I did.

“I’ve always liked Yeats’ voice. I like that he is a serious spiritual explorer. And while he’s not quite a street fighter, he will roll up his sleeves and bloody people’s noses with his lyrics. But it wouldn’t matter how much I love Yeats if the lyrics didn’t work with music. Really, the engine that has driven this project is the fact that the lyrics seem, to me, to cry out for music.”

For Scott – who calls Dublin, Galway, New York and “various places in Scotland” home, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats is the latest chapter of a career mapped out extensively in his recent autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy. But he has yet to pen an ending for his story.

“There have been ups and downs, as you know if you’ve read the book. But looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve had a wonderful life making a living out of doing what I love most.

“I was in a taxi the other day in Dublin and the driver said to me, ‘So, are you on your way to work?’ And I said to him, ‘I’m a rock and roller, sir. I don’t work.’ And I’m privileged to be able to say that’s true. I don’t work. I very much play.”

Mike Scott with Steve Wickham perform at 7 p.m. March 11 the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third St. for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888.

WRFL at 25

wrfl anniversaryYesterday at roughly 2 p.m., 88 equaled 25.

In other words, WRFL-FM, the student-run radio voice of the University of Kentucky – a station that crammed just about every style of music into the 88.1 position that was ignored elsewhere on the airwaves – hit the quartet century mark.

The first song broadcast – Big Audio Dynamite’s C’mon Every Beatbox – typlified the station’s mission. It was assertive, fun and full of groove.

During its first spring on the air, WRFL quickly established itself as something of a musical sanctuary. Sure, there were great genre shows devoted to reggae, jazz, Americana, psychedelia, world music and more. Many of them continue to this day in one form or another (a personal current favorite is WRFL Surfs, which airs on Friday mornings). But the big fun in listening always involved a sense of discovery.Tuning into WRFL at any time of day guaranteed exposure to music you very likely had not heard. Sometimes it was unforgivably loud and confrontational – so much so that I set my clock radio to the station throughout the ’90s. It woke me up in more ways than one. It had other effects, too. Having Bad Brains blasting from the radio at 6 a.m. drove the neighbors’ dogs nuts.

But you were just as likely to hear Frank Sinatra or Antonio Carlos Jobim next to, say, Public Image or Public Enemy. You never knew what surprises were in store.

Tonight, the celebrations begin in earnest. Al’s Bar and Al’s Sidecar, at 601 and 607 North Limestone, respectively, will host a double-barreled birthday party of free live music in honor of WRFL. Among the performing guests will be Hair Police, Big Fresh, Jovontaes, PezHed, Trance Substation, Alex Vans and the Getaway and Mail the Horse. WRFL DJs past and present will be on hand, too. The fun starts around 8 p.m.

Additional anniversary events are being planned throughout 2013. That should keep the beatboxes pumping.

Alvin Lee, 1944-2013

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Alvin Lee

Perhaps the saddest thing about the unexpected passing yesterday of Alvin Lee at age 68 was the fact it took his death to jolt many of us, myself included, into remembering how great he was.

As the inventive, intensive frontman for Ten Years After during its heyday from 1966 through 1974, Lee was a gleeful anomaly among British guitarslingers. He could play the blues with the best of them and out-boogie all of them. But when the right song hit, he could sail into beautifully uncharted waters – areas that blended blues, psychedelia and even prog.

The band’s masterful 1971 hit, I’d Love to Change the World, stands as the most obvious and lasting example. But there are bits of such stylistic meshing on all of their albums, from the stellar string of Deram releases in the late ‘60s (highlighted by 1970’s splendid Cricklewood Green) to a quartet of underappreciated ‘70s recordings on Columbia (culminating in 1974’s prog-inspired Positive Vibrations).

To casual fans, the defining moment of Lee’s tenure with Ten Years After was its extended boogie rampage version of I’m Going Home at Woodstock in 1969. It certainly matched the other exhilarating highpoints in the festival’s documentary film. But Lee regularly expressed frustration in interviews at how audiences seemed to feel the Woodstock performance staked out his band’s stylistic limits. Happily, the success of I’d Love to Change the World broadened that view.

I have to sheepishly admit I’ve haven’t listened to Ten Years After in, well, several years. But last night I spend a few enjoyable hours with the band’s early albums – like 1968’s Undead, a concert record that boasted an insane version of the Woody Herman swing classic Woodchopper’s Ball, and 1970’s Watt, with the lean and beautifully despondent Lee original Think About the Times.

Sure, there were more prominent guitar heroes back in the day. But 45 years after Ten Years After was unleashed unto the pop world, the playing of Alvin Lee still sounds as potent and enlightened as ever.  

Critic’s Picks 269: Son Volt, ‘Honky Tonk,’ and The Mavericks, ‘In Time’

son voltAs if you weren’t conflicted enough by what does or doesn’t constitute country music these days, we have two fascinating new recordings by Son Volt and The Mavericks to further blur the borderlines.

Son Volt, longtime brainchild of song stylist Jay Farrar, was born out of the wreckage of alt-country fave Uncle Tupelo. Over the past 17 years (which included a favorable run of Farrar solo records), the band has inched away from anything resembling country – alternative or otherwise. Until now. Its new Honky Tonk album is a selection of rustic, spiritually inclined waltzes, pedal steel-steeped reflections and wistful meditations that embrace a country spirit more traditional than even Uncle Tupelo could have envisioned.

The Mavericks, on the other hand, were one-time corporate country darlings. But that darn Raul Malo, the country Caruso that fronts the Miami-based foursome, had to go and explore his Cuban roots, causing the band to incorporate enough brass and brazen grooves to make their music sound less like it was forged in Nashville and more like it poured out of Havana circa 1959. The only curiosity about the new Mavericks album, In Time, is that it is completely indistinguishable from a Malo solo project. But given how glorious the songs are, that’s not exactly a problem.

Honky Tonk is a beautiful listen. As possibly the least rock-oriented album Son Volt has made, its sound centers around pedal steel guitar melodies, fiddle accents, and, of course, Farrar’s singing. But just as the album’s overall tone opts out of traditional country self-pity in favor of more spiritually inclined promise, Farrar’s vocals have dropped the sad sack warble of early Son Volt records for a warmer, more articulate cast that neatly compliments the antique fiddle waltz Hearts and Minds and the more tentative hope (“going for broke in a film noir smile”) that unfolds like ripples in a pond on Shine On.

mavericksIn Time is equally inviting, even though it slides its stylistic (and geographical) reference points between vintage Cuban pop and ‘60s style Tex Mex. Malo, still in possession of a voice with Roy Orbison-level clarity and range, fronts the parade, from the lush Cuban sway of Back in Your Arms Again (which grooves like a slower version of the early Mavericks hit Dance the Night Away) to the twang-happy dance drama Come Unto Me to the Orbison-style pop lullaby Amsterdam Moon.

Malo wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s 13 tunes, which kind of makes you wonder what the other Mavericks brought to the party. But democracy doesn’t matter here. View the album as another great Malo solo venture if you like. Regardless, the music of In Time is thoroughly in tune.

In performance: Peter Evans

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Peter Evans

There were numerous instances Monday night at the Mecca studio on Manchester that folks couldn’t help but think they were on the receiving end of an air raid. Credit that to the siren-like wails and guttural swipes performed on trumpet and piccolo trumpet by Peter Evans.

During two sets of untitled improvisations – the first was unaccompanied; the second enlisted University of Kentucky instructors Raleigh Dailey on keyboards and Rui Li on flugelhorn – New Yorker Evans conjured textured percussive sounds, raspy drones and whispery ambience from his horns. But no effect was more staggering than the brassy soars on trumpet that Evans designed at least once in both sets that possessed the tonality and immediacy (and, depending where you were sitting last night, the volume) of an incoming bomber.

An Oberlin Conservatory graduate whose decade-long stay in New York’s avant garde and improvised music communities has produced fruitful alliances with, among other jazz giants, Evan Parker, Evans devoted the first set’s solo improvisations to deconstructing the trumpet – literally, and in terms of sonic expectations.

During the second improv, he removed the trumpet’s mouthpiece and played the instrument on its side with his left hand almost as a percussive device. His right hand tapped out punctured sounds on the piccolo trumpet, a four-valve horn roughly half the size of a regular trumpet. The oscillating incantation that resulted was truly otherworldly.

The second set was more intriguing simply because it was less of a technical display and more an exchange of ideas.

The second of the set’s three improvs was where the interplay hit its peak, with Evans, Dailey and Li entering and exiting at various intervals. Dailey essentially stayed in the background, using the keys as a modest but dark backdrop. But at the height of the improv, he and Evans (on regular trumpet) squared off for a bold stretch of dialogue that steadily heightened and intensified in tone and color as it grew.

The performance drew to a close with Evans soloing over stark keyboard accents on pocket trumpet. As was the case for much of the performance, the tiny instrument proved more than capable of matching the huge sense of invention Evans pumped into it.   

In performance: George Strait/Martina McBride

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George Strait performed for 22,000 fans Saturday night at Rupp Arena.  Herald-Leader photos by Matt Goins

All artists, whether they hail from the world of country music or not, should be lucky enough to be in on the sort of retirement party George Strait threw for himself Saturday night at Rupp Arena.

With hitmaker Martina McBride along to share the bill, the veteran Texas singer brought together three decades of plain-speaking, tradition- minded hits and served them with precious little fuss but plenty of conversational charm, while the 10 members of his Ace in the Hole Band – an ensemble loaded with splendid Lone Star craftsmen – were congenial, understated accompanists.

There were no special effects, hi-tech high jinks or rock-star trappings that have become standard issue material with most country shows at Rupp. Strait, as he has throughout his career, played things straight.

And then there was the crowd. A hearty attendance of nearly 22,000 people turned out to see what has been billed as the singer’s final Lexington concert. The performance was one of the initial stops on a two-year farewell tour titled The Cowboy Rides Away.

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Martina McBride

Needless to say, the crowd alone made the show quite the career victory lap. Performing in an in-the-round setting (as he did for his last two Rupp outings), Strait rotated by singing two songs at a time in each corner of the stage. They rewarded him with a hero’s welcome every time he returned to each section. Such a format provided the crowd a chance to engage in some hearty vocal one-upmanship as well.

But the songs took the lead in this presentation – songs rooted in Lone Star tradition but aged with plenty of mainstream accessibility. There were instances when the Texas inspirations were emphasized, as in the twin-fiddle charge of A Fire I Can’t Put Out and the dance hall appeal in the honky-tonk charmer 80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper. Similarly, tradition took precedence when Strait invited McBride to re-create a pair of classic country duets – the Johnny Cash/June Carter staple Jackson and the comparatively stoic George Jones/Tammy Wynette lovefest Golden Ring.

Mostly, though, Strait’s set was dominated by ultra-relaxed mid-tempo favorites like Ocean Front Property and the show-opening Here for a Good Time that added to the performance’s unhurried feel. Many of these tunes have worn especially well over the decades. Case in point: Amarillo by Morning, a country affirmation from the early ’80s that was played as the show headed into the home stretch. The song’s blend of Strait’s casual, smokey tenor and the regal fiddle colors of Gene Elders typified the solemn but soulful cast in the program’s repertoire.

McBride, a far more presentational singer, opened the evening with a generous 75-minute set that used traditional country as only one of the stylistic bases of operation.

Wild Angels was one of several tunes fortified by anthemic pop, Blessed possessed an electric drive that recalled early-’80s Journey, and in the set’s biggest stylistic stretch, Whatcha Gonna Do suggested ’70s-style pop-soul.

The material regularly paled next to McBride’s vocal prowess, however. In lesser hands, a song like Anyway would have come off as a weighty anthem. But McBride made the tune sound immediate and emotive without overplaying her vocal hand. The set closing Independence Day, a feat of vocal acrobatics that thrilled despite a somewhat hurried performance, was equally potent. Both songs were indicative of a singer thoroughly confident in traveling down whatever country or pop pathway her music takes her.

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