Archive for October, 2013

return of the tim and darrell show

tim o'brien and darrell scott

tim o’brien and darrell scott.

Over their separate travels through the years, one question continually found its way to Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott.

The query was simple: when were these learned Americana stylists going to perform together again? To an outsider, that might not seem like such a revolutionary thing to ask. After all, the two have maintained fruitful solo careers that regularly made room for collaborative projects. But there sits the distinction of the inquiry. Given all the music they have created, how could even devout fans recall the joint work of O’Brien and Scott when their only performance document, an album titled Real Time, is over 13 years old?

The answer turns out to be simple. Real Time chronicled the arrival of two performers with remarkable artistic simpatico. Sure, West Virginia native O’Brien has been a favored name among bluegrass followers for over 35 years thanks to a variety of solo, duo and ensemble projects highlighted by his ‘80s tenure with the influential Colorado band Hot Rize. London (Kentucky) born Scott’s roots extended closer to traditional country, an inspiration handed to him in part by his father. But everything converged from there.

O’Brien and Scott are essentially triple threats. Both are inventive multi-instrumentalists, robust vocalists and intensely literate songwriters. Speaking of the latter, two famed female country singers had hits with their songs. Kathy Mattea sent O’Brien’s The Battle Hymn of Love into the Top 10 in 1990 while Kentucky Music Hall of Famer Patty Loveless scored with Scott’s You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive a decade later.

Furthering the bond were the moonlighting adventures both artists spent in the bands of two veteran rock ‘n’ rollers. O’Brien toured with Mark Knopfler in 2010 while Scott recorded and toured at the same time as part of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy.

But near the end of the ‘90s, O’Brien and Scott teamed up, discovered their mutual musical prowess and an explosive love of playing songs together and cut Real Time. In short order, they found others were equally excited about their alliance.

Real Time just kept growing in reputation, slowly and surely,” O’Brien said. “After awhile, you don’t think about that stuff. Then people would come up and ask me when I was going to do more stuff with Darrell. It didn’t matter if I was in Australia or Kentucky. They would all go, ‘When are you going to do more with Darrell?’ And so it was just kind of waiting there to happen.”

“Logistics largely accounts for the fact that it’s been 13 years since Real Time,” Scott added. “So we just put it on our calendar. Prior to that, it was the same with me. Every night when I talked to people after shows, their No. 1 request was for Tim and I to get back together.”

O’Brien and Scott set the stage for a reunion as far back as 2005 and 2006 with one-off performances at the Arthur Morgan School in North Carolina, where each had children enrolled. Scott recorded both performances, although nothing initially surfaced. But as work dedicated to a new studio album and subsequent tour ensued, a live record from the Morgan School shows surfaced with the low expectations title of We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This. Even more so than on Real Time, the live album illuminated the duo’s skills as songwriters, players, interpreters and highly intuitive performers and harmonizers. All of that carried over beautifully to the recently released studio follow-up, Memories and Moments.

“We have both remarked before that we meet at old country music – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and that school,” O’Brien said. “Not so much the more modern stuff. I come from more of the bluegrass thing. Darryl comes from more of the singer-songwriter and r&b stuff.  We’re both traveled, so I guess the common roots are with the mountain sound. We do touch each other’s mountain and country buttons, I guess. That kind of emerges in a stronger way when we’re together. We’re playing acoustic instruments, which fits, too. That’s where the intersection starts.

“We play off of each other extremely well,” Scott said. “There are reasons for that. Tim is a consummate instrumentalist. He could back up and be part of anybody’s band. That’s what I do, too. We’re also listening like crazy to each other. We kind of push each other, but not in any kind of bullying or competitive, crazed kind of way. When we play together, he pushes the Kentucky in me to where my mountain roots start showing. But Tim’s West Virginia roots are part of the thing, too. He has no trouble bringing more mountain to his music. He has embraced that all along.

“But for now, we push that button together. It happens in our singing and in our harmony. We do that as vocalists. We do that as players. We do that as lovers of songs.”

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott perform tonight at 7 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E.Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour with Ron Block with Sierra Hull. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to www.woodsongs.com.

in performance: florida georgia line/colt ford

FloridaGeorgiaLine

brian kelley and tyler hubbard of florida georgia line. lexington herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

Usually the large thermometer-clock situated in the outfield of Whitaker Bank Ballpark reads in the mid 70s or 80s. Of course, that’s when the Lexington Legends host an evening game during the height of summer.

Last night, just as Florida Georgia Line took the stage at 9:15, the thermometer registered 45 degrees. Just about everyone there counted themselves lucky, too. Had the show been held just a few hours earlier, you could have added a steady rain to the autumn mix. Needless to say, none of this in any way hampered the reception a sold out crowd gave the duo of Floridian Brian Kelley and Georgia born Tyler Hubbard. Crowd estimates varied. The ballpark box office quoted 13,000. The band, from the stage, claimed a crowd of 15,000. Regardless, it was a staggering figure – one that sent traffic to a standstill all around the park. On North Broadway alone, cars were backed up to the interstate.

Just to enforce the impressive stats, Florida Georgia Line has only one full-length album to its credit. So even if you go with the conservative crowd estimate of 13,000, the duo managed to match (and possibly surpass) the attendance Blake Shelton chalked up at Rupp Arena last month. Hubbard also remarked from the stage that the turnout marked the highest paid attendance for one of Florida Georgia Line’s headlining shows.

Musically, Kelley and Hubbard steered toward ultra contemporary country that borrowed generously from modern pop. Their songs certainly didn’t take any honors for ingenuity, from the big beat strut of Party People to the sleeker pop stride of Heat of the Summer to the obligatory drinking anthem Tip It Back (a tune introduced by drum loops and metal-esque guitar stutters). Likewise, the vocals – the lion’s share of which were handled by Hubbard – didn’t reveal much distinction outside of the curious occasions when the duo incorporated hip hop into its songs.

But the connection between this very young group and its equally young (and heavily female) audience was obvious and immediate. The turnout that didn’t care if there was hardly a trace of tradition within the band’s music. Nor did it seem bothersome that a tune seemingly designed to establish rural credentials, Country in My Soul, was essentially just a house party style rave with the co-billed Colt Ford rapping between verses.

This was a show where youth played to youth. Never was that more obvious than in the title song to Florida Georgia Line’s Here’s to the Good Times album. The tune was less of a party tune and more of an affirmation, even acknowledgement, of youthful energy of the moment and how nary a minute of it should be wasted. Not a bad sentiment, really.

Ford’s preceding set possessed more of an outlaw air – or at least, it attempted to. Ford is a clever songsmith (he introduced his hit Chicken and Biscuits as “a love song”) who also taps into hip hop for stylistic inspiration. But his performance last night hit all of the usual country pitfalls – tepid vocals, rock star-like self absorption and a ridiculous level of audience pandering. And what was with Ford’s new Hank Williams Jr. look?

Apologies to the evening’s leadoff act, Tyler Farr. A nearly two hour wait in North Broadway traffic made me miss his performance (although Farr’s cameo with Ford later in the show during Dirt Road Anthem was good fun). Judging the endless streams of cars still gridlocked when I entered the ball park, quite a few others didn’t catch it either.

Check out Rich Copley’s LexGo photo gallery of the concert here.

in performance: javon jackson band with les mccann

les mccann 3

les mccann.

It was inevitable that the homecoming of Les McCann last night at the Lyric Theatre would eclipse his actual concert performance. After all, this was the soul-jazz titan’s first Lexington show since the early ‘80s. That, along with the fact that many friends and family members were on hand to cheer him on, provided an unavoidable sense of pageantry to the evening.

But equally immediate were questions among audience members about what kind of performance McCann was physically capable of giving. Sidelined years ago by a stroke and confined last night to a wheelchair, the biggest fear from a patron standpoint was that the keyboardist/vocalist, who has been such a tireless jazz force over the decades, would fold under his own mammoth reputation.

Obviously, the years factored into the performance. Situated behind an electric keyboard that emitted a sound more akin to vibraphone than a piano, McCann stuck largely to sparse rhythmic comping behind a fine quartet led by saxophonist Javon Jackson (a band that included the outstanding indie-jazz guitarist David Gilmore, which was a nice bonus). But the vitality that quickly surfaced in McCann came not from his playing, which, light of touch as it was, seldom wavered from the Jackson band’s subtle groove and swing. It was instead apparent on his face. From note one, McCann was connected to every ounce of music being made around him. He took it in and then reflected the resulting joy through broad electric smiles.

In other words, McCann was still was one seriously hip and involving stylist. He would rock assuredly along with the serious soul flow of Cold Duck Time from his career defining Swiss Movement album (last night’s version illuminated Gilmore’s playing as well as the Jackson band’s sharp ensemble sound) and then chill with the relaxed balladry of With These Hands. The latter was performed largely a glowing solo piece by McCann before Jackson added a studied, complimentary run on tenor sax as a coda.

There were honors galore, too. Representatives from the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame “reinducted” McCann last night between songs (he was absent from his official induction in 2008) while Mayor Jim Gray’s office sent a decree proclaiming yesterday as Les McCann Day. The singer stole all of his own thunder, though, with commentary and remembrances that were often wildly frank (and, frankly, hysterical). One particularly striking memory was of working at the Lyric in his youth. But we can’t repeat that tale here.

Of course, all of that paled next to the rolling, soulful and still topical groove-a-thon that was Compared to What. Over 44 years have passed since McCann made the Gene McDaniels tune a career-defining hit on Swiss Movement. But last night, it was still a grand party piece – a tune full of fresh soul, drive and sass.

The homecoming honors certainly fit the occasion. But Compared to What proved that once you give McCain a smart tune and a killer groove, he’s set, quite literally, for life.

les comes home

les mccann 2

javon jackson and les mccann.

Anchoring one of the two recordings Les McCann claims as personal favorites from his catalog (1973’s Layers) is a two-minute college of keyboards of percussion cut at a time when the champion jazz stylist was pursuing new electric sounds, grooves and arrangements.

The title of the piece is It Never Stopped in My Hometown. Judging by the electronic cool and whispery percussive voices encasing the music, one would have to think McCann’s hometown was one hip place.

The veteran keyboardist, vocalist and composer is, of course, a Lexington native. While he left the Bluegrass in the mid ‘50s “like a bullet from a gun,” as his longtime producer Joel Dorn put it in the liner notes to the 1993 anthology album Relationships, McCann has regularly acknowledged the inspirations he forged in Lexington and the roles they played in the soul-jazz sound he pioneered in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

Topping the list were his memories of the Lyric Theatre, the venue that was Lexington’s prime performance outlet for jazz and R&B acts during McCann’s youth. If he wasn’t working at the Lyric (“taking tickets, cleaning up, seating people, a little bit of everything”), he was taking in all kinds of sounds that enhanced a love of music he said he was born with.

McCann, 84, will perform his first hometown concert in over 30 years tonight at the Lyric as special guest of the band led by saxophonist Javon Jackson.

“I used to work at the Lyric when it first opened because my house was right around the corner on Eastern Ave.,” McCann said. “That’s when I first got hooked on the music. I saw Dizzy Gillespie there and artists like (‘50s era jazz/R&B stars) Wynonie Harris and Tiny Bradshaw. I saw a lot of the black chitlin’ circuit bands. Back then, that was the only place in town for that music.

“My mother didn’t mind. I told her I had a job nearby and was making money, so it was all good.”

By the late ‘60s, having long since relocated to Los Angeles, McCann was at the forefront of a new jazz sound. The strong, lyrical stride of the piano trio recordings he cut up to that point had evolved into music incorporating electric keyboards, McCann’s soul-fortified singing and a master saxophonist/collaborator by the name of Eddie Harris.

A performance by a quintet led by McCann and Harris at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival was recorded and released later that year as the Swiss Movement album. The recording, along with its leadoff cover of Gene McDaniels’ Compared to What, became cornerstones of a mounting soul-jazz movement as well as career defining works for McCann.

“That’s the biggie of all times,” he said of Swiss Movement. “But I’ve made many kinds of records. Two of my favorites through the years were Layers and Invitation to Openness (released in 1972). That one (Openness) came to me in the middle of a dream one night. I called my record company the very next day and said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ Fortunately, I had a producer (Dorn) that trusted me.”

Among the artists reared on McCann’s soul-jazz innovations was Jackson, who would go on to collaborate with such greats as Elvin Jones, Freddie Hubbard and the legendary scout for young jazz talent, Art Blakey. Jackson played with Blakey in the last lineup of his heralded Jazz Messengers.

“I met Les McCann when I met Eddie Harris during my time with Art Blakey,” Jackson said. “We were on a tour in Russia. The bill was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Sun Ra and Les McCann and Eddie Harris. Les was always very nice to me. In my mind, I was always hopeful to play with him later on. I was a fan of his music because my folks used to play Swiss Movement all the time. So I was aware of Les and how dynamic he was.”

“I met Javon when he was 17 years old,” McCann recalled. “We were in Moscow and he said to me at that moment, ‘Man, I love your playing.’ I said, ‘How would you know? You’re too young.’ He said, ‘When I have my own group someday, I want you to be in my band.’ I said, ‘I’ll be more than happy to.’

“I had a stroke a few years ago. Once I returned home from the hospital, I get a call from Javon. He said, ‘Are you ready to be in my band?’ I told him I could only use part of one hand. That’s all I had. Of course, I could still sing. He said, ‘I just want you in my band, period.’ And we’ve been together ever since.”

Decades of playing have left McCann with limited use of his hands. “I’ve had a rough life with my hands and fingers from the way I played, which is kind of a hard fisted approach to the piano. The last two or three years, my fingers just said, ‘Nope. We ain’t doing that no more.’ So I would go to therapy all the time.”

Jackson doesn’t see age or physical restrictions diminishing the soul and sprit that still dominates McCann’s performance work.

“You’ve got to remember this music we call soul-jazz was basically initiated by Les,” Jackson said. “What that means is that all of his experience and history come to the stage. Even though he might not necessarily play with the same fervor he had in his ‘30s, there is something about his spirit that takes the music to another level.

“I never really thought about him not being the man that he was or anything like that because he still gives so much of himself.”

The Javon Jackson Band with Les McCann performs 7:30 tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third St. Tickets are  $25, $35. Call (859) 280-2218 or got to www.lexingtonlyric.com.

the golden age of mandolin

sam bush

sam bush.

When one of the most versed bluegrass-bred musicians celebrates his 61st birthday, a few unexpected fortunes present themselves. Sam Bush is more than happy to brag about them.

“Hey, I get the senior discount at Kroger and the movie theatres now.”

But there is another milestone unique to the string music innovator, one of two Kentucky Music Hall of Fame inductees performing in the region on Friday (Bush and his band play the Grand Theatre in Frankfort while jazz giant Les McCann performs here in Lexington at the Lyric). Since the Bowling Green native took up the mandolin at age 11, he has now passed the half-century mark in fashioning a voice on the instrument that has regularly taken him far beyond the bounds of bluegrass.

“It is a wild thing to realize I’ve been playing the mandolin for 50 years,” Bush said recently in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. “I mean, wow, I thought I would be a lot better by now. But you know what? I still have the goal that I want to improve as a player and singer. And I’m still working on it.”

Collaboration has been at the heart of Bush’s music throughout his career, from the earliest days of the groundbreaking New Grass Revival in the 1970s to his ongoing work with The Sam Bush Band, where his music’s bluegrass roots have led to fusion, folk, country, jam band grooves, reggae and more. And that doesn’t even take into account the seemingly endless performance situations Bush has found himself in outside of his band.

They include a renewed alliance with fellow string music titans (and longtime pals) Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck at last month’s International Bluegrass Music Association awards ceremony in North Carolina and duo concerts earlier this year with iconic bluegrass stylist Del McCoury. There have also been Nashville recording sessions that earned Bush another nomination at this fall’s Country Music Association awards. Capping it all are two projects the mandolinist (and equally versed fiddler) will round out 2013 with: a pair of decidedly non-bluegrass acoustic concerts later this month with The Black Crowes in New York and a live November radio session in Minneapolis where Bush will play for Garrison Keillor in Guy’s All-Shoe Band on A Prairie Home Companion.

“I try to pay attention and learn something in every situation,” Bush said. “Take the way Del and I play. I have to play much differently when it is just the two of us. Now, I love to play rhythm. When Del and I are playing, though, I don’t really play that much rhythm because I’m the only instrument making fills and taking all the solos. And I’ve never done that in my life, because I enjoy that band ensemble playing.

“The question has been asked, ‘Well, you should just go play some solo shows. You know how to play all these instruments.’ That’s just not interesting to me because if I’m not playing with other people, I run out of ideas within two songs. I like to bounce off of the other musicians. For instance, there are these acoustic shows coming up with The Black Crowes. Well, the way they play acoustic is much different than those of us who grew up playing bluegrass-style acoustic music. It’s a totally different thing. So, yeah, right off the bat you can learn something about playing a different way.”

Best of all, what Bush picks up in every one of these performance situations freshens his musical perspective when he returns to his favorite collaborative ensemble, The Sam Bush Band, which includes guitarist Stephen Mougin, banjoist Scott Vestal, bassist Todd Parks and drummer Chris Brown.

“I try to learn from the other situations so that, one, when I come back to the band, it’s like getting back home and playing with your brothers again, and, two, there is a musical comfort level in that we don’t have to rehearse every song and stuff. If there is one we haven’t played in awhile, we may rehearse it in soundcheck just to freshen up on it. But the guys bring this great musicianship to the table and their influences make the music a lot of fun.”

Bush is devoting what little offstage time he has this fall to sifting through songs and ideas for his next solo work (his first since 2009’s bluegrass dominate Circles Around Me) and recordings from his shows with McCoury for a possible live album. In short, he and the mandolin have plenty of music still ahead of them.

“What can I say? Things are at a good place. I’ve never enjoyed playing and collaborating with people more. I’m having fun with it all.”

The Sam Bush Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct.18 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St.Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets are $30-$55. Call (502) 352-7469 or got to www.grandtheatrefrankfort.com.

 

clubbing ’til the cows come home

hot club of cowtown

hot club of cowtown: jake erwin, elana james, whit smith.

For the past 15 years the vintage string sounds of the Hot Club of Cowtown have stuck a giddy, inviting balance between two stylistic shores.

The first takes us to Europe, where Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli transformed swing into a light, giddy dialogue between guitar and violin.

The second places us deep in the heart of Lone Star country when Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys rode swing music into the wild, wild west.

It’s been an enchanting combination for fiddler Elana James, guitarist Whit Smith and bassist Jake Erwin, one that has developed a fanbase that has been, not surprisingly, cross continental in its design.

But after giving equal time over the years to its two most formidable influences, the Hot Club members decided to devote one complete album to each style. And in a fit of reverse serendipity, each record was cut on the home soil of the opposite inspiration.

In other words, the 2010 Wills tribute, What Makes Bob Holler, was cut in a three-day session during an overseas tour stop in London. The new Rendezvous in Rhythm, a record rooted solely in the European jazz of Reinhardt and Grappelli, was recorded just as quickly in the music metropolis of Dripping Springs, Tx.

“My mom was so excited,” said James, who will perform with Smith and Erwin as part of a free Hot Club convocation concert at Berea College on Thursday. “This record (Rendezvous in Rhythm) is her favorite because it’s all about one thing. That really appeals to some people. Not everybody likes everything that we do, so this is kind of a companion to What Makes Bob Holler. There is now a dedicated album to both sections of our fanbase.

“This music has been played by so many people. But the thing that sets our band apart is that we bring a very immediate interpretation to it. We’re not trying to reheat something. We’re sort of imagining ourselves as contemporary artists to the people that have inspired us. That’s what we try to capture – and it is very difficult to capture – so that it sounds fresh and immediate.

“Most of Rendezvous in Rhythm was totally improvised, so those solos and ideas are all spontaneous. It’s as if we went into the studio to have a conversation with each other through these songs. Each day the conversation is a bit different depending on what people are thinking and feeling, that kind of thing.”

A prime Rendezvous example of that process is Minor Swing, one of the best known compositions to reflect the immensely animated and lyrical swing pioneered by Reinhardt and Grappelli.

“That one is totally improvised,” James said. “In Django Reinhardt’s composition, the only thing that is copyrighted is that bom-bom-bom, doo-doo-doo. It’s like eight bars. That’s it. After that, you’re on your own. A lot of people know that song, so it’s nice to be able to give people something like that as a reference. And if people know the song but have never heard our band, they might go, ‘Oh, Minor Swing – let’s hear what they do with that.”

The challenge behind What Makes Bob Holler was different. The Hot Club, like Wills, was accustomed to playing Western Swing in front of a live audience and feeding off the resulting energy. But the isolated studio environment the record was cut in meant the band had to rely on its own performance gusto to carry the music.

“We really are the kind of band that is very affected by, and responds to, our audience. So the hardest thing about the record was letting some of these songs catch fire on their own. So we really did it in this kind of old school style, like old timers just stopping into a studio in Paris or Oklahoma and seeing what you could come up with during three days of sessions. That’s what the album is.”

If audience feedback was what the Hot Club was yearning for, they got it in super size fashion when the trio was invited to open several London concerts by the veteran British pop troupe Roxy Music in 2011.

“Several years ago, (Roxy frontman) Bryan Ferry approached us to rework some of his material into a hot jazz/Western swing format,” James said. “So we cut two or three of his songs and sent them to him. He was like, ‘Would you just do a few more?’ So we wound up doing like six of his songs. But it never really came to anything. I almost think he wanted to return the favor by having us open those shows.

“It was like being a stand-up comic. When you’re on tour opening for a giant act like that in huge arenas in England you get to play about 23 minutes. So you try to sculpt your set so that it will have the most wallop for that crowd. Your time is so limited that the goal is to dazzle without overselling yourself. You want to get in there, get out and leave them with a positive, memorable performance. That’s what we always shoot for.”

Hot Club of Cowtown performs at 8 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Phelps-Stokes Chapel at Berea College. Admission is free. Call (859) 985-3359 or got to www.berea.edu/convocations/2013-2014.

critic’s pick 300: dr. john, ‘original album series’

dr john 2Great music, we are told, lives forever. Too bad that’s not always the case for great recordings, at least not in physical form.

Among the prime casualties of the digital age are the back catalogues of many influential artists from rock, folk and Americana fields. History may look kindly upon their work. But unless you’re The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd, your once-cherished work has been discounted out of existence as the demand for compact discs continues its downward spiral.

An example of such loss leader philosophy has been the Original Album Series, a Rhino Records imprint that offers no frills repackaging of five or so albums by a single artist for as little as $18. Die hard fans have no need for such projects as they likely own the recordings already. Younger, novice fans see music only as a downloadable commodity. So despite the bargain pricing of the Original Album Series entries, we are also seeing how grossly devalued historic recorded music has become.

But then we come to a new – and, as of now, import-only – Original Album Series collection devoted to the music of master New Orleans psychedelic funkster Dr. John. Its price tag, in keeping with the series, is meager (under $25, even as an import) with the packaging consisting of little more than miniature cardboard slipcases of the original artwork without any further annotation.

But in the case of Dr. John’s music, the collection is something of a watershed. This Original Album Series entry offers five of his first six albums (1970s’ Remedies, his third record, is curiously omitted).  The availability of all this music over the years has been, at best, irregular. At worst, it has been non-existent. The sleeper sets – 1968’s Babylon and 1971’s The Sun, Moon and Herbs only enjoyed brief domestic releases over the past four decades. Import copies of just one of those records were vastly more costly than this entire five-disc set. Other records, like the masterful 1968 debut album Gris Gris and 1972’s roots-directed Gumbo, were more scattered in their availability. Only the breakthrough work, 1973’s In the Right Place, remained consistently in print.

Gathering all these recordings in one place, even if it is part of a budget packaging project like the Original Album Series, is something of an unintended triumph that allows us to trace the rise of Dr. John from a psychedelic carnival shaman (Gris Gris, Babylon and The Sun, Moon and Herbs) to a scholarly New Orleans piano ambassador (Gumbo) to the harbinger of a new New Orleans groove (In the Right Place).

To the folks at Rhino, this was probably just another way to discount the past. But to serious fans of New Orleans psychedelia, what we have hit upon here is a glorious though somewhat accidental motherload.

in performance: the lumineers/nathaniel rateliff

the lumineers

the lumineers: wesley schultz, neyla pekarek, stelth ulvang, jeremiah fraites and ben wahamaki.

As they settled into a groove last night at Memorial Coliseum, the five members of The Lumineers gave every indication that its polite, unhurried brand of folk-inspired pop would be the order of the evening. Then, as the band launched their biggest hit, singer/frontman Wesley Schultz asked the predominantly college-age audience in attendance to do the unthinkable.

Yep, just as the introductory riffs commenced on Ho Hey, the chirpy radio hit that essentially introduced the Denver band and its wide-eyed pop sound to the world last year, Schultz requested the crowd – and you almost hear the audible gasps – to put away their cell phones.

It wasn’t some major pronouncement or demand. Neither was the performance of Ho Hey, for that matter, which was dispensed with zero fanfare four songs into the 75 minute show. Still, the request had a ricochet effect. A few fans cheered. Some booed briefly. Most simply complied. Apparently powering down from social electronica for just over an hour wasn’t as visible a hardship and one would imagine.

The request wasn’t the only surprise of the night, either. While guitarist Schultz was the band’s focal point during all of the 17 songs tackled last night, he wasn’t the catalyst that sparked The Lumineers’ craftier moments onstage. Neither was cellist Neyla Pekarek, a co-founding member with a seemingly distinctive musical contribution to make. Sadly, her playing was lost in an uneven sound mix for much of the evening save for a mid-show segment when the band pared down to its three core members.

No, the MVP of this light though slightly lumbering Lumineers show was pianist Stelth Ulvang, whose playing propelled Sawmill Joe’s Ain’t Nobody’s Problem and a curiously dark hoedown version of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Ulvang also proved to be keenly resourceful by switching to mandolin for the hearty hootenanny flavor of Charlie Boy and accordion during a two song stretch (Darlene and Elouise) that had him playing in the lower sections on each side of the coliseum while the rest of the band joined the audience assembled on the venue’s floor.

Drummer Jeremiah Fraites was a close runner up with a percussion sound that was wildly intuitive and far reaching, whether it was through a variety of spacious rhythms hammered out on a traditional kit or more rustic beats drawn from a kick drum at the foot of the stage.

It was all as good natured as could be, even though the majority of the songs reflected fairly pat arrangements that seldom strayed from the lean and brief versions originated on the band’s self-titled debut album. One fine exception was Stubborn Love. Next to Ho Hey, this was The Lumineers’ biggest hit. But it was also one the few tunes that seriously opened up last night to involve the audience, especially during an ensuing sing-a-long. That might seem like a conventional stage ploy. But for a show steeped in material and performances that often seemed shy and safe, Stubborn Love was a breakthrough.

Fellow Denver folk stylist Nathaniel Rateliff opened the evening with a curious though somewhat distant sounding set that operated from more dissonant sounding sources than the evening’s headliners. Several songs coalesced into anthemic, Avett Brothers-style grooves at times, which quickly won audience approval. Mostly, though, one was left thinking that a more intimate listening environment might have been a better setting to appreciate the cloudy, quirky turns of Rateliff’s tunes.

weirdo

weird al yankovic

weird al yankovic.

Late into his career, Frank Zappa released a concert recording with a title that posed this question: Does Humor Belong in Music?

That was in 1986. Even then Weird Al Yankovic had an answer. Nearly three decades later as pop music’s champion satirist, he remains steadfast in his stance.

“It does belong,” said Yankovic, who brings his Alpocalypse Tour to the EKU Center for the Arts tonight. “I think humor is denigrated a lot in music and in a lot of other media. But comedy is such an important part of life. It’s certainly important to me. It’s important to all civilization.

“A lot of people think, perhaps, that because something is funny, there isn’t much art involved in it. I would beg to differ. As an example, I would like to think my band is one of the best bands in the world. They do everything from gangsta rap to polka music. The fact that the music is funny doesn’t mean they are any less talented or any less skillful. In fact, the opposite is true.”

A life-long Californian, Yankovic began his career by making homemade tapes of songs where he accompanied himself on accordion. He eventually got them broadcast on The Dr. Demento Radio Show. But the world got to know “Weird Al” at the dawn of the music video age. There, he was able to not only parody the top-selling pop hits of the day but the promotional video clips that accompanied them.

“I’ve always liked focusing on songs that are, of course, big hits – ideally ones that hit the top of the Billboard charts, songs that are getting a lot of airplay. They could be getting a lot of exposure through the internet or have some kind of recognizable musical or lyrical hook that really pops out when you hear it.

“More often than not, it really comes down to finding a song that I have a clever enough idea for. There are a lot of songs that seem like they would be good fodder for parody but either they’ve been beaten into the ground by everybody else on youtube or I can’t think of what I would consider to be a reasonable idea for it.”

What sets Yankovic apart from many satirists – and most comics, in general – is that his humor is seldom, if ever, mean spirited. By adhering to a pop song’s melody but dramatically altering its lyrics, he creates songs that are, quite simply, silly. In the ‘80s, Madonna’s Like a Virgin became Like a Surgeon while Michael Jackson’s Beat It and Bad became Eat It and Fat. In the ‘90s, the Coolio pop-rap hit Gangsta’s Paradise was transformed into Amish Paradise. On his 2011 Alpocalypse album, Yankovic playfully skewers songs by Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Queen along with a polka medley (Polka Face) that crams bits of hits by Lady Antebellum, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and more into the melody of the Liechtensteiner Polka.

“I guess the humor is more of an extension of my personality,” Yankovic said. “I just can’t go for the jugular. Certainly I have done things over my career that might be construed as mean or perhaps crossing the line. But by and large, I try not to step on people’s toes. I prefer poking somebody in the ribs instead of kicking them in the butt.”

As a result, most artists (Coolio being a noted exception) have viewed Yankovic parodies as badges of honor. Having a hit receive the Weird Al treatment is regularly seen as a career milestone. Yankovic said the acceptance of one touchstone artist gave almost immediate credibility to his comic adventures.

“All of the artists have been great sports. But Michael Jackson I have to give special thanks to. When I did my parodies of Beat It and Bad, he was the biggest celebrity in the world. He certainly didn’t need to even acknowledge me. Instead, he thought what I was doing was funny and he gave me his blessing. That definitely went a long way in getting other artists’ approvals.

“The artists that wouldn’t pick up the phone before to talk to my manager were all of sudden saying, ‘Well, if Michael Jackson says it’s okay, then this Weird Al guy must be worth dealing with.’”

Alpocalypse also offered another generous artistic blessing. Among the album’s highlights is Craigslist, which is set to the vocal and instrumental accents of The Doors. If the vintage pop feel sounds eerily authentic, it’s because Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek played on it.

Manzarek died in May at age 74.

“That was amazing,” Yankovic said of working with Manzarek. “What a great guy. What a legend. I remember when I came up with the idea for Craigslist, before I had even written the lyrics, I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder if Ray Manzarek would play on this?’ So I contacted him and without even hearing a single lyric, he said, ‘Absolutely. I’m. in. Definitely one of the high points of my life.”

Weird Al Yankovic performs at 7:30 tonight at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. Tickets are $39, $49. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to http://ekucenter.com.

critic’s pick 299: allen toussaint, ‘songbook”

allen toussaintIn the wake of the floods triggered by Hurricane Katrina that ravaged his New Orleans homeland, Allen Toussaint relocated to New York City. There, the masterful producer, pianist, composer, arranger and singer – whose songs have long been synonymous with Crescent City soul and funk – found a new performance home within the intimate environment of Joe’s Pub. That’s where Toussaint fashioned solo programs that relinquished majestic horn and keyboard grooves in favor of unaccompanied piano readings of the sterling pop material that has bolstered his career for over a half century.

Songbook chronicles two such concerts at Joe’s Pub in 2009 when the scars from Katrina were still fresh and deep. Such a time perspective factors little into this recording, though. Toussaint, now 75, approaches this music with resilient dignity. This is no eulogy for a city and heritage in mourning. Songbook is instead a beautiful though understated celebration.

Just as New Orleans fueled the dense, humid funk of Toussaint’s 70s-era recordings, Songbook takes its cue from the New York surroundings at Joe’s. The performances of It’s Raining, Brickyard Blues and especially Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further are presented with a light, limber tone. Listen closely, though, and you will hear the rich Professor Longhair-style blues and boogie woogie lines that serve as a powerful undercurrent to the music. Even in the few instances when the songs aren’t his own, as in an instrumental reading of St. James Infirmary, the music possesses an elegant, lyrical soulfulness.

The jawdropper is a 12 minute incantatory update of Southern Nights. Long one of Toussaint’s most loving remembrances of his Louisiana roots, the Songbook version allows the melody to become long and impressionistic while the lyrics open up into a detailed remembrance of childhood visits to Creole-talking “old folk” in rural outreaches of the state. Those memories recall seemingly primitive household amenities (“outhouses…I know no New Yorker knows what an outhouse is”) and unfamiliar country inhabitants (“chickens strutting around with all their parts intact”).

Simply put, this is rapturous and beautifully transportive music as performed by a displaced musical giant. Whether they represent New York or New Orleans, the songs of Songbook still sound like they are perched on the front porch forever basking in the sunlight of life.

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