Archive for November, 2013

in performance: bela fleck and brooklyn rider

Bela Fleck and Brooklyn Rider

bela fleck, center, with violist nicholas cords, violinists johnny gandelsman and colin jacobsen and cellist eric jacobsen of brooklyn rider. photo by shervin lainez.

In an instance that was as ironic as it was revealing last night at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts, Bela Fleck deconstructed the second movement of The Imposter Concerto, the original orchestral work that commands the first half of his newest album (The Imposter) into a solo banjo piece. In doing so, the work revealed a folkish reverence and deep Americana conscience that has long been at the heart of even his most modern minded music.

The irony came from the movement’s title: Integration. While you might not have experienced the symphonic meshing of styles in this sketch pad-style reading, what resulted throughout the rest of the program was very much the product of a musical integration that was like-minded in execution but hardly likely in terms of musical convention.

The performance was one of the initial dates of a tour that teamed Fleck with the progressively minded New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider. With little, if any, precedent for a banjo-led string ensemble to follow, the music followed several intriguing paths of cultural pollination.

In essence, Fleck’s Americana works (displayed neatly in the evening’s show-opening, chamber-style revision of his 2003 Flecktones tune Next and the beautifully plaintive 1994 solo piece The Landing) worked off of Brooklyn Rider’s preference for Eastern European influences.

The latter was allowed to roam freely within the Romanian flourishes of Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s Culai, which the quartet performed without Fleck. But on extended works like Fleck’s Night Flight Over Water, the integration was plentiful. The dynamics, which were rich throughout the piece, crested in a finale of car chase speed between banjo and strings.

Further stretching the tug of war between Americana and European folk sources was Brooklesca. Composed by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen, the piece initially underscored the design difference between Fleck and the quartet – specifically, the single plucked notes of the banjo, often played at dizzying speed with remarkable melodic dexterity, and the longer bowed phrasing of the Riders. Then the lines blurred into a playful but precise whole.

There were also moments when the music embraced glorious quiet, as in a cover of Joao Gilberto subtle bossa nova Undiu, which let the program’s worldly integration settle into a state of incantatory global cool.

douglas and the dobro

jerry douglas

jerry douglas.

The year was 1986. The time was a Friday afternoon in June. It was a fitting backdrop as Jerry Douglas took to the stage at the Festival of the Bluegrass.

The champion dobro stylist was already a bit of a local hero, having lived in Lexington a decade earlier while playing with the inaugural lineup of JD Crowe and the New South and, later with fellow Crowe alum Ricky Skaggs, in Boone Creek. But this day, it was just Douglas and the dobro onstage. There was no fanfare, no band and, thanks to a brownout that robbed the entire Kentucky Horse Park campground of power, no electricity.

So in taking full advantage of a brilliantly sunny summer day, Douglas walked out into the crowd toward a nearby tree and continued to play as if he was sitting in his backyard.

“I remember that well,” Douglas said. “I went to the only shade tree I could see. It was certainly better than whatever I would have been to do up there onstage. Besides, it was fun. It was nice to be out there with the people.”

On Sunday, Douglas returns to Lexington in a performance that very much reflects that ‘80s appearance. It won’t be summer and he won’t be in the great outdoors, but Douglas will perform with nothing onstage at the Lyric Theatre but the slide-driven resonator guitar known as the dobro. There will no band behind him, unlike most of his previous concerts in the region as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station. There will be no new recording to promote (his most recent solo album, Traveler, is nearly two years old). The Sunday agenda will simply entail dobro music as played by the artist that has essentially revolutionized the instrument.

“A show like this gives me a lot of freedom,” Douglas said. “And the setlist – well, there really isn’t one. I kind of go at the music chronologically for awhile and then just throw the setlist away and play whatever I want or whatever anybody else wants to hear. It turns into a free-for-all. And since I’m not doing this in great big giant places, the show is a little bit more intimate.”

Bluegrass was the starting point for Douglas and remains a key reference for all of his music. He will proudly tell you today of what a towering inspiration Josh Graves, the landmark dobro player for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, was on his playing. But the ‘70s and ‘80s brought Douglas in line with a stable of like-minded thrillseekers like Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and another Crowe alum, Tony Rice. While Douglas’ devotion to bluegrass never wavered, he began absorbing outside influences – in particular, a style of improvising that owed as much to jazz as bluegrass tradition.

One particular turning point for Douglas was hearing the 1977 fusion album Heavy Weather by the progressive jazz ensemble Weather Report. That came near the end of his stay in Lexington.

“The first time I heard that record was in Lexington,” Douglas recalled. “Steve Bryant, the bass player who was in Boone Creek toward the end of the band, is the guy who turned me on to Weather Report, Chick Corea and all that. He had a house right on the edge of the UK campus. We would sit out there in the summertime on the front porch with the speakers just blasting Chick Corea. My mind was just completely blown.

“When I lived in Lexington… that was the first time I really tried to play any other kind of music other than just straight bluegrass. I was there with Crowe and Tony Rice, and I spent a lot of time with Tony listening to Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy and all these deep, dark heroin addict jazz musicians. And it really did make an impression on me. It was definitely the start of a long improvisational career of stretching the boundaries of what I initially thought my instrument would be doing. By the time I left Lexington, I had a completely different mindset than what I arrived there with.”

Douglas next recording project, which will surface next spring, is a dobro summit with Rob Ickes, the outstanding instrumentalist with Blue Highway whose solo projects have revealed a similar love of jazz, and the late Mike Auldridge, who was changing the playing style and repertoire for the dobro with the Seldom Scene as Douglas’ career began. Auldridge succumbed to cancer late last year, just as recording sessions for the projects were finishing.

“I don’t know why we didn’t do this record a long time ago. But when Mike got sick, it got to the point of ‘Now we have to do it.’ I remember Mike was saying, ‘Well, who will we use for a band?’ I said, ‘We don’t need a band. It will just be us – just the three of us.’

“We would record until Mike got tired and then Rob and I would get on a plane and come home (Auldridge lived in Maryland, Douglas and Ickes reside in the Nashville area). The last session we did for the record was Mike’s last session. But he played so well. I’ve never heard him play better.

“There is sort of an order, a process to this music, really. For the dobro, it was Josh Graves, then Mike Auldridge and me and then Rob Ickes. That was the natural progression of who has come along to change things for the instrument.”

Jerry Douglas performs at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third. Tickets are  $34.50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to www.lexingtonlyric.com.

bela, brooklyn and the banjo

bela fleck

bela fleck. photo by shervin lainez.

Look back at the projects Bela Fleck has been involved over the past decade and you will discover a checklist of progressive musical settings that would have previously been considered alien territory for the string instrument he has helped pioneer – the banjo.Where do we begin? How about the West meets very Eastern music designed with bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussain? There is also the unlikely piano-meets-banjo music with the iconic instrumentalist Chick Corea. The list goes on – a yearlong reunion with the original lineup of the banjoist’s fusion group The Flecktones, a touring summit with some of Africa’s most acclaimed musical heroes, combo jazz with pianist Marcus Roberts and duo concerts alongside perhaps Fleck’s most favored fellow banjo artist – wife Abigail Washburn.

Which of these configurations brings the multi-Grammy winning Fleck back to Central Kentucky tonight? None of them. For his performance at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, Fleck will perform music with the industrious New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

“The truth is I usually try to do things that are pretty different from each other,” Fleck said last week prior to the tour’s opening. “For instance, playing with African musicians doesn’t necessarily set up me for playing with classical musicians, except that I’m ready for it. I’m ready for a change. I must have the typical American short attention span. After awhile, I’m just really ready to step into something brand new.”

Anchoring tonight’s performance is the quintet piece Night Flight Over Water which Fleck recorded with Brooklyn Rider for his current album, The Imposter. The work is paired on the Deutsche Grammophon release with The Imposter Concerto, an original work recorded with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

“The Banjo Concerto was about 35 minutes long, so there was some discussion about what the rest of the CD would be like,” Fleck said. “I floated a bunch of ideas by Deutsche Grammophon that I was excited about. One of them was writing a piece for banjo and string quartet. So the next thing was to find a string quartet – the right string quartet.”

Enter Brooklyn Rider – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – an ensemble that aptly describes itself on the back sleeve of its newest recording, A Walking Fire, as “intrepid.” The quartet members played Danville and Richmond last spring alongside Yo-Yo Ma as members of the Silk Road Ensemble.

“I got signed with an agency that handles classical artists, especially people like Yo-Yo Ma. They are the ones that brought up the idea of Brooklyn Rider. Then I did my due diligence and studied their music and asked around. Everyone said, ‘Perfect choice,’ because they have a great sensibility for collaboration, but they are also at the very highest rank of classical players.

“The great thing about these guys is that they are classical musicians but have listened to so much music outside of that. For instance, if I show up with something that has a little bit of a bluegrass pocket, they know what it’s supposed to sound like and they are really excited to get inside it and learn from it. They’ve listened to a lot of Latin music. They’ve listened to a lot of African music. They are just very musical people of this time. They are not your stereotypical classical musicians who are only interested in the classics.

“The music in the classical world is so spectacular that I can see why people get hung up on it and don’t think of anything else as real music. But it’s all musical expression. That’s what music is supposed to be, and it’s all valid. Luckily, these guys look at it that way. That’s why we’re a good fit.”

Since so many of Fleck’s past projects relied on hefty levels of improvisation, a different sense of collaboration came into play with Brooklyn Rider, especially since Night Flight Over Water was a thoroughly composed piece. But the more Fleck got to know his new bandmates, the more he knew what he wanted the piece to sound like.

 “I started writing a bunch of sketches, not knowing what was going to sound good for a string quartet and banjo and brought those up to Brooklyn. We did a sort of read-through of ideas. That gave me a good sense of who they were and how to write for them. Then I went through a workshopping stage. The next time I got together with them, I had written a piece. We spent a couple of days running though that which helped me sort through what needed to change about the piece when we recorded it, which was a couple of months later. So they had a lot of input in the piece as to what they liked, what they thought worked and what fit them.

“It wasn’t anybody saying, ‘Hey, rewrite this part’ or ‘that doesn’t work.’ But what they did bring was a knowledge about how to make a new piece like that sound great. They got that from doing so many things with so many different people.

“When you get a new piece of music, it’s like a puzzle. You sit down and look at it. You see the notes. Then you have to figure out how to make it into music. And that is what these guys are really excellent at.”

Bela Fleck and Brooklyn Rider perform at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $24-$46. Call (859) 236-4692 or go to  www.nortoncenter.com

sister act

sonya and elizabeth schumann

sonya and elizabeth schumann.

As budding students are want to do, Elizabeth and Sonya Schumann exchanged ideas, made discoveries and artistically matured as they learned their craft on a well-worn upright piano given to their mother.As children with equally voracious musical appetites, however, the inevitable was soon revealed. In other words, one piano simply wasn’t big enough for both of them.

“When my sister started playing, my mother decided, ‘Okay. Let’s have some instruction’,” said Sonya Schumann, who will perform alongside sibling Elizabeth for two concerts this weekend with the Lexington Philharmonic. “So my sister started having lessons. Shortly thereafter, so did I.  In our after school hours, having to share that piano became rather difficult. We fought a little. Well, maybe ‘fought’ is a strong word.

“They weren’t fights,” added Elizabeth Schumann. “They were emphatic discussions.”

“Well, our mother soon decided she had had it with our ‘emphatic discussions’,’ continued Sonya. “She found a second old upright piano at a yard sale and that was it. I was the younger one who usually got the hand-me-downs but this was the one time that I got the new thing.”

Listening to them in conversation, it’s hard to picture the two Virginia-born sisters at cross purposes. Their tone in discussion is bright, animated and susceptible to outbursts of laughter. Such temperament seems an obvious fit for Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, the immensely inviting work the two will perform on twin pianos with the Philharmonic tonight (for a program titled Fantasy that will also include Humperdink’s Suite from Hansel and Gretel and the Stravinsky ballet Petrushka) and again Sunday (for for an abridged family concert that will also reprise the Humperdink piece).

“I think (Carnival of the Animals) is a good introductory piece for many people because it shows off the expressive possibilities of not just the piano but of the whole orchestra,” Sonya said. “The piece has humor and color and virtuosity. The challenge comes in how much it can bring out of the orchestra.

“For instance, the most famous parts show off the cello and how tenderly and beautifully it can play. Then there’s the cuckoo played by the clarinet and the elephant played by the double bass in the most hilarious way possible. It is just a wonderful, evocative piece, with these incredible extremes. And there is the can-can theme, which is slowed down to create these creeping themes for the tortoises. If you recognize it at the snail-like speed that we play then you might find yourself kind of giggling at mental images of these tortoises dancing the can-can.”

The sisters are so taken with the work that they have built a series of e-books under the banner title Piano Carnival as a sort of portable multi-media outreach project.

“I look at this piece as a way for adults to experience childhood again,” Elizabeth said. “So we are working on releasing what is going to be three interactive e-books/i-Pad apps created around Carnival of the Animals. We wanted to create an experience that would allow us to integrate lots of multi-media contexts in ways that would reach the widest possible audience.

“It has always been essential to us as artists that we take creative risks and explore original ideas.”

Accessible as the Saint-Saens piece is, it also presents a number of technical demands for the sisters – the most prominent being articulating and contrasting the interplay between two pianos.

“It feels like a rock band,” Sonya said of the double piano setting.”We’ve got two nine foot pianos that sit side by side. Just that amount of sound alone makes you feel like you’re a rock star.

“Then you have to factor in that the other person is playing an instrument that sounds identical to yours,” Elizabeth added. “Playing two pianos is like walking on stilts, but you’re only in charge of the left leg. You don’t necessarily know when the right leg is going to move or how far it’s going to move. The only way that works is if you completely understand, to the point of almost having ESP with that other person, what that other leg on the stilts is going to do.”

But when the other player is your sister, someone you grew up beside and had “emphatic discussions” with over the piano, something akin to ESP takes over. With Elizabeth six years the elder to Sonya (they politely declined to reveal their specific ages), the sisters see the simple familiarity of their family bond as an advantage when communicating musically onstage.

“When you go to a performance hall, a lot is unfamiliar,” Elizabeth said. “The backstage area is unfamiliar. The audience members, of course, will be unfamiliar. But then you go to the piano and there is always the keyboard. And it’s like, ‘I’m home. I have a keyboard.’ It’s the same thing for me when I go onstage with Sonya.

Added Sonya, “You just know that person is there and has got your back. They know 100% where you are and how you feel. It just makes me feel like we’re playing at home again.”

The Lexington Philharmonic with Elizabeth and Sonya Schumann perform at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 ($20-$70) and 3 p.m. Nov. 17 ($10) at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Call (859) 233-4226 or go to http://lexphil.org.

critic’s pick 304: los lobos, ‘disconnected in new york city’

los lobosNow in the midst of its 40th anniversary as a band, Los Lobos remains a quietly authoritative rock, soul and roots music voice. A wonderful new concert recording, Disconnected in New York City, is proof. As is usually the case with Los Lobos, though, the reasons fortifying that proof seem obvious – but aren’t.

To begin with Disconnected is somewhat displaced – at least, geographically. Los Lobos formed in East Los Angeles as a Mexican-American troupe devoted equally to traditional cumbias and Tex Mex romps as well as very north-of-the-border rock ‘n’ roll. But this record has the band, whose core lineup (save for the ‘80s addition of keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Berlin) has never changed, on the opposite coast, playing at New York’s folk-friendly City Winery last year just before Christmas.

Then we have the sound. Disconnected infers the music is unplugged, which it largely is. But unlike the strictly acoustic performances Los Lobos regularly indulges in (programs that tend to lean exclusively to traditional Mexicali music), this fine new concert set is simply a slighter, lighter look at the full scope of the band’s repertoire. The primary differences come with frontmen David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas sticking to acoustic guitars and the addition of a percussionist (Camilo Quinones) alongside the band’s touring drummer (Bugs Gonzalez).

This gives Disconnected a decidedly cool temperament that quietly but boldly orchestrates the Rosas-led Chuco’s Cumbia and the lush, Santana-like away that plays out under Hidalgo’s  lead on La Venganza de los Pelados as well as the James Brown-savvy soul celebration Set Me Free (Rosa Lee) and the giddy Tex Mex party piece Gotta Let You Know.

But the real delight offered by Disconnected is the setlist. While La Bamba, the Richie Valens hit the band respectfully appropriated and reinvented in the ‘80s, closes the record in an ultra fun jam medley with Good Lovin’, what we have here is, by design, not a hit parade. Instead, Los Lobos digs deep into its catalogue for forgotten favorites from its earliest albums and treasures from recent works that were largely neglected altogether.

Among these treats are the serenely streetwise blues that enforces the title tune to 2010’s Tin Can Trust, the devastating soul ballad Little Things (from 2006’s The Town and the City), the wistful Spanish-flavored serenade Malaque (from 2002’s Good Morning Aztlan) and the rhumba-esque time capsule piece Oh Yeah (from 1999’s This Time).

But the killer is Tears of God, a prayer for salvation that stems back to 1987. Sung alternately by Hidalgo and Rosas, it remains a vital portrait of the lasting soulfulness and solemnity that continue to make Los Lobos one of the most potent but unassuming rock bands in any land.

in performance: the blind boys of alabama/ed kowalczyk

blind boys of alabama

jimmy carter, center, with the blind boys of alabama.

Like all great music, like all great art, the most rapturous spiritual songs are the ones that don’t call attention to themselves. They don’t waste time with the kind of petty theatrics that promote their cause like some cheap, disposable commodity. They simply work within the faith they attest to as opposed to shoving their beliefs down unsuspecting throats.

Last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre contained several exemplary examples of true, unassuming spiritual music. But the most riveting tune was also the least known and least conspicuous. It wasn’t a traditional work, but a modern meditation titled I Am Not Waiting Anymore by Chris Porterfield of the wonderful indie band Field Report. Porterfield wasn’t there to perform it. Instead the song was offered as a collaboration that brought together the evening’s two featured acts – the veteran gospel vocal troupe Blind Boys of Alabama and former Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk.

I Am Not Waiting Anymore is one of the highlights from the Blind Boys’ new Justin Vernon-produced I’ll Find a Way, the most wintry and quietly subversive album the group has released during its remarkable Grammy winning renaissance. Sam Amidon sang it with the Blind Boys on the record. But Kowalczyk’s lead proved a subtle and studied compliment to the ambient guitar chiming of Blind Boys guitarist Joey Williams. While visibly moved by the song, Kowalczyk never overplayed his emotive hand. It was just a brilliant performance moment all around.

The rest of the Blind Boys’ set played more to the traditional side of I’ll Find a Way, from the lean celebratory charge of God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud (with an arrangement based around Ralph Stanley’s version of the tune) to the tent revival jubilation of I Shall Not Be Moved, which let loose the ageless vocal might of Jimmy Carter, the lone holdout from when the original Blind Boys began singing as children over 70 years ago.

ed kowalczyk

ed kowalczyk.

Kowalczyk’s set was a surprise only because it is still hard to place him outside the arena rock ranks of Live, one of the ‘90s more bankable post-grunge acts. But his makeover as a solo acoustic artist seemed quite natural, especially within songs from his new solo album The Flood and the Mercy (in particular, Bottle of Anything and Seven) that played to the cooler, bottom range of his voice. Live die-hards were not forgotten, though. Kowalczyk offered acoustic versions of two major radio hits from the band’s 1994 signature album, Throwing Copper (I Alone and Lightning Crashes) with their angst, unrest and drama intact.

The evening’s other highlight also went to the Blind Boys which dedicated a cover of the Velvet Underground’s atypically contemplative Jesus to Lou Reed. The iconic rock stylist, who died late last month, recorded the song with the group in 2009. Last night, the combination of a rugged percussive beat, deep Hammond organ orchestration and the Blind Boys sage-like singing produced a spiritual glow that would have made even a champion street curmudgeon like Reed beam.

life in the after-live

ed kowalczyk 1

ed kowalczyk.

Ed Kowalczyk calls his current tour I Alone Acoustic – a curious title for a song stylist who, for the first two decades of his career, was none of those things.For starters, the singer, songsmith and guitarist used to be a band man. There was no “I” or “Alone” to anything he did. As frontman for the York, Pennsylvania rock troupe Live, he ignited radio waves between 1988 and 2009 with a highly electric but often spiritually inclined brand of grunge-based rock. So there goes “Acoustic,” as well.

Yet there is a decidedly nostalgic reverence in the  tour moniker, as I Alone was one of the centerpiece tunes to what many consider Live’s critical and commercial zenith, the 1994 sophomore album Throwing Copper.

Today is different. Having walked away from Live four years ago in a nasty split amid no small amount of litigation, Kowalczyk has released his second and newest solo album, The Flood and the Mercy. While there a few suggestions of a more moderated charge (especially midtempo fare like Bottle of Anything and Holy Water Tears) and a few new musical pals to spar with (Rachel Yamagata and R.E.M. alumnus Peter Buck), the better part of the record adheres to the huge, layered sound that fortified Live.

But despite all references to the contrary I Alone Acoustic is a slogan of truth. When he stops in Lexington on Monday for a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Kowalczyk will bid adieu to the band format and unplug the amps. Saving minimal accompaniment (some dates enlist bassist Chris Heerlein), he will operate as a solo acoustic trooper onstage.

“My writing process really starts with an acoustic guitar and trying to come up with the best lyrics and melody that I can,” Kowalczyk said. “As for my work in Live, same approach. All the way through the career, all the songs would start there. So when the music was scaled back for this tour, it was a really natural transition. It was also something I really got into.

“I was kind of surprised at how much I liked it. I had done some acoustic performances for promotion and radio shows, that kind of thing over the years. But I had never done a full concert like that, and it was a real challenge. It was a new challenge to get up there and have no backup or very minimal accompaniment.”

Probably the only thing that outweighed Kowalczyk ‘s desire to play acoustic was the need to establish his own artistic identity and that meant severing ties with Live. The parting wasn’t pleasant, however. The remaining members sued Kowalczyk over publishing deals and use of the band’s name.

“I definitely value all of the experiences that I’ve had in Live,” the singer said. “I really grew up in that band. We all did. I formed my craft over the many years and opportunities that came our way, so I’m very grateful. But I’m at a new chapter now.

“I got to a point where, after 20 years of sort of doing it the same way over and over again, I had become kind of malaise, kind of set in the way I made music. So I just went for something totally different. And grabbing an acoustic guitar for my shows… that’s really what I did in the first place. But this time it was an act that heralded this new chapter in my life. It made the statement that I was going to go back to the roots of what I got into music for, which was to write the best songs that I can and sing the best I can, regardless of how the music is produced or what band might be around it – if there is a band, that is. I think the fans were ready, too.”

What about the legal wreckage left in the wake of Kowalczyk’s departure?

“We’ve all moved on. There were definitely some tumultuous moments there.  But from my perspective, regardless of what anybody might have read or seen about any of that, this was about growing into a new phase regardless of what was associated with all the legal stuff. Again, from my perspective, this was all about moving forward. It was all about being excited and keeping things creative.”

Kowalcyzk won’t entirely be solo on Monday, though. He will be sharing the WoodSongs bill with the Grammy winning gospel vocal troupe The Blind Boys of Alabama. While their respective musical styles differ considerably, Kowalczyk finds numerous links in his music to themes inherent in the Blind Boys’ repertoire.

“There is definitely a spiritual kinship there with their approach and with what I’ve always tried to do in my music, which is to touch upon those chords that are universal between people, the chords that bind people together. The Blind Boys are excellent at that. Their style is just incredible. It’s a dream come true to have the opportunity to collaborate and be on the same stage with them.”

The Blind Boys of Alabama and Ed Kowalczyk perform at 7 tonight at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to http://lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

in performance: houndmouth

houndmouth 2

houndmouth: zak appleby, matt mayers and shane cody (standing, back row); katie toupin (front).

Houndmouth is one of those bands you really want to embrace. It possesses a smalltown sensibility that is unusually cosmopolitan leaning and music ripe with accents of soul, early ‘70s rock and modern Americana all served up with garage rock immediacy.

Last night in an ultra-loose set at Buster’s, all of those elements were on display, but they didn’t always coalesce. It was easy to be won over by the quartet’s good natured performance demeanor, its ability to shuffle vocal duties among all four members, in satchel of full of ‘70s influences (with The Band at the top of the list) and the audience’s sometimes rapturous response. The later was reflected in the hearty sing-a-long that grew out of Hey Rose, one the 11 tunes performed from Houndmouth’s debut album, From the Hills Below the City.

Last night the huge, churchy charge that propelled the album was replaced with a leaner and far scrappier sound. There were a few instances where the formula worked, like the way keyboardist Katie Toupin’s boozy, bluesy cover of The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers bled into the weary travelogue original Halfway to Hardinsburg. Mostly, though, Houndmouth’s ragged live design just sounded sloppy. And when the four members switched off on instruments, which they did twice, the show derailed. There was also the matter of a new and unrecorded song delivered early into the set boasting a melody line that sounded like it was lifted intact from one of From the Hill’s finer tunes, Come On, Illinois.

Again, there were several fine moments, like the big revivalistic choral feel of Penitentiary (which opened the show) and the curious covers medley of John Prine’s Quiet Man and Willis Alan Ramsey’s Northeast Texas Women (which closed it). Much of what fell in between simply needed more focus.

That doesn’t mean the band has to get slicker in terms of production or performance. It doesn’t mean it has to scale back the physicality or drive of its live show. It just needs to realize its fine roots-driven music needs more onstage that just a coarse, pedestrian run-through designed to simulate soulfulness. The show’s finer moments proved Houndmouth is above that.

the new sound of new albany

houndmouth 1

houndmouth: shane cody, matt myers, katie toupin, zak appleby.

Great art is often said to a product of one’s surroundings. You might create something with the intent of being independent from a homespun environment. In the end, however, some degree of your identity, and where that identity sprung from, will win out.

That largely sums up the music – and, to a degree, the somewhat sudden popularity – of Houndmouth. The Americana-and-more quartet hails from New Albany, Indiana – a smalltown that sits in the across-the-river backyard of a much larger and far more fertile musical metropolis, Louisville. Houndmouth didn’t discover specific inspirations in New Albany that led to the dozen songs on its debut album, From the Hills Below the City, which was released in June. It also didn’t pound the pavement of hometown haunts (or even Louisville ones) before landing the gig that got them discovered.

Similarly, the rogues gallery of characters that inhabit the songs on From the City aren’t necessarily autobiographical – especially not the hard living protagonists that sit at the heart of two tunes sung by keyboardist Katie Toupin (Casino and Houston Train). But somewhere in the midst of the album’s Band-like harmonies, folk narratives, roots-driven grooves and overall barrelhouse sass sits a little bit of New Albany.

“No matter what you do, where you’re from is going to influence you,” said Toupin, who will perform with Houndmouth tonight at Buster’s. “In New Albany, there is not a whole lot happening. But that is the idea of folk music in that what we do are story songs. We just had to really use our imaginations to create these stories.”

The members of Houndmouth – Toupin, guitarist Matt Myers, bassist Zak Appleby and drummer Shane Cody – were all friends and collaborators before joining forces and issuing an independent EP recording.

“We’ve all played together separately before Houndmouth in some form,” Toupin said. “Me and Matt sang together for three or four years, so I can harmonize with him all day long. It’s just second nature. Also, Matt and Zak played together in blues bands all through high school, so they know how to play off each other really well. So it was sort of a natural thing that occurred. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we want to be a band where everybody sings and harmonizes.’ But when we stepped into our first practice, that’s just how we did it because that’s how we knew to do it.”

While gigs were initially in short supply, the posting of a revivalistic Houndmouth tune called Penitentiary (first honed by Myers and Toupin during their days as a duo) started to gain notice in the blogosphere. Then came a dubious invitation to play at the 2012 South By Southwest showcase in Austin, Tx. – a gig deemed so “horrible” that even their booking agent advised the band to pass on it.

“It was the first time we had ever been on the road – any of us, as a band,” Toupin recalled. “We hadn’t done any traveling before Houndmouth, either. We had played probably four or five shows. So many bands play for years in their hometown. That didn’t really happen for us. We put that song online and it started getting some buzz.

“But we just wanted to go to South By Southwest. Our booking agent kept saying, ‘You don’t have to come down here for a show like that’ (the gig was at a club ominously named Molotov). And we were like, ‘No, we really want to come.’ So we did, against his advice.”

Among the invited guests at the Austin show was Geoff Travis of the seminal indie label Rough Trade. Travis signed the band, putting the wheels in motion for From the Hills.

“The house that we practiced in was Shane’s great, great great grandparents’ house,” Toupin said. “So we got to take over this old historic home. All of the furniture was antique. We’ve done several music videos in the house because the vibe, the whole aura of the place, has influenced the sound that came out of it.”

An equally colorful setting was chosen for the actual recording sessions, which were overseen by Kevin Ratterman. Having previously recorded bands in a makeshift studio set up in a funeral home, the noted Louisville producer began work on From the Hills in a renovated church. The name of his studio couldn’t have more apt given its placement as the creative starting point for Houndmouth’s fanciful but still rootsy new music: La La Land.

“It wasn’t air conditioned, so it was like 100 degrees in the church,” Toupin said. “We used the church organ. We used the piano from the chapel. So we worked in a lot of stuff just from the church itself. It was a really neat experience. And we did it all in a week. It was really cool.”

Since its summer release, Houndmouth has been a guest on Conan and The Late Show with David Letterman, opened shows for Drive-By Truckers and Alabama Shakes and performed at the Newport Folk Festival, Bonnaroo and, fittingly, the Louisville-based Forecastle. Saturday’s performance at Buster’s is part of the band’s first full tour as a headliner, indicating that this little outfit from New Albany is quickly becoming the next big thing.

“We’re showing up now in towns we’ve never been to,” Toupin said. “People are there and they’re singing along. It’s kind of a surreal experience.”

Houndmouth and Wheeler perform at 9 tonight at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom 899 Manchester St.  Tickets are $12 advance, $15 day of show. Call (859) 368-8871 or go to

www.bustersbb.com.

critic’s pick 303: linda thompson, ‘won’t be long now’

linda thompsonListening to Won’t Be Long Now, the highly inviting new album by Linda Thompson, is like getting reacquainted with an old friend. Or more exactly, it’s like spending time with the kind of friend one goes years without hearing from. But upon meeting again, time evaporates, conversation is renewed and a relationship is quickly re-established.

That’s the feeling triggered immediately by Love’s for Babies and Fools, the lead off track to the veteran British vocalist’s first recording in six years. The voice you hear is schooled, solemn and profoundly steadfast. It is rich in tone but restrained in execution as it reveals an entire folk history – in Thompson’s case, one built upon (but not restricted to) British tradition. It is poised but deeply emotive and knows that overplaying its performance hand is as unwise as it is unnecessary.

But what is so mind-blowing is that it has become so easy in a solo career that has yielded only three studio albums since 1985 to forget just how beautifully unforced and commanding Thompson’s singing can be. Luckily, Won’t Be Long Now quietly illuminates such greatness in a typically unassuming manner.
Granted, Thompson has a couple of battalions of expert help on the album. As a matriarch of sorts to one of the first families of British folk-rock, she enlists a few of the relatives. The most prominent is her pop stylist son Teddy Thompson. He pens the album’s light-as-air title tune, a decidedly American sounding song of release that features daughter Kami Thompson, a pair of brilliant Stateside instrumentalists (mandolinist David Mansfield and banjo giant Tony Trischka) and the beautiful harmonies of Amy Helm.

Another is former husband and collaborator Richard Thompson, her lone accompanist on Love’s For Babies and Fools. As a couple, the Thompsons issued a series of albums in the 1970s that essentially escalated British folk-rock as an art form. But their duo performance here calls as little attention to itself as the rest of Won’t Be Long Now. It is subtle, tasteful yet still deeply moving.

Beyond that there are waves of British pals, all members of a British folk dynasty (guitarist Martin Carthy, fiddler Dave Swarbrick and accordionist John Kirkpatrick) as well as a legion of comparatively newer contemporaries from both sides of the pond (the wonderful guitarist John Doyle, Ollabelle keyboardist Glenn Patscha and current Fairport Convention drummer Gerry Conway).

But mother Thompson remains resolutely in charge of it all, from a harrowing a capella blast of folksy spite (Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk) to the misty ambience that surrounds an original shanty (Never Put to Sea Boys). Through it all, she sings with the hard won wisdom of a sage and the open warmth of a friend who has returned home.

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