Archive for April, 2013

In performance: Taylor Swift/Ed Sheeran/Brett Eldridge

taylor swift at rupp

Taylor Swift performed Saturday night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Mark Cornelison.

It was large on ceremony and, at times, uncomfortably long on talk. But when it stuck to essentials – tunes and performances that reveled in youthful celebration – Taylor Swift’s sold-out concert Saturday night at Rupp Arena became quite the party.

With three Lexington shows in slightly more than four years now to her credit, it has become clear that the multi-platinum-selling 23-year-old seldom opts for the simple. Last night’s outing came with staging that simulated an ancient cathedral and a Paris skyline. It had a violinist popping out of the stage floor, percussionists being flung about on wires like slingshots, and parades of musicians, singers, dancers and, of course, costume changes that continually gave the concert the feel of a music video come to life.

And there was red. Lots if it. Not so coincidentally, Swift’s newest album is titled Red. The favored color could be found in costumes (the Oz-esque ruby slippers the singer wore at the top of the performance), the backdrops, the stage dressings and the lighting. In short, red was more generously red splashed about at Rupp on Saturday night than in a Friday the 13th movie.

There also was the metaphorical red that was the basis for one of several life lessons that Swift dispensed between songs. Declaring red as symbolic of “the crazy emotions,” the singer also offered this bit of social guidance: “The only thing you have control over (in life) is how you look at it.”

To quote the late Roger Ebert, “Wow. That’s deep.”

But the truly curious aspect to this performance was that despite its sense of (and seeming desire for) spectacle, Swift’s pop smarts have matured markedly. Take, for instance, the sock-hop pop of 22, which sent the singer and a platoon of dancers to a stage near the back of the arena floor. There was no ballyhoo, no costumed theme, just a moment when honest, exuberant music and motion were in sync.

There were similar moments in the vintage girl-group pop of You Belong to Me and Holy Ground. But there were just as many instances when some of Swift’s more melodically inclined hits were suffocated by the staging. The bizarrely vampish courtesan setting for I Knew You Were Trouble, in particular, was a real head-scratcher.

A serviceable vocalist at best, Swift has nonetheless become a confident and tireless stage artist. As she journeys into her 20s, maybe she can lasso in the floor show a bit to bring it more in line with the pop properties that she is so obviously schooled in.

The 30-minute opening set by British pop stylist Ed Sheeran was as spontaneous as Swift’s show was choreographed. In a rare move for an arena act, Sheeran performed as a solo acoustic act, building on-the-spot arrangements out of looped bits of vocal and percussive fragments. The homemade formula hit a dizzying zenith during You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.

It was difficult, however, deciding which was the gutsier move during Sheeran’s cover of Wayfaring Stranger – singing the tune’s final chorus a capella before the crowd of 17,000 or deciding to tackle the traditional folk favorite in the first place within a set of contemporary pop originals.

Illinois-born country singer Brett Eldridge began the evening with a brief five-song set. The musicianship of a four-piece band was effective and thrifty, the singing was crisp and authoritative, but the material was completely innocuous.

George Jones, 1931-2013

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George Jones

George Jones was the first nationally established country artist I ever wrote about. We’re going back to the early ’80s here, a time when Jones, Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard played Rupp Arena on a near-annual basis.

For Jones, who died this morning, this was the second heyday of a storied career, an era that directly followed the mammoth hit status of He Stopped Loving Her Today. That song was over the top, a sweeping orchestral account with the sentimental force of a hurricane. But Jones let that extraordinary voice underplay the whole thing. He rode the song’s story line of emotional devastation the way you and I drive to the grocery. Maybe it was because the route was so familiar to him. But that didn’t mean his singing couldn’t flip on a dime when a tricky passage emerged. Jones could color a phrase, a verse – shoot, even a word – with a controlled blast of genuine rural desperation at a moment’s notice. It was the kind of combative, intuitive device that, once detonated, left you thinking. ‘Where in the world did that come from?’

Of course, Jones was regularly the master of his own reckless destiny. That he lived to be 81 after all the drugs, drink and divorce – not to mention the car wrecks, both real and metaphorical – is something of a country miracle.

So volatile was his offstage life that one never knew whether he was capable of tracking his onstage obligations. When I began writing about him, the nickname ‘No Show’ Jones was serious business. I never covered a show he didn’t make, but I heard all kinds of stories. I remember one reporter in Richmond being so astounded that Jones didn’t bail on a regional show that his review bore the headline “No Show Jones Shows Up.”

Jones’ prime performance years in Lexington became true occasions. The greatest probably came in 1987 when he headlined a Rupp concert but championed the then-rookie show opener, Randy Travis, as the heir apparent to the country traditionalist crown. Three years later, the two shared another Rupp bill, only with Travis as headliner.

Jones last strode onto a Rupp stage two years ago, when he made a surprise appearance at a Kenny Chesney show. He looked and sounded frail – severely so. The spirit was luminous, of course. But it was clear that the end of the touring road was at hand. He retired in 2012. Now he’s gone.

As country singers go, George Jones flat-out wrote the book. Generations tried to replicate his style. None came even remotely close. Maybe the intensities of the firestorms that became everyday life for Jones scared them off. Everyone wanted to be the Possum, it seemed. But no one was up to walking in his shoes.  

Critic’s pick 276: JJ Grey and Mofro, ‘This River’

this riverThe story goes that This River, the sixth studio album by southern soul-funk strategists JJ Grey and Mofro, takes its name from the St. John’s River near Jacksonville. But as you listen to the record’s mighty music unfold, you might think Florida native Grey has charted a course for Muscle Shoals. That’s the Alabama community responsible for some of the greatest R&B music of the past 50 years. Its influence has increasingly informed Mofro records for the past decade. By the time this new album’s 10 songs have run their course, the pilgrimage to Alabama sounds pretty much complete.

That’s not to say This River doesn’t pay heed to the distinctive swampy groove music that Grey began giving a solid Floridian stamp to as far back as Mofro’s 2001 debut album, Blackwater. That record’s earthy, humid air feeds the swelter of This River’s album opener, Your Lady, She’s Shady. The ragged guitar hooks and Grey’s equally juiced-up vocal shout instigate the groove over fast-talking, street-walking lyrics. But by the time the soul shouting commences on the chorus, the grand spirit of Sly and the Family Stone comes into play. A merry party ensues.

Then we get a hearty dose of the sleeker R&B tradition that edges Grey and company closer to Muscle Shoals. Somebody Else cues up the horns and organ for a sly, propulsive groove with Grey’s beefy singing in the driver’s seat. Later, 99 Shades of Crazy holds off on the brass initially so a weather-beaten electric piano run can establish a slightly chilled groove. Between the two, though, the skies clear for Tame a Wild One, a huge, brassy soul-pop celebration that smoothes a few creases out of Grey’s scratchy singing.

That’s essentially the pace This River runs at. For every dirty funk grind indicative of Mofro’s Florida roots there is a trek to the welcoming soul sanctuary of Alabama. Don’t be confused by Florabama, though. The tune’s title would seem to acknowledge the record’s Southern migration, but it clearly belongs in the funk camp.

The big thrill is saved for last. On This River’s title tune, Grey surrenders fully to the Muscle Shoals spirits with a musical roll call. The song starts as an acoustic meditation that measures a river’s motion and constancy against a story of more personal despondency. Then the organ chimes in. Then the brass. Finally, the vocals uproot and soar. Countless soul giants – Otis Redding is the most obvious – have run with such a game plan. Grey isn’t their league. But by respectfully dipping in the same musical stream, he fortifies Mofro with a soul charge as majestic and healing as the river he sings of.

In performance: The Jeremy Kittel Band

jeremy kittell band

The Jeremy Kittell Band, from left: Nathaniel Smith, Jeremy Kittell, Simon Chrisman and Josh Pinkham.

Near the end of a performance full of technical cunning, scholarly variety and especially keen ensemble intuition, Jeremy Kittel held his violin outward so all in the audience Tuesday night at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville could inspect the damage of his performance.

The instrument’s bridge was bent at a severe angle. That’s kind of like a swimmer unexpectedly discovering that he has broken his arm before a final competitive lap.

Luckily, nearly all of the concert’s heavy lifting was behind him at that point.

Kittel comes from a growing line of instrumentalists who use bluegrass inspiration (or, in his case, a variant of it) as a launching pad for compositions and improvisations rooted in jazz.

The compositional side favored lyrical warmth that retained a more plaintive side of bluegrass, as shown by The Curious Beetle Medley, which played nicely off the gentle antique tones of hammer dulcimer provided by Simon Chrisman. The show-opening Flight of the Mastadon played more extensively with timbre, tempo and harmony, with Kittel, cellist Nathaniel Smith and mandolinist Josh Pinkham shifting lead, rhythm and even percussive duties.

In terms of sheer fun and invention, nothing beat the chamber-style reimagining of the Jimi Hendrix anthem Hey Joe, which stripped the dulcimer of its fanciful charm and turned the song itself into a patient, folky meditation.

But what might be interpreted as strictly Americana inspiration in Kittel’s playing is really more global in nature. The performance regularly embraced traditional Irish music, be it overtly (as in the richly detailed The Foxhunter’s Reel) or more discreetly (as in a new untitled piece Kittel said was informed by the soul singing of Al Green and Bill Withers, even though it seemed to rely more on Celtic finesse).

With the bridge out, so to speak, the Kittel band encored not with a final blast of cross-generational, cross-continental string music, but with its lone vocal number: a retiring reading of Gillian Welch’s Hard Times.

In other words, after an evening of genre-hopping, globe-trotting and all manner of instrumental mischief, the group closed the show with unaccompanied four-part harmony singing. How curiously fitting.

All in the detail

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Jeremy Kittel

In describing the intent and the design of his string music, Jeremy Kittel quickly offers a familiar idiom: “God is in the details.”

But in perusing the full scope of the Brooklyn-based violinist’s work life – a career that has him shuffling duties as an arranger, collaborator and all-around musical architect – it becomes clear that it is in establishing detail and exactness that he thrives.

It could be through the string arrangements that Kittel penned for My Morning Jacket’s 2001 album, Circuital; the five years he spent with San Francisco’s groundbreaking Turtle Island String Quartet; or the instructional work he engages in with clinics around the country.

The impetus, though, remains the music itself: a fluid string sound that combines elements of Celtic lyricism, chamber-like ambience, bluegrass construction and jazz phrasing. Tonight, Kittel puts his band’s name on just such a hybrid for a performance at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts.

On one hand, there is the beauty of the genre, of when a community has made their sound so rich and so full of detail,” Kittel said. “I really love that kind of an idea. Every detail that makes up the genre or a style is so wonderful. But then on the other hand, everything is changing so fast. We have so-called traditional bluegrass now. This is music that is not even 100 years old. You’ve also got all these styles of traditional jazz and rock and different periods of classical music. It’s great to have all the variety and all the different ways of expressing music.

“But what is really cool is that we’re human still. I feel that there are universal threads that run through all this stuff that we like, that we respond to. It’s a real interesting process.”

The string music amalgamation that reached a zenith on Kittel’s 2010 album Chasing Sparks followed paths forged by such master fiddlers as Mark O’Connor and Darol Anger – stringmen rooted in bluegrass that unlocked jazz-like possibilities within their playing and soloing  as well as classical contexts for their compositions.

There were very specific links, as well. Kittel has served as an instructor at O’Connor’s fiddle camps in Nashville and San Diego. Similarly, Kittel’s work with Turtle Island String Quartet ties him to Anger, who co-founded the ensemble in 1985.

“I had a lot of fun with Mark,” Kittel said. “Aside from teaching at his camps for a bunch of years, I went on tour with him. It was the first bus tour I ever did. It was called The American String Celebration. We had, like, eight or nine string players and a rhythm section. It was really cool.

“They say whoever you’re around kind of rubs off on you. Maybe a tiny percentage of Mark’s facility on the violin rubbed off. But what’s been really great is getting to know all these guys who have been heroes of mine. And you always have new heroes, too, as you’re growing and learning and changing. But, Darol and Mark… these are just super creative, very risk-taking, adventurous people who have really blazed their own trails. So what they have done gives me courage.”

Chasing Sparks was also something of an all-star affair with Kittel playing alongside such genre-hopping string players as bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolinists Mike Marshall and Chris Thile, cellist Natalie Haas and violinist/sister Brittany Haas. His Danville performance will maintain the sense of adventure but will shift the personnel and instrumentation. Backing him will be bandmates Nathaniel Smith on cello, Josh Pinkham on mandolin and Simon Chrisman on hammered dulcimer.

“It is really an honor to have a band that is this individually interesting and talented.

Nathaniel is a real groove player. Simon has really invented his own style, this kind of space age hammer dulcimer sound. And then Josh is this awesome player from Florida. His first musical journey was learning all the exact drum parts on a Guns N’ Roses album. He started playing mandolin after that.”

“One part of me is just so happy to be making music and getting to work with artists I respect. That’s probably the most important thing in my career versus vast recognition or something like that. But at the same time, I also love having my own band and connecting with audiences.

“So in that sense, the bread, is always buttered.”

The Jeremy Kittel Band performs at 7:30 tonight at the Weisiger Theatre at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $30. Call (877) 448-7469 or go to

Richie Havens, 1941-2013

richie havens

Richie Havens

We bid adieu tonight to Richie Havens: folk stylist, soul renegade, singer, environmentalist, generational inspiration and all-around peace warrior. He died of a heart attack Monday morning at age 72.

For more than four decades, the Brooklyn-born guitarist was a gentle but demonstrative pop music voice, an artist who found common rhythmic threads in the sounds of folk, blues and pop and weaved them into an intensely rhythmic acoustic sound all his own. He was an occasional songwriter, and his most visible radio hits were interpretative tunes. But these weren’t mere pop covers. They were complete transformations. In his hands, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun went from a euphoric reverie to a more pensive meditation.

But no revision resonated more profoundly than Freedom, the chanted, whittled-down version of the blues spiritual Motherless Child. Initially improvised, Freedom was the lasting highlight of Havens’ opening set at Woodstock in 1969. It has since become viewed as one of the landmark festival’s most defining moments.

Havens went on to record great solo albums, including Stonehenge and Alarm Clock, and toured continually. By the time he made it to Lexington in April 1993 as the second presentation in the Troubadour Concert Series, there was a more relaxed, sage tone to his performance. He wore the passing years just as proudly as he did the role of ambassador of the Woodstock generation.

“Woodstock was very much a part of the future in a way,” Havens told me in an interview before the 1993 concert. “It was a time where like-minded people of all ages came together to set numbers down in the public’s eye and in the eyes of the world. No one expected it to turn out the way it did – especially the people performing there. That was the magic of it.”

Record Store Day 2013

record store dayIt’s easy to view Record Store Day as just another commercial ploy, a glorified means of using a level of sentimentality that borders on scare tactics to camouflage what is really another act of commerce.

But interest in the event in many cities, including Lexington, has grown into daylong celebrations fortified by live music. After all, record stores and live performance are the building blocks of any music community. So when one of those components finds itself on the endangered species list of artistic resources, it sometimes takes a blatantly commercial ploy to help save the day.

What prompted Record Store Day? Some might say nostalgia for the days when record stores were daytime hubbubs for music lovers, a place to mull over the latest new releases and undoubtedly debate with others which recordings were cool and which weren’t.

Record stores also were home bases for the cultish strongholds that continued to champion vinyl recordings as the format began to dwindle at the end of the ’80s. Curiously, vinyl has mounted a hearty comeback in recent years. In fact, even as revenue from compact discs continued to nosedive, sales of vinyl recordings have increased over the past year.

But Record Store Day goes beyond all that. I could happily bore you until next week about the role record stores played in younger years. But the event has taken on new importance of late. The digital age of music has provided us unimagined convenience in accessing and distributing music. But that accessibility has grossly devalued recorded music. Illegal downloading and file sharing might have destroyed the grossly corroded music industries of decades past. But they also have made it next to impossible for indie bands of any level to collect much in hard profit from their work. Sure, they can sell CDs at their gigs. Most acts do. But reclaiming any serious royalty compensation from online sales and services – even the legal ones – is often a lost cause.

So if it takes a purely commercial venture like Record Store Day to remind us of recorded music’s artistic worth, so be it.

Besides, look at what fun Record Store Day has become. Among the artists releasing exclusive recordings on Saturday will be The Avett Brothers with Randy Travis, Marco Benevento, The Black Keys, David Bowie, Billy Bragg, Eric Church, Elizabeth Cool, Mike Cooley, Bob Dylan, Justin Townes Earle, Alejandro Escovedo, The Flaming Lips, The Grateful Dead, Patty Griffin, Grizzly Bear, Iron and Wine, King Crimson, Tift Merritt, Mumford & Sons, Willie Nelson, Ra Ra Riot, R.E.M., The Rolling Stones, The Roots, Josh Rouse, Sigur Ros, Richard Thompson, Paul Weller and Steven Wilson.

At CD Central, which will open an hour earlier than usual, Record Store Day comes with a full lineup of free live music from Lexington and beyond. Here’s the lineup: Italian Beaches (1 p.m.); 193 Sound showcase featuring Birmingham, Ala., visual artist/musician Lonnie Holley (2 pm), Fifth on the Floor (3 p.m.) and Blood Pheasant (4 p.m.).

Over at Pops Resale on Leestown Rd, Shozo will perform.

For more information on the kind of local, global and cultural event Record Store Day has become, go to

Record Store Day will be celebrated today starting at 9 a.m. at CD Central, 377 South Limestone, and 11 a.m. at Pop’s Resale, 1423 Leestown Rd.

In performance: The Engines

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The Engines, from left: Dave Rempis, Tim Daisy, Nate McBride (replaced last night by Kent Kessler) and Jeb Bishop.

Having spent the better portion of two hours Thursday night at Mecca exploring levels of jazz dynamics that shifted from cool, melodic balladry to blasts of free improvisation, the Chicago collective known as The Engines turned to that most lamentably unlikely of inspirations, the neighborhood taqueria. During the finale of El Norte, penned by trombonist Jeb Bishop, the quartet compressed its bounteous instrumental drive, improvisational dexterity and pure performance intuition into a remarkably streamlined musical travelogue.

No sooner did an intro of animated Mexicali-flavored bop establish itself than the band swerved into swing. Then El Norte switched gears again to allow drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Kent Kessler to cook up a light but pronounced groove under a musically acrobatic solo from Bishop. The entire escapade was rich, melodically spacious and taco-rific.

Unlike many of the Chicago-based units that have visited Lexington over the years as part of the Outside the Spotlight, The Engines worked from a compositional base as opposed to a strictly improvisational one.

Some tunes, including Four Feet of Slush, emphasized hushed ensemble cool. Others, including the show-opening suite of two Bishop works, Tilt and Spark, were full tour de forces that incorporated groove, drone-like backdrops, an encyclopedia of percussive exploits from Daisy and a beautifully emotive bass solo from Kessler that served as the true eye of this musical hurricane.

There also were instances when the music pared itself down to free-style solos ripe with wicked humor. Daisy took top honors in that department early into the second set with a restless solo that had him grabbing various percussive devices out of a suitcase for use in creating assorted scrapes and scratches across his drum heads.

The catalyst for all this fun was saxophonist Dave Rempis, who engaged in several cat-and-mouse bouts with Bishop that built to wondrous boil during Stafe. But there was one instance during a brief unaccompanied solo when Rempis seemed to sum up the continually morphing music of The Engines. After establishing a resoundingly clear tone on alto sax, his sound quickly corroded into a coarse squall.

Such a moment was indicative of a jazz vehicle that loved the flow and pace of keen rhythm but wasn’t for an instant shy about changing into something more dangerous when the need kicked in.

Gentlemen, start your Engines

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The Engines: Tim Daisy, Dave Rempis, Nate McBride, Jeb Bishop

Often the best and most fruitful of artistic collaborations are the least exclusive.

Take, for instance, the musicians making up the free jazz and improvisational music communities in Chicago – artists who have become frequent performance guests in Lexington over the past decade with the Outside the Spotlight concert series. These are players who regularly cross-pollinate one another’s touring and recording projects.

Building on that work philosophy is a quartet called The Engines. The group – saxophonist Dave Rempis, drummer Tim Daisy, trombonist Jeb Bishop and bassist Nate McBride – have played Lexington for OTS in more than a dozen group configurations. But on its newest recording, Other Violets, The Engines enlisted a collaborator from another jazz generation – Danish saxophonist John Tchicai.

“I’ve been really lucky to play with some fantastic musicians over the years,” said Rempis, who will return to Lexington with The Engines for a concert tonight at Mecca (with bassist Kent Kessler substituting for McBride). “I think John was really of the legend status in a lot of ways. The thing that was most striking about working with him was he was somebody who had all these great credentials under his belt, but he was working his entire life as a musician. He was out touring with a lot of different people. He was playing the same clubs that all of the musicians I know were playing. He’s staying with his fellow musicians and not in some 4-star hotel. He was just somebody who worked his whole life as a musician and was very open and very interested in contributing to his own artistic development by working with other people.”

A veteran of recordings with Albert Ayler (1964’s New York Eye and Ear Control) and John Coltrane (1965’s Ascension), Tchicai teamed with The Engines in 2011 for an evening at The Hungry Brain, one of Chicago’s more established performance homes for improvisational music. Other Violets is a recorded document of that concert.

But there is a bittersweet catch to the project. Tchicai died in October after suffering a brain hemorrhage in June. He was 76.

“For me, John was very influential,” Rempis said. “And not just in his playing, but also as an artist with this really unique voice. I have an immense amount of respect for him. So it was really a pleasure to get a chance to work together.”

Indicative of the teamwork between Tchicai and The Engines is a 20-minute suite on Other Violets that piggybacks Tchicai’s song Cool Copy with Bishop’s more fractured Looking. It begins with spacious, unison lines between Tchicai and Rempis and a sense of swing that rapidly deflates. But even as the exchanges dissolve into free improvisation, the resulting music is never hurried. Such a pace, Rempis suggested, just wasn’t part of Tchicai’s style.

“I think part of that is John’s influence. The warmth and beauty of his sound were some of the most striking things about his playing. In the times I heard him, he was somebody who never felt rushed. In a lot of ways, he’s kind of like a free jazz-era version of Lester Young, who established a completely different conception of how to play saxophone with the existing paradigm at the time. I think John, in a lot of ways, really filled that role for a later generation.

“Working with him felt very natural. John was like a band member, not a special guest.”

Rempis is open about the almost mentoring influence of Tchicai, but one can only assume that Tchicai was equally inspired by the drive and enthusiasm he found in the many young players he collaborated with.

“I’d love to think that’s true. I would also think part of the reason he continued doing these collaborations throughout his career was that he did find new inspiration and new thoughts in the music. I think that’s something that happens with a lot of established musicians. A lot of times they end up working with younger musicians because of the energy and life they bring to the music, as well as all the new ideas.”

The Engines perform at 8 tonight at Mecca Dance Studio, 948 Manchester St. Admission is $5.

And another thing… David Peterson and 1946/St. Paul and the Broken Bones/Janiva Magness/Randy Newman

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David Peterson and his band 1946 perform Friday at Willie’s.

‘And Another Thing…’ is a just-the-facts-ma’am mid-to-late week update of live music doings in the area that will surface periodically here in The Musical Box.

+ Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway, has a pair of intriguing, roots-driven shows on tap this weekend. On Friday, David Peterson and 1946, a vintage bluegrass-inspired troupe that has made regular regional rounds at the Festival of the Bluegrass and at Clay City’s Meadowgreen Park Music Hall over the past decade, makes a rare local club appearance (8 p.m., $10). Then on April 20, the sounds turn to revivalistic Southern soul with the Birmingham, Ala., outfit St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Bethesda will open (8 p.m., $10). For more info, call (859) 281-1116 or go to

+ Blues-rock diva Janiva Magness has been a favorite of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour since an association with Chicago’s Alligator label greatly widened the visibility of her music and career. Magness continues to celebrate the release of 2012’s Stronger for It, her third Alligator album in five years, with another WoodSongs visit. She will be featured at the show’s April 22 taping at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third Street, along with Tennessee-born, Arkansas-bred poet, storyteller and songstress Minton Sparks (7 p.m., $10). Call (859) 252-8888 for reservations.

+ Finally, tickets will go on sale at 10 a.m. April 26 for Randy Newman’s return solo concert at the Opera House on Aug. 9. Tickets will be $66.50, excluding service charges.

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