Archive for August, 2013

critic’s pick 293: bob dylan, ‘bootleg series, vol. 10 – another self portrait’

bob dylanTo this day, Self Portrait, stands as one of the oddest recordings Bob Dylan ever put his name to. A hodge-podge of folk tunes, pop covers and concert relics, the double-album was cut with a lean core of like minded artists (David Bromberg, Al Kooper) before producer Bob Johnston threw on overdubs by seemingly every Nashville studio pro he could find. Released in the late spring of 1970, the record was a colossal mess, earning Dylan some of the worst reviews of his career.

This sets up the tenth and newest entry in Dylan’s archival “bootleg series,” Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) as a return to the scene of the crime. It scours many of the songs and sessions from Self Portrait and its more streamlined and satisfying follow-up, New Morning (released mere months after Self Portrait) and serves up much of the music without the overdubs and production touches. There are nods also to the sessions for The Basement Tapes and Nashville Skyline, the projects that preceded Self Portrait, but they are brief. The primary thrust of Another Self Portrait is the folk inspiration that fed into the original Self Portrait and New Morning.

The album is available in two editions – a double disc version boasting 35 previously unreleased songs and a deluxe four disc package that includes Dylan’s full 1969 performance with The Band at the Isle of Wight festival. The two-disc edition is being reviewed here. From that, what emerges is less the offhanded experiment Self Portrait began as and more of a folk retreat.

For instance, the unaccompanied demo version of New Morning’s Went to See the Gypsy, enhances a narrative that, in its original form, sounded incomplete. Here it packs a sense of mystery that backs Dylan up to 1968’s brilliant John Wesley Harding. Cutting more to the essence of Another Self Portrait, is the traditional This Evening So Soon. It is served with such jocularity by Dylan, Bromberg and Kooper that you almost forget how profoundly sad the storyline is. Ditto for Cooper Kettle, which is stripped here of the Nashville trappings that weighed the original Self Portrait down like concrete.

There are surprises, of course. No Dylan album new or old comes without a few. Two surface in alternative versions of New Morning’s Time Passes Slowly. The first is a light quartet reading with harmonies and guitar from George Harrison. The second is a blues-soul rampage more in keeping with Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen band. The electric barnyard version of Highway 61 Revisited (a teaser from the Isle of Wight show) is a hoot, too, making the Self Portrait era seem more of a playground that it ever did at the time.

In performance: Lyle Lovett and his Large Band

lyle lovett

Lyle Lovett

“You all are so lucky to live here,” Lyle Lovett said at the onset of a typically versed and versatile performance Tuesday night at the Opera House. “Of course, this is an assumption on my part.”

Assumptions have always been tricky things with Lovett. Raised on the champion folk and country songwriting inspirations of his native Texas, he long ago made his tunes – which shift dramatically from the wry and acerbic to the dark and reflective – dance to Lone Star honky-tonk, jazz, vintage soul and stark Americana. When he performs with his Large Band, as he did last night, all of those elements leap to life.

The performance was a familiar career retrospective. You knew the gospel strut of Church was coming. You knew the classic murder reverie L.A. County was going to hit. And Lovett wasn’t about to leave out Here I Am (“if it’s not too late, make it… a cheeeeeseburger”). As Lovett shows go, it was practically a scripted affair. But why argue when you’re presented with a 2 ¾-hour set (which did not break for intermission) full of Lovett favorites and a 13-member band that was half honky-tonk orchestra and half swing symphony?

Taking the stage with Black and Blue (after the Large Band’s instrumental prelude of The Blues Walk), Lovett adopted the persona of the offhandedly stylish troubadour that remains a comfortable fit for seedy gems like She’s No Lady, I Know You Know and What Do You Do. All three tunes had Lovett exhibiting a crooked level of crooning that fell somewhere between cool and creepy. The whole mix was nicely fortified by the hushed, brassy finesse of the Large Band’s four-man horn team.

But that was just one avenue the performance traveled down. The title track to 2003’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate luxuriated in a massive, almost orchestral blues groove, and I Will Rise Up (from 2007’s It’s Not Big, It’s Large album) became a slow, simmering incantation. Best of all was If I Were the Man You Wanted (from Lovett’s 1986’s self-titled debut), which de-emphasized the R&B overtones and remained a stately portrait of Lone Star country introspection.

The Large Band’s full stylistic reach was on display as the concert concluded. A two-song encore segment began with the lean, ambient chill of North Dakota (distinguished by longtime Lovett bandmate Matt Rollings’ plaintive turns on piano) and ended with the full brass sass of She’s Hot to Go. The latter seemed to exemplify how much Lovett enjoyed playing with the thematic and stylistic conventions of country, pop, soul and style. But then, that is an assumption on my part.  

From Henryville to Cleveland

mike cleveland

Mike Cleveland

Add Henryville, Indiana to the growing list of little-known music meccas.

Located about 15 minutes across the Ohio River from Louisville, the city has contributed to the bluegrass world one of the most celebrated and resourceful fiddlers to gain prominence over the past decade. His name is Michael Cleveland, and aside from picking alongside two generations of master instrumentalists, he has been named fiddle player of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association nine times since 2001.

That’s not all Henryville has to offer, however. This week, for the next-to-last concert in this summer’s Southland Jamboree series, the city is sending us Cleveland and fellow Henryville fiddler/educator Jeff Guernsey for an evening of bluegrass-inspired duets.

For Cleveland, who usually fronts his own band, Flamekeeper, the chance to rekindle a longtime musical friendship is like a homecoming away from home.

“Jeff was just one of the great players around the Southern Indiana area when I was growing up,” Cleveland said. “Now he would kill me if he heard me saying this, but he’s probably one of the greatest musicians in the world because his knowledge of music in all different styles is just so vast. He’s an inspiration to me still. I continue to learn from him every chance I get.”

At 33, Cleveland is already a remarkably learned player. Taking to the fiddle at age four, he debuted at the Grand Ole Opry at 13 by playing alongside Alison Krauss. There also have been performance meetings over the years with scores of bluegrass forefathers, including Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley and Kentucky’s own J.D. Crowe.

But one artist proved to be an especially far-reaching influence: guitarist Doc Watson. It wasn’t just the scholarly, expansive nature of Watson’s music (where bluegrass sat side by side with numerous country and folk traditions and a sense of masterful instrumental improvising). In Watson, Cleveland found an artist with whom he shared something profoundly personal and non-musical: blindness.

Watson lost his sight in his infancy. Cleveland was born blind.

“When I was about seven or eight years old, I heard Doc Watson playing on The Nashville Network,” Cleveland said. “That’s when I found out that you can do this and be visually impaired, that there were people playing this music that were actually making money. And that just blew my mind. Doc was making musical history. From then on, I just dreamed of being in a touring band. I remember having dreams about it and everything. It was pretty amazing.

“There was this personality to Doc’s records and his live shows. One record that comes to mind particularly was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (the groundbreaking 1972 album in which the Dirt Band enlisted a host of pioneering country and folk elders as guests). The thing I really enjoyed about that was all the dialogue in the studio where they are all sitting around and talking. There is a conversation between Doc and Merle Travis where Doc is discussing arrangements and talking to Vassar Clements about when to come in on a song. Doc just sounded like such a nice guy. That personality just made a huge impression on me. Then when I got to meet him when I was 13, he was just like that. That’s hard to say about a lot of people. But that’s just how Doc was every time I was around him.”

As important as Watson was to Cleveland on a personal and professional level, it was the work of two current bluegrass women – Rhonda Vincent and Kentucky native Dale Ann Bradley – that placed Cleveland’s music before an audience. His work in their bands led to the formation of Flamekeeper and the lasting recognition of the IBMA.

“When I was young and just starting to play out on the road, of course I had about a million licks and I tried to throw them all into every song I played. So that didn’t work out too well. But with Dale Ann and Rhonda, I learned how to play with a singer more. That really helped.

“Rhonda, especially, had a knack for keeping an audience interested and sensing when to play an uptempo tune or a fiddle or banjo tune that would get people enthused. Dale Ann was always so great to work for, too. She was just so laid-back. She was like, ‘However you want to play.’ If she had any suggestions, she would make them. But she basically let the musicians in her band play their way. It was such a good experience getting to learn and play with both of them.”

This week, Cleveland will take his music to Lexington but will draw inspiration from his Henryville home by teaming again with Guernsey.

“To be honest, I have no idea what we will be playing exactly. I’d say most of it will be bluegrass or old-time sounding things. But we’ve played together for years. I know it will be fun.”

Michael Cleveland and Jeff Guernsey perform at 7 p.m. Aug. 27 for Southland Jamboree, behind Collins Bowling Center, 205 Southland Drive. Admission is free. For more info go towww.southlandjamboree.org.

In performance: Steve Forbert

steve forbert live

Steve Forbert

For a second at Natasha’s on Sunday night, it looked as if Steve Forbert might reveal how much of the whimsy, romanticism and domestically inclined darkness that permeates his songs has been pulled from personal experience.

It came when the veteran songsmith cracked open tunes from his fine 2012 album, Over With You. Specifically, the instance revolved around the record’s leadoff tune, All I Asked of You, a tale of emotional “disrepair” told with the sort of sadness, candor and melodic grace that brought Lucinda Williams’ music to mind.

So was it autobiographical? Judge by yourself from this exchange with a patron after the song wound down.

Forbert: “That was a slice of somebody’s life. I hope it wasn’t mine.”

Patron: “It probably was.”

Forbert: “Then I’ll check.”

Such was the mischievous nature of Forbert’s music, and of his performance smarts. His commercial popularity peaked quickly at the onset of the ’80s (courtesy of the radio hit Romeo’s Song, which was served last night as a tasty set closer with a snippet of The Beatles’ Goodnight as a prelude), Forbert has remained a prolific folk-based artist through the decades, with a strong recording catalog that has dipped only through occasional missteps in production choices as opposed to songwriting.

Forbert took wide aim at that catalog last night, serving up several works from his celebrated 1978 debut album, Alive on Arrival. The highlight of the lot was Goin’ Down to Laurel, a reverie of expectations involving a seemingly frequent journey to a “dirty, stinking town.”

But there also was the newest version of an evolving environmental epic that proved to be the evening’s most curious sing-along (The Oil Song, which Forbert stopped and re-started in hopes that a chatty table of patrons would button their collective lips), an intriguing take on the  “social environment” of large-venue rock shows (The Beast of Ballyhoo), a gem from 1992’s The American in Me, Forbert’s finest Geffen-era album (Responsibility) and even an unexpected cover (a folky revision of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane).

As fine as the song selection was, Forbert’s nicely combustible treatment of his tunes was even more arresting. The years have not worn away any intensity or immediacy from his concerts. Forbert’s body regularly bent, jerked and swayed to a song’s intent as he accompanied himself on guitar, harmonica and the steady hammering of a boot heel on the floorboards.

The highlight, though, came in the title tune from Over With You, an atypically good-natured breakup song delivered, despite its obvious warmth, with the kind of disturbing exactness and quiet that you would expect from Neil Young’s overlooked acoustic music from the mid-’70s. It was a meditation that sought solace from personal devastation even as room was left for loss to linger.

the past and present steve forbert

steve forbert

steve forbert.

Usually when people say the past has a way of catching up with you, the connotations are not encouraging. What they really mean is that the consequences of some nefarious deeds from years gone by are about to rock your present day world but good.

Luckily, the past has caught up with veteran folk-pop stylist Steve Forbert on far friendlier terms. This year, the singer followed the release of Over With You, his fine 2012 indie treatise on the often conflicting emotions at the heart of modern relationships, with re-issues of his first two albums – 1978’s Alive on Arrival and 1979’s Jackrabbit Slim. Those were the records that set the career of this Meridian, Mississippi songwriter into motion. The latter also scored a huge folk-pop hit, Romeo’s Tune, that threw Forbert into the camp of the critically labeled “new Dylans.”

“It’s gratifying,” said Forbert, who performs Sunday at Natasha’s, of the second life his first records are receiving. “It means, in a sense, that those records stood the test of time. That’s kind of what it’s about, isn’t it?

“I’m just saying if you’re putting out what we’ll call ‘a work of art,’ to have it receive some attention 35 years after the fact is fantastic. This hasn’t been the reissue that Exile on Main St was. But I’m happy about it.”

To better appreciate the lasting influence of Alive on Arrival and Jackrabbit Slim, you have to understand the kind of artistic climate change that surrounded their creation. In 1976, Forbert left Mississippi for New York City. But the folk revival that thrived in areas like Greenwich Village during the previous decade had been replaced by punk.

Still, in a land where bands like Blondie, Talking Heads and the Ramones were beginning to breakthrough to mainstream audiences, Forbert stuck to his folk-fortified roots. As a result, Alive on Arrival was a huge critical hit (as have most of the songwriter’s recordings since then) while Jackrabbit Slim leaned closer to pop and put Forbert on the radio.

“My attitude is my attitude, even though I’m not a person who has much ‘attitude.’ A lot of the punk thing had this sneer to it, but I wasn’t coming from a lot of overt rebellion. That wouldn’t be my thing. I went to (the famed New York music club) Max’s Kansas City and I didn’t like the vibe. I didn’t really try to play there. But you have to understand (New York new music haven) CBGB’s was run by people who were interested in all kinds of music. The so-called New Wave thing grew like a mushroom in the dark there. So the idea wasn’t that weird for me to be there. But I never wore a skinny tie or anything like that.”

The voice that reaches out on Over With You is more learned, weary and worn. With instrumental support from Ben Harper and Kentucky’s own Ben Sollee, the album has its dark moments (like the opening All I Asked of You). But the pop hopefulness from those early days still propels much of Forbert’s newer music.

“This is a young person’s game. Older people are inherently busier with wives, parental responsibilities, jobs, who-knows-what. It was easy when I got started to break through to my sub-generation through college radio and newspapers and music magazines. But even music magazines now are generally oriented toward the latest thing. People get over it and they get busier. I’m not really trying to reach 21 year olds anyway. Take All I Asked of You. That’s really not much of a kid’s song. It’s just harder to crack that world when you get older.”

Steve Forbert performs at 8 p.m. Aug. 25 at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Tickets are $15. Call (859) 259-2754 or go to www.beetnik.com

the new jason isbell

JasonIsbell

jason isbell.

It was Christmastime when we last heard locally from Jason Isbell. Ironically, that was also our first glimpse of the new Jason Isbell.

The difference may not have been immediately evident to those that cheered on the versed Alabama rocker that December Saturday at Buster’s or even longtime fans that have followed Isbell when he began playing the long defunct Dame a decade ago as a member of Drive-By Truckers.

In fact, last winter’s show came on the heels of Live in Alabama, a then-new concert recording that neatly summarized the first few chapters of his career by including a mix of vintage Truckers songs (among them, the fearsome class anthem Outfit), the rapidly maturing tunes penned for his own 400 Unit band (including the Americana Music Awards’ 2012 Song of the Year Alabama Pines) and covers that were nods to his soul-savvy Muscle Shoals roots (the ‘70s Candi Statton hit Heart on a String). All of that music fortified the December show, as well.

But a new chapter had also begun, even though Isbell wasn’t making a big deal out of it. The 400 Unit was augmented at Buster’s last winter by Texas fiddler and vocalist Amanda Shires who Isbell would marry two months later. There was also discussion of a nearly-completed new album, the first Isbell record not co-credited to the 400 Unit. Finally, there was this bit of information mentioned in an interview a week prior to the show.

“I quit drinking.”

Isbell made the pronouncement off-handedly, as if to make sobriety seem like a fairly minor deal. Flash forward to a recent New York Times magazine feature that detailed just how paralyzing Isbell’s drinking became and the interventions that were required for him to seek help.

“Getting sober is not an easy thing to do,” Isbell said by phone last week.”It gets easier as time goes on. For me, once I saw the positive consequences of my actions, then it got a lot easier to make the right decisions. But the first few months were really challenging. They were really difficult.”

This summer, that first recording by the fully sober Isbell was issued as Southeastern. It has gathered scores of favorable reviews, amassed (for an indie Americana act) impressive sales and reaffirmed Isbell as one of the great Southern songwriters of his generation.

“I’m very happy with the record” Isbell said. “You know, I like all of them. But this one definitely has a special place for me because it is so personal. We’ve sold a lot more records, got a lot more people to the shows. People seem to feel they have a personal connection to the songs, too. That’s about the best you can hope for.

“I just try to write the best songs I can. But there were the changes that I had gone through – quitting drinking, getting in a stable relationship and getting married… those things had a lot to do with what was on my mind when I was writing these songs.”

The entire tone of Southeastern differs from Isbell’s four previous records with the 400 Unit. Dominated by themes of loss and redemption with a few really scary interludes thrown in (like the real life nightmare of Super 8 which roars to life after the comparatively contemplative New South Wales), the album recalls the dark, scorched post-Harvest music cut in the early-to-mid ‘70s by Neil Young. Southeastern isn’t as ragged as that body of work, but it shares a strong emotional bond.

“I’ve listened to a whole lot of that Neil Young stuff. That’s probably been one of my biggest influences as a musician and a songwriter. So if I’m doing it right, that’s going to find its way in there. But also, I spent some time with Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 studio swansong album) before this record. That’s a really interesting sounding record that could have been made at any point in time. Technologically, there is not a whole lot of advancement there. But a lot of things are ear catching, and that interests me.

“But, you know, Southeastern was just about a place I was in. Really, the focus went on the words. That’s always the root of all of it. That’s the only thing, really, that differentiates a good record and a great record. Production is really important. But if the songs aren’t there, you’re just not going to have a great record.

“I mean, I spent a year and a half writing the songs and two weeks recording them. So that shows you right there what’s important.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit with Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons perform at 9 tonight at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom, 899 Manchester St. Tickets are $17 advance, $20 day of show. Call (859) 368-8871 or go to www.bustersbb.com.

nashville by way of memphis

tim-easton

tim easton.

Tim Easton is nothing if not well traveled.

A heralded and prolific Americana song stylist, he grew up in Akron, gigged regularly around New York City and set up a homestead for several years in the unlikely musical metropolis of Joshua Tree. While he has never fully called Lexington home, he has performed here of often enough over the past two decades to toss a few local ruminations into one of his best loved performance tunes, Lexington Jail.

The music that brings Easton back to town for two shows this week, however, is the product of his newest hometown, Nashville. But before you ask, let’s set the record straight. His Not Cool recording, which was released Tuesday, is not a country project. Take a listen, in fact, to the rootsy immediacy that dominates the 11 songs Easton rips through during the album’s brisk and brief half-hour running time and you will think Not Cool was cut in an entirely different corner of Tennessee – specifically, Memphis.

“I definitely wanted to make a record that was seriously roots based and had that Memphis sound to it,” said Easton by phone last week from yet another port where he has amassed a loyal fanbase, Alaska.

“At the same time, though, we were in Nashville when we made the record. It was 2013. We said, ‘Let’s let the reality of who we are enter into the music. Let’s see what each player can collectively bring.’ The bass player was from Memphis. The guitar player was from Chicago. I’m from Akron. But we’re all Nashville musicians that were cutting a session that day. So we set up the mikes, sat down and played the songs and recorded.

“It wasn’t a very overdub-centric project. With certain recordings, you just try not to fuss with things too much. You try to get the sound of a real band playing. I think we definitely succeeded in sounding like a trio/quartet playing country blues songs.”

Easton was introduced to two key compatriots of the Not Cool sessions – guitarist JD Simo and upright bassist Joe Fick – almost by accident. After noticing the stage door of the famed Ryman Auditorium opened into an alley that separated the venue from Robert’s Western World, one Nashville’s most heralded honky tonks, Easton caught a glimpse of the two players in action onstage. He quickly signed them up for Not Cool duty.

But such chance meetings aren’t the product of serendipity, Easton said. In Nashville, such impromptu networking is standard operating procedure.

“People should understand that in a town like Nashville, there are hundreds of great musicians and they all like to work. They’re eager to make records down there. That’s how you do it. And doing three chord country blues songs with JD Simo, Joe Fick and Jon Radford (the drummer for the Not Cool sessions)… I mean, they can truly play that stuff any time of day. It just comes naturally to them. They could roll out of bed – and some days they literally did roll out of bed – and cut tracks like that.”

Not Cool, happily, fails to live down to its name almost from the onset. On the album opening Don’t Lie, the song’s nocturnally imbued story, along with Easton’s sly telling of it, picks up on Simo’s Slim Harpo-style guitar ambience as if it were a hitchhiker on a dark country side road. The mood brightens, though, for the rockabilly blasts of Troubled Times and Little Doggie (1962) before settling into the petulant groove of Gallatin Pike Blues.

The showstoppers, though, are saved for last. Not Cool’s title tune (clocking in at just over four minutes, making it the record’s longest song) is a starker, more reflective moodpiece – a folky, reverb-colored throwback to the New West albums Easton cut over the past decade that cemented his reputation as a champion songsmith.

But what makes the song even more magical is the way it bleeds into Not Cool’s instrumental finale, Knock Out Roses – a fiddle tune that falls somewhere between a waltz and a Celtic reverie. An exquisite vehicle for fiddler Megan Palmer (who will accompany Easton for his two shows this week at Willie’s Locally Known), the tune doubles as a lovely eulogy to The Band’s Levon Helm.

“I have this strange ability to make up melodies for songs,” Easton said. “I do it constantly. It’s not a big issue for me. It just so happened that I was thinking about Levon that day. I went outside and I played my mandolin. I mean, Levon Helm. He was a mandolin player. He was a drummer, of course. And he was a great singer and everything. So I just started thinking about him and that was the song that came out.

“I didn’t think to myself, ‘Oh, I need to put a fiddle song at the end of a rock ‘n’ roll record.’ But on a later pass, I thought that maybe this would be a really nice way to finish.”

Tim Easton performs at 8 p.m. Aug. 22 and 23 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N.Broadway. Easton will open for (and sit in with) the Kentucky Hoss Cats on Aug. 22 (no cover charge) and will headline with Bluegrass Collective opening on Aug.23 ($10). Call (859) 281-1116 or go www.willieslex.com.

in performance: the goat rodeo sessions

the goat rodeo sessions

the goat rodeo sessions: chris thile, aoife o’donovan, yo-yo ma, edgar meyer and stuart duncan. photo by jeremy cowart.

In referencing how bandmates Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile were navigating through classical adaptations, Appalachian-inspired Americana and improvisational mischief without the aid of written music while he was anchored behind layer upon layer of scores, the master cellist Yo-Yo Ma dubbed himself an “old goat.”

But in the case of the genre-bending performance Ma gave last night with Meyer, Thile and veteran Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan at Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion, being an old goat was a good thing. After all, the foursome performed under the name of The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Whether the music was in their heads or on paper in front of them, the players generally smashed string quartet convention during a fascinating two-set, two hour performance.

All four players, in varying degrees, have indulged in stylistically cross-pollinated string music long before Goat Rodeo came along. Ma and Meyer cut the famed Appalachia Waltz recording with Mark O’Connor in 1996, although with the exception of a brief two-movement blast of Bach, last night’s performance possessed far less of a chamber feel than that album. Still, there was a strong, adventuresome spirit to the program.

Melodies were regularly and generously passed around from player to player, as in the way Duncan’s sly fiddle lead made the rounds during the concert opening Quarter Chicken Dark. Over taught, tense ensemble passages, the lead was passed off to Thile on mandolin, then to Meyer on double bass before finding its way back to Duncan. Curiously, the overall tempo seemed to be controlled by Ma, who let the tune noticeably relax halfway through so that its playful barnyard ambience could bounce about.

The resulting feel of the program mirrored the group’s self-titled 2011 album, meaning a mix of bluegrass and classical instrumentation was used to flesh out Appalachian flavored material that sounded less like vintage folk or country and more like a scholarly take on jazz and jam band music. Even the Schubert-inspired Franz and the Eagle was more classically themed than constructed (or executed).

A lovely addition to the group was Americana songstress Aoife O’Donovan. A contributor to The Goat Rodeo Sessions album, she harmonized with Thile on four songs, including a quietly regal take on Bob Dylan’s Farewell Angelina (which also pulled vocal support from Duncan).

As fascinating as the band makeup was (Meyer, Duncan and Thile all did double and sometimes triple duty last night on piano, mandolin and guitar/fiddle, respectively), one of the purest, most enchanting moments came during the encore of Ar Hyd y Nos (All Through the Night) – specifically, in the very brief instances when the ensemble sound was whittled down to just O’Donovan’s plaintive singing and Ma’s gorgeously complimentary runs on cello.

That made for a nifty new trick from a resourceful old goat.

critic’s pick 292: tedeschi trucks band, ‘made up mind’

tedeschi-trucks bandMade Up Mind, the third and finest Southern soul banquet from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, is a recording that should be viewed more for its title than its cover art.

The photo gracing the front of the album depicts a buffalo and a steam locomotive set to collide with each other head on, signaling a fairly unnatural showdown of strength.

Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks are certainly titan forces within the band that bears their name. She is one of today’s most learned, natural and emotive white soul singing stylists. He is a wildly versed guitarist who was showing off chops on Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane tunes while in his teens before graduating to the royal jam ranks of the Allman Brothers Band. But as Made Up Mind opens with its jovial title tune, what we hear isn’t the conflict of competing powers but rather the unified force of a band that operates like a soul, blues and roots-rock revue.

A shuffling guitar riff from Trucks (a lick that will likely kick around in your brain for days after you hear it) shoots out and circulates within the song, triggering a potent and funky rhythm section led by the double drums of J.J. Johnson and Tyler Greenwell. Then Tedeschi enters with a vocal maturity and confidence that places her in the ranks of pros like Bonnie Raitt. The groove subsequently blows up with blasts of brass and churchy harmonies along with healthy solos on slide guitar from Trucks that mirror Tedeschi’s increasingly celebratory singing. It’s a party, for sure. Still, the resulting music avoids the noodling and grandstanding that are standard operating procedures for artists that flirt with jam band fame as Tedeschi and Trucks do. Everything this husband-and-wife team explores here, pursuant to the album title, reflects effortless cool.

Tedeschi and Trucks wrote or co-wrote much of the material on Made Up Mind along with such schooled collaborators as Oliver Wood (of the Wood Brothers), John Leventhal (producer and husband of Rosanne Cash) and Gary Louris (co-chieftain of The Jayhawks). As a result, the musical moods vary, from the lanky Screaming Jay Hawkins-meets-Dusty Springfield blues strut of Do I Look Worried to the multi-layered funk of Whiskey Legs. The revue-style exuberance roaring behind the two leaders then beautifully orchestrates the fun.

Curiously, one of Made Up Mind’s craftiest tracks is the album closing Calling Out to You, which has Tedeschi and Tracks going it alone on a meditative ballad that expertly showcases these unflinchingly confident talents. It is proof positive that two made up minds are better than one.

travels with ricky

ricky skaggs

ricky skaggs.

“It’s one thing to play bluegrass music,” writes Ricky Skaggs near the end of his new memoir, Kentucky Traveler. “It’s a whole other thing to make a living at playing bluegrass music.”

Spend a few minutes with one of the state’s foremost bluegrass and county music ambassadors and he will explain not only how deeply he takes that credo to heart. He will also gladly outline the blessings (“gifts,” as he regularly calls them) that propelled his life and career beyond his wildest bluegrass dreams.

“It’s been an incredible story,” Skaggs said in a telephone interview last week. “And it still is, really. Old time music and bluegrass, then the whole family dynamic with my mom and dad, meeting Mr. Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers … I mean, when I sit back and think about all the things that happened in my life…”

Here, Skaggs’ voice trails off. A memory of a life well lived and worked can cause that to happen, especially when you try to neatly encapsulate the events, people and discoveries that filled that life. Luckily, he has a new memoir titled Kentucky Traveler to set the record straight. Every last note of it.

“The thing is, the half has not been told. There are things I’ve forgotten that I remembered once the book was done. Sharon (White, Skaggs’ wife and a fellow country and gospel artist) will remember things and say, ‘Well, is that in the book?’ and I’ll say. ‘No. I forgot to put that one in.’ And she will go, ‘Oh, my goodness. You’re going to have to do a revision.”

If you have experienced bluegrass in the Bluegrass, there are certain aspects to Skaggs’ career that are simply givens. They deal primarily with the mid ‘70s, when he became the mandolin voice in J.D. Crowe’s first and most influential lineup of the New South. That was followed by club shows with dobro great Jerry Douglas (another Crowe alum) in Boone Creek.

But as the title suggests, Kentucky Traveler unravels as a series of broader snapshots. They begin during the years Skaggs grew up in the Eastern Kentucky hollow of Brushy Creek and the airtight bond he shared with his parents. Then they weave through the alliances he forged with a legion of bluegrass forefathers topped by patriarch Bill Monroe (“Mr. Monroe”) before winding their way through a career full of country hits, a renewed focus on bluegrass and fresh partnerships with new musical friends.

“Faith, family and music – they were all so intertwined when I was growing up,” Skaggs said. “I mean, I was hunting and fishing, working and doing stuff on the farm, planting tobacco and bailing hay – a lot of stuff that didn’t get in the book. I wasn’t just sitting around 14 hours a day playing the mandolin or the fiddle like a lot of people might think. The fiddle and mandolin and playing music were really just a pastime. It was entertainment for us as a family.

“But I tell kids when they ask me to sign a mandolin or a fiddle to be serious about their music. I ask them, ‘How much are you getting to play?’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, I play a little bit.’ Then I’ll ask, ‘Okay. How much Nintendo or Sony Play Station do you play?’ And it’s, ‘A lot.’ So I tell them, ‘Man, that is not your friend. Sit down with that instrument. If you’re going to get serious about it, then get serious about it. You’ve got to pour your time into it. You’ve got to pour your life into it. You’re going to make it if you work at it. But if you just play at it and use it as a hobby, you’ll just be a hobby player.’

“I think sometimes they get it and sometimes they just kind of laugh or grin as they walk off.’ But then their Dad will turn around and say, ‘Thank you.’

There are a several bittersweet farewells as the book concludes. Especially revealing are recollections of Skaggs’ father and mentor Monroe. Both died within months of each other in 1996. But there are also hints of alliances that are just now coming to fruition – in particular, a teaming with pop piano man Bruce Hornsby. Their second collaborative album, Cluck Ol’ Hen, will be released next week.

“It’s one of the best musical projects I’ve had a chance to be part of,” Skaggs said of the record. “I’m so thankful, again, for another gift in Bruce Hornsby. What a gift in my life and a gift to music.”

A balance of purpose and playfulness dominates the music, from the warp speed band delivery of the Monroe chestnut Bluegrass Breakdown to an extended reading of Hornsby’s White Wheeled Limousine that pares itself down to a brief dialogue between the two musical titans playing piano and mandolin.

Such a mix of mischievousness and confidence has long been an integral element of Skaggs’ playing. He remarked that spirit is displayed vividly on the cover of Kentucky Traveler, which sports a picture of Skaggs as a child –  mandolin already in hand, already meaning business.

“There was a look my eye in that picture. I don’t know if it was determination, if it was destiny, if it was a calling. I don’t know. Whatever it was, there was a look in my eye that says, ‘I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m not real good at it, yet. But I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.’”

Ricky Skaggs will sign copies of Kentucky Traveler at 7 p.m. Aug.28 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 161 Lexington Green Circle. Line tickets are available with purchase of the book. Call (859) 273-2911 or go to www.josephbeth.com. Skaggs will also perform with Bruce Hornsby will at 8 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Taft Theatre, 317 East 5th St in Cincinnati. Tickets are $32, $44.50 and $52.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.org.

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